You need to have a code of conduct for your community. One of the most difficult issues faced by online communities is discriminatory abuse. Racism, misogyny, and ableism, among many other issues, are sadly constant features of many people’s daily lives, but they do not have to be part of your community.
When you open up a new community, the first things that people want to know are “What is this for, and how do people behave here?” A good code of conduct answers these questions in clear, unambiguous terms. This code is for everyone, both for safety and instruction.
The below exercise will help you create a Code of Conduct by
- Asking four groups of questions to define acceptable conduct in your communities.
- Sharing examples from existing codes
- Helping you create a TL;DR (too long; didn’t read) version of your Code of Conduct.
Questions to help you shape your code
Write your answers as clearly and completely as you can. If you can, get a colleague or two to write their own answers, and then compare your responses. In the next section, we’ll deal with structuring your replies within a code.
What are the boundaries of the space? How are they protected?
- What behavior, topics, stances or language are absolutely not permitted? eg personal attacks, curse words, Holocaust denial
- Are there limits on how often, at what times, in what formats/languages that people can post?
- How are security and privacy handled on the site? Who will have access to users’ personal information?
What material is acceptable to post?
- Do you allow links? If so, are there any kinds of sites you specifically forbid people linking to?
- Does your space use trigger or spoiler warnings? If so, how do you want them structured?
- How will you handle people posting copyrighted or promotional material?
- How will you respond if people are not who they claim to be in your space?
- How will you deal with falsehoods or unsubstantiated claims?
- How will you deal with someone posting the same comment over and over again?
How will rule-breaking behavior be handled?
- How do people report rule-breaking behavior?
- Who are the people who enforce the rules and how are they managed and supported?
- What will get a comment removed? What will get an account banned?
- What happens when a comment or account is removed? Does the community member receive any notification?
- Do you suspend people? What are the rules around that?
- Can moderation decisions be appealed? If so, how?
- Are rules different for some topics/parts of the site than others? If so, how are these differences communicated?
What does good look like?
- What is the environment you want to encourage?
- What can good participants in the community do to be helpful?
- How should users behave to each other?
The next stage is to structure your responses into a Code of Conduct
First, let’s look at some good examples.
Good codes come in a variety of formats, lengths and tone. Here are some examples of good codes in varying styles:
BookRiot’s community code is short. It states the goals of the community, as well as the expected behavior, reasons why its requirements are important, and the moderation process.
The Mary Sue does a great job of explaining the difference between what will get a comment removed and what will get an account banned, as well as why their system automatically flags certain things for review.
SB Nation’s sitewide community guidelines provide a history of the site as well as introducing members to its structure and terminology. It lets members know that each sub-site may have different, possibly stricter rules. The guidelines also set up the difference between deletion of posts and of accounts. The overall structure also sets up their own rules for automatic banning and how to appeal against them.
Tech Solidarity’s Slack Code of Conduct is detailed and cites its influences. It includes guidelines for discussion, definitions, examples, and citations. It defines unacceptable behavior and includes a shortened version for extra emphasis.
Enforcing your Code of Conduct is a slide deck from a talk demonstrating how to enforce your code with compassion and intent, while assessing risk and impact. A must read before you consider how you will enforce your code.
How to Write Your Code
Many of the strongest codes follow this structure:
- Welcome note
- Share the purpose
- List Your Procedures and Protocols
- State the penalties
- How to contact you
- Welcome note
Start by briefly welcoming people and thanking them for their interest in the community. Tell them who you are and tell them why you have a code: “The Tech Solidarity community is dedicated to providing a harassment-free experience for everyone, regardless of gender, gender identity and expression, sexual orientation, disability, physical appearance, body size, race, or religion.”
- Share the Purpose
State what you want this community to be.“Welcome to SB Nation! Since 2005, we have been a network of team-specific sports communities where fans gather to discuss the ins-and-outs of their favorite teams.”
- List Your Procedures and Protocols
While the Code of Conduct may be a list of prohibited behaviors, they have a powerful purpose. You can also include the consequences of breaking the norms here.
“To support these goals, the following rules will be enforced. Users can be banned on the first offense for any of the following behaviors:”- Book Riot
The example codes linked above each do it differently, but all make sure that you know that certain actions could lead to a person losing their rights or content in the community, so there are no surprises.
- State the penalties.
If you have not yet explicitly stated what will happen if a rule is broken, write it here.
- How to Contact you.
A strong code is one that changes and adapts to community norms and needs. This can only happen if your community has a clear way to contact you. We recommend a generic email address that isn’t specific to one person, eg. firstname.lastname@example.org, to avoid problems if one person goes on vacation or change jobs, and also to avoid any personal attacks.
If your code is longer than 400 words, you should post a shorter version of it alongside anywhere that the community lives, as well as a link to the full version. The shorter version should describe your community’s goals, key behaviors that are most encouraged and must be avoided, and anything else vital to understanding the community. Here’s the tl;dr that we use in The Coral Project’s online community:
Welcome to The Coral Project community!
This is where we talk about online communities, comment sections, and journalism.
We aim to create a safe and sustainable environment for discussion. That means:
- Be supportive of each other
- Criticize ideas, not people
- Flag bad behavior
- Follow the rules
The best contributions will be featured on the site and in our newsletter.
By stating your rules clearly and succinctly, you don’t just set a good precedent – research suggests that you will actively improve people’s behavior.