Sunday, November 2, 2008

Policies, Rules and Enforcement

An important observation is once the culture is established, the community will introduce its own form of moderation. Whether or not written policies are in place members progress to a general code of conduct and demand that all participants comply with the established norms. Its obvious to all involved when those embedded values are violated because the users take rapid action to remedy the transgression. New and old members alike are taught the consequences of misuse by both the immediacy and volume of response from other users. Behavior that flagrantly trespasses on the community norms will bring the day-to-day exchange to a screeching halt as members seek to restore stasis. A discussion that jumps from a few posts to several hundred posts in a short period of time is a good indication that something is amiss with the forum.

Top down moderation or direction is generally ineffective because no one solution is universally applicable to all populations. What is tolerated in one area may not be acceptable in others. For example a board based on the newest technology may not welcome off topic posts as easily as a board geared toward more general content. Staff intervention even with the best intentions, can be seen as intrusive which causes other forms of disruption such as accusations of favoritism. This insight forms the basis of self administered reporting which is one of the most successful tools implemented in any forum. The anonymous nature of third party disengaged moderators signals impartiality because each reported violation is taken at face value by individuals outside of the complex social arrangements. Members often complain that the reporting tools are used to create problems for other members or that the posts are vetted improperly, but in reality these types of complaints are indicative of other issues such as cliques or power struggles.

Member reports also alert moderators to developing problems so that the integrity of the forums can be maintained. Relying on the common sense of the members to manage the content and traits of their own forum has the added benefit of relieving personnel obligations in communities where growth out paces the effective use of dedicated staff.

Terms of use policies must be grounded in the expectations of community members. Therefore guidelines should be based on knowledge of the community and how all of its parts function. Consistency across all platforms is a given, since members should feel comfortable and knowledgeable in regards to expected behaviors in order to reduce confusion and to maintain overall site integrity. General policies should incorporate community values, the corporate intent for the forums along with member driven requests for changes and clarification. Since the expectation is that members will define and moderate their own forums the members also must assume responsibility for self direction and that includes adherence to the terms of agreement for participation.

Policies are necessary because they formalize the terms of use between the members and the company. In many cases the policies may appear somewhat nebulous but that should be predicated on clear intent. Policies that are too specific may encourage problem members to test the boundaries or find loopholes. The best approach we found is to create policies that are instructional in nature rather than mandated rules. This helps members adjust to our expectations and also adjust to the online experience. The structure of forum's policies should allow for evolution in interpretation as the community's needs change while enabling continuity because the philosophy behind each policy and the policy itself remain constant throughout time. Thus, the policies are intuitively understood and members have a sense of security that overall governance is predictable.

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