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Writing Guidelines (a.k.a. Code of Honor) For Your Online Community

Every online community from the humblest Facebook group to the biggest corporate projects needs community guidelines. They are the foundation of a community, shaping its culture and how it responds to all kinds of challenges.
For example, guidelines give you transparency when dealing with trolling or other bad behavior. They empower community members to help moderate themselves, giving a sense of ownership. All that is to say, working without guidelines is simply too risky for any community you value. But how can you develop the right ones for your needs?

What are community guidelines?

Let’s start with getting a deeper understanding of just what community guidelines actually are. At their most basic level, community guidelines outline:

  • What the purpose of the community is.
  • How to use the community (for example, encouraging members to search to confirm a question has not already been asked).
  • What behaviors are not okay (and by extension what behaviors are encouraged).
  • What happens when members engage in bad behavior.
  • Who is empowered to enforce these rules.

Of course, your guidelines can cover more topics, but it’s important to stay focused on these five core principles. The reason is that community guidelines need to be easy to read and understand. If your guidelines read like a short novel, nobody is going to read them. If nobody reads them, nobody will follow them.

To achieve those goals, you have two basic types of community guidelines: rule-based and value-based (although often these are blended). So what’s the difference?

  • Rules-based guidelines are simply a list of rules members must follow. This makes them easy to understand and skim over, but they can also feel a bit prescriptive and heavy handed when they go too far.
  • Value-based guidelines, on the other hand, focus more on listing the values the community is built around before offering guidance on how to reinforce those values. These can be a little less specific, but they’re better at building a robust community culture.

For most online communities, you want to list values to help members understand the purpose and goals of the community. But you can also use specific rules for elements like enforcement where clarity is more important. It can be helpful to see this in action, so definitely check out a few community guideline examples before starting on your own.

Why do we need community guidelines?

We touched on this above but it’s worth going into a bit more detail before you begin creating your own. Community guidelines let your members know what to expect and how to behave. Let’s break down the reasons:

  1. You can’t allow negativity and bad behavior to spread. As anyone who’s ever been a teacher or led a community will know, it’s far easier to establish good behavior from the beginning than to change it once bad behaviors have been established (for insights into how you can change culture later, look at how companies do it). A single bad experience can easily ruin a community for any specific member so it pays to get ahead of it.
  2. It’s far easier to moderate and handle bad behavior when you can specifically address it with your guidelines. This allows you to avoid long debates and infighting over whether something was okay and how it should have been handled. Instead, you can simply point to the guideline that was violated and move on.
  3. Clear community guidelines empower you to have better connections and communication with your community members. They get everyone on the same page.

By now, the importance of quality community guidelines should be crystal clear, so let’s dive right into how you can write your own.

How to write online community guidelines

The first thing to keep in mind here is that you don’t need to reinvent the wheel. Most online communities face similar problems, so it makes sense to borrow some elements from quality guidelines. For example, you’ll almost certainly need to establish rules on dealing with violent or racist language, sexual content, and general spam.

One of our favorite examples is Airbnb’s community guidelines because of how incredibly thorough they are. Drawing inspiration from examples like this will save you time and help ensure your guidelines are robust enough to serve your community as it grows and evolves.

That said, community guidelines aren’t a one-size-fits-all kind of thing so be sure you put in the work to tailor them to your needs. For example, you may not want to adopt a bunch of legalistic and corporate sounding language for a smaller and more relaxed community.

State your purpose

As mentioned above, your guidelines need to be framed by the purpose of your community. If it’s clear that your guidelines are designed to help the community achieve its purpose (as opposed to just being arbitrary) they will be much more compelling and effective.

So begin by thinking about your mission and the core message you want to convey to community members. Luckily, if you’re working for an organization, you should already have some kind of mission statement to work off of. You can use Orbiit’s mission statement for inspiration if needed.

As you go through each step, be sure all of your rules connect back to your purpose. If a rule or guideline doesn’t help you achieve your purpose then why are you including it? This can help you avoid adding additional unnecessary rules just for their own sake. Streamlined and focused community guidelines will be more effective and easy to follow.

Be transparent

When rules feel arbitrary, people tend to push back on them. That’s why it’s so critical to ensure you’re transparent in your guidelines. It should be clear what constitutes a violation and what the consequences of that violation will be.

This also helps streamline enforcement because you need to spend less time arguing about whether someone violated the rules and what punishment is appropriate. It also helps reinforce the kind of transparent behavior you generally want to see from your members.

Be specific

Throughout your guidelines, be clear about things like the kind of tone you want from your members. Should the community be more formal, casual, fun, respectful, or some combination? You can even include examples, writing two versions of a post to demonstrate what is desired and what is not.

Talk about what you want, not just what you don’t

When writing community guidelines, it’s easy to end up with a list of things members shouldn’t do. But it should be clear by now that it’s just as important to tell your members what they should be doing. So be sure to include positive guidelines as well. Otherwise, you risk sounding like an angry parent listing all the things their children are forbidden from doing, which is probably not the vibe you want.

Get members involved

There are also plenty of good reasons to ensure community members play a role in drafting and adjusting your guidelines over time. For one, members will be far more likely to follow guidelines if they feel they had some part in crafting them. The same goes for whether members feel they can talk to moderators if they think something needs to change in the guidelines.

This has the added benefit of giving you a tool for listening to your members to identify areas where your guidelines can be improved. Your community is always going to change and evolve, so building a system to evolve your guidelines alongside it just makes sense.

In the end, be open, flexible, and honest

Your guidelines are never going to be perfect, so don’t tie yourself into knots trying to make them infallible. In the end, your community guidelines will be a starting point. So go ahead and get started, but be sure not to “finish” them forever. If you’re honest and open with your community about the entire process, you’ll be well-equipped to overcome all kinds of obstacles.

Then, once you’ve started managing your community under your shiny new guidelines, you may want to look for tools to empower you to do more with less. After all, there’s no use drowning yourself in unnecessary tasks when there’s a world of tools out there to help. If your community would benefit from intelligently selected 1:1 meetups, check out Orbiit to see what kind of impact you could be having.

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