Community Guidelines and Who Needs Them

Mar 10, 2015

Real live communities need well-written laws and legal enforcement as wells as common neighborly courtesies in order to thrive. While laws and legal supports define a community's physical boundaries and bolster its sense of security, it is the unspoken rules of human engagement that attract happy residents and set a neighborhood apart.

Virtual communities are no different; they are simply better places to hang out when the guidelines for engagement are spelled out up front. Just as we don’t want freeway speed limits and nightclub zoning in the same places where we send our children to school, likewise, it’s not a good idea to build virtual communities that are unclear about their audience, their mission and their culture.

There are two main kinds of guidelines that online communities might need: Terms and Conditions and Community Guidelines.

Terms and Conditions vs. Community Guidelines

How often have you clicked the “I agree” box without so much as a cursory glance at the legalese? Whether we are surfing, shopping, researching, working or just hanging out in a chat room with like-minded folks, online memberships and "terms and conditions" are so much a part of our online culture that we take them for granted. And yet, when there is a misunderstanding or violation, we expect and trust that we have recourse to air our grievances.

Terms and Conditions are the basic components of a contract between two or more parties. These carefully worded legal agreements stipulate the rules agreed to by the users of a particular program, product or service. In some industries such as finance and banking, these agreements are deemed so important that they're overseen by federal law. I’m not a lawyer, so it’s best to do your own thorough research to discover whether your online community could benefit from a set of Terms and Conditions written or vetted by your legal counsel. 

Community Guidelines, on the other hand, are recommended practices, sometimes referred to as “best practices,” that allow some leeway in interpretation or use. Most industries – non-profit and for-profit, cottage industries to Fortune 500 – have best practices. Like the good-neighbor policies of the real life township, best practices exist to help everyone get along. When developing your virtual community it's best to consider your industry’s best practices before deciding what to include in your community guidelines.

Specific industry considerations aside, community guidelines are as varied as online communities. The guidelines for YouTube, for instance, are quite complex and legalistic, dealing with issues such as respect, safety, trust, copyright and trademark, spam, privacy, morality and ethics, sex, violence and more. They are a fascinating read for anyone interested in drafting their own set of online user guidelines.

In contrast to that, a 1200-person online community for spiritual directors with which I am affiliated has summed up its community policies in just two sentences: “This page is for Spiritual Direction comments only. Please do not spoil this page with technical questions or any personal advertising, as I will delete them and you immediately.” Enough said.

The topic of community guidelines is a rich one. I hope that you’ll stay tuned to this blog for more clues about how to draft your own set. In the mean time, don't forget to read the fine print!

Posted By
Carrie Ure