463 GTS & DA5 B7M - 4
Creative Commons License photo credit: rsgranne

I run into people who say that the guidelines for your community don’t need to be anything more than “don’t be a jerk.”

Unfortunately, this isn’t the most efficient use of guidelines and, even if you think it works for you, it likely doesn’t work as well as having a simple, though more defined set of expectations would.

It doesn’t work for the same reasons that the laws of a country aren’t simply “don’t be a jerk,” or the rules at the swimming pool aren’t simply “don’t be a jerk” or the employee handbook at a random company doesn’t consist of “don’t be a jerk.”

It isn’t defined enough to be helpful. It lacks any real meaning.

Being a jerk is too subjective. Have you ever thought someone was being a jerk and told them so and then they told you they weren’t? And other people told you they weren’t? Telling someone not to be a jerk is like telling someone not to be stupid. What’s the line? When you enforce “don’t be a jerk,” it really feels like you are being arbitrary and pulling random requirements out of your head. That is not the feeling you want, as the administrator of a community.

You might say, specific guidelines can be subjective, too. You are right, some of them can be. Some would say spamming is being a jerk. Some would say it isn’t. But, if your guidelines say you do not allow advertising, with a quick definition of what advertising is, that removes a lot of ambiguity there. And even where guidelines do allow for interpretation, at least you have some idea of what will be interpreted, beyond just how big of a jerk you are.

Plenty of guidelines are fact based. Cross posting (posting the same thing in two or more places) is not subjective, it’s simply factual. Hotlinking an image to a server you don’t have permission to hotlink to isn’t subjective, it’s factual. Some would say posting the same thing a million times is being a jerk, some would say hotlinking is being a jerk. But, without definition, no one really knows what that is or what it means.

In the end, it leads to honest mistakes and people being more confused than they would normally be. The end result: it’s really not that different than having no guidelines at all.

Some people who say this are serious. But, others are trying to say that they believe guidelines should be simple. Which is not a bad idea at all.

Guidelines can be simple, but still should be detailed enough to have meaning. If you find that you need to have a long list of guidelines, in the interest of making sure everyone is on the same page, that’s fine. You can always produce a condensed version and encourage people to read the longer one if they would like.

At the end of the day, the point of your guidelines isn’t simply to be short – it is to have meaning.