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Recently, fastcars started a thread on asking why you should have rules (I call them guidelines) on your community at all, as fastcars feels that they are “meant to be broken.” fastcars felt that it wasn’t worth the time to have them and that guidelines intimidate members, making them feel scrutinized and giving them the impression that you have an “I’m the owner and you do as I say” attitude. Communities can “fail,” fastcars says, because the owners are too heavy handed.

Instead, fastcars suggests, you could let members decide what is and isn’t allowed and could provide a general short and simple rule. fastcars’ example is “All posts must remain within the realms of human decency.”

Extremes Are Dangerous

There is a lot of room in the middle between the two extremes of having no semblance of structure at all and extremely “heavy handed” management of a community. Heavy handed being in the eye of the beholder, of course.

Yes, some managers might be too heavy handed. Yes, some members may leave because of guidelines. Yes, you can be too strict with your community (based on your goals). Yes, communities “fail” or “die” (though I tend not to look at it that way… everything must come to an end). All of these things can happen.

But, the thing is, none of them happen simply because you have guidelines. They happen because of what you did with those guidelines. And they can happen without them. Other factors determine those things, some good, natural and healthy and some bad.

You Have Guidelines, No Matter What

If you remove any posts at all ever, you have guidelines. So, guidelines aren’t really the question to me. The question is whether or not they are posted in public for everyone to see or if they are only in your own mind/on your computer/in a private area.

It’s difficult to remove any posts at all if you don’t have some form of public guidelines to point to in relation to what is or isn’t OK. Even if that document is ever changing (it should be a living document and should be adjusted as issues present themselves), if you don’t have something, it just feels like you are removing posts for whatever reason you want or for reasons that only you are aware of.

Personally, I would say that this would be more likely to present the “I’m the owner and you do as I say” kind of attitude. Guidelines don’t really affect that as you can have that attitude without guidelines. This leads to resentment, just as much or more so than having guidelines posted in public would.

At least, when you have them posted publicly, everyone is aware of the same guidelines and understands what is expected of them.

Guidelines Aren’t About Rigidity, Just Structure

Guidelines should rarely be hard and fast rules, but instead should provide general guiding principles that lend some direction for members and allow for staff members to exercise some level of consistent discretion.

Each situation should be looked at and dealt with individually. That’s what I advocate and what I do. But, without guidelines or vision, you have no consistency. You have moderators and administrators who simply remove what they think is inappropriate. You have, essentially, too many cooks. You have as many sets of guidelines as you have staff members, and none of them are posted in public.

Guidelines don’t make every situation the same – they give you something to measure every situation against. There is an important difference there. I believe that consistency is important.

Communicating Expectations

There is also something to be said for being honest and upfront about expectations. For example, if you launch a community without any guidelines (though having no guidelines is a guideline in itself) and you let it develop… it would seem weird to decide to spring guidelines on them once it’s established. That is fundamentally changing the community and while it can be done, I don’t see any reason to purposefully hurt yourself by deciding ahead of time that you will only have guidelines when you reach a certain point. Some might consider that purposefully deceptive.

Having guidelines doesn’t mean every move that a member makes is being scrutinized or corrected. Any more than not having guidelines means that.

A general guideline like “All posts must remain withing the realms of human decency.” or “We’re all adults here.” translates into “Do anything you think is appropriate.” The problem is that everyone will read that wildly differently because there is no specificity at all. Specific guidelines are general in nature and not hard and fast, like I said, but if you provide some detail, you help everyone to better understand what is and isn’t expected. It goes a long way.

Don’t Politicize Your Community

It’s important to listen to members and to encourage feedback, but allowing members to decide what guidelines you have, what limits they have, etc. and how to deal with them is, more or less, a destructive course that will be based around popularity, who yells the loudest and can get the most people to vote for what they want.

I always recommend against politicizing your online community because politics turn people against one another and that will include your members. Politics are a nasty business. You want to do what you can to keep them off of your site.

Everyone should be aware of what their audience is and what works for them. No two communities are alike and they all require different approaches and guidelines. For example, I run a martial arts community that aims to be generally work friendly. If you wish to use profanity or tell people that their martial art “sucks,” that’s cool – but we’re not the community for you. We’re not going to change for you and we’re not going to let you do whatever you want. Know whoever your audience is and pursue it with vigor.

Otherwise, you find yourself in a continuous loop chasing after whoever you can keep at the moment.