Thinking about rules and enforcement

I recently had a discussion about the creation and enforcement of rules on a popular site.   Over many years, I’ve been  the enforcer of rules, the creator of rules, or a combination of the two.  Like anyone, I’ve made my share of mistakes.  I’ve made rules that I regretted, I’ve gone overboard in enforcing them, and I’ve failed to enforce a rule that I should have.   I usually don’t make the same mistake twice – I like to make whole new mistakes.   That means that I learned from them.  Here are some of the lessons

1.   Let people know the rules before you enforce them.  Create a FAQ,  a “site rules” document, or a terms of service agreement.  Keep it updated, and make sure that people know it has been updated.    There are times when you’ll have to make up a rule “on the fly,” or come up with a creative way of applying an existing rule.   You’ve run into a brand-new situation, and you’re in a situation where you have to take action.  Those should be rare and exceptional cases.   Afterward, you should make sure that your rules are updated to cover that.  The reason for this is that nothing confuses people or causes problems like suddenly  enforcing a rule that never existed before.

2.  Be consistent in applying and enforcing the rules.   If  your rules  say (and they should)  a given action will result in a given penalty, then it should mean just that.   By doing things like letting one person get away with it while suspending another,  suspending one person for a day while suspending someone else  for a month for the same thing, or banning one while another skates, gives you the reputation as one who is capricious and plays favorites.  It’s not conducive to good control of your site, or building respect for you.

3.  Be fair.   While I’ve just said that you need to be consistent, you should also be willing to take into consideration the “big picture” and extenuating circumstances.  Here’s a personal example:  I once drew a one-week suspension from a site.  What did I do?  I  flamed the living hell out of another poster.  No four letter words, no profanity, but it was a seriously nasty dissection of them.   I could have been banned for that.   Why wasn’t I?  Because I’d been a member for 8 years at that point, I’d developed the reputation as one of most reasonable people on the board, I was one of their “tech gurus,” and that person had been provocative for quite some time.   As a result of that, I was cut a break.  A general guideline here is that if you have to explain your actions to someone else, particularly where you haven’t brought the full sanctions, would they understand and agree with you?

I’ve been a part of a lot of different forums on the Internet over the years.   Some I’ve been a member of for over a decade, while others have seen me leave in disgust.  The difference between them is how well the site’s moderators have followed the above guidelines.   I’ve seen forums degenerate into a series of  flame wars,  I’ve seen other forums where the moderators or owners clearly agree with one side, and I’ve seen those where there’s clearly a set of  “moderator’s pets.”   Then there were those where “the rules” seemed to be “whatever the moderator feels like today.”    It’s not just frustrating to participate on them, it’s usually the signal that the forum is on its way out.   Several I remember as being hugely popular no longer exist.  Some that still do are now small, hardly used, and the participants sound like a mutual admiration society.

The forums that have lasted have had owners and moderators that have followed the guidelines above.  Flame wars are put out before they get too far.  They’re neutral, they don’t play favorites.  Their rules are clear, they’re enforced, and the moderators are fair.   There’s always a temptation to let things slide, but it’s usually the quickest way to send a site into oblivion.  If you think I’m talking about your site/forum, maybe you should take another look at yourself.

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