A lot of forums I encounter on the web have a set of generic rules. Mostly these rules have the usual "no spamming - no trolling - no flaming" clauses along with a few more clauses on posting guidelines, signature guidelines and such technical stuff. A lot of admins tend to frame rules which have an innate aggressive tone which tends to repel members rather than get them to understand the nature or culture of the community they are a part of.
Here are my tips on how to frame rules which are fine-tuned to your own community and how to actually use rules as a method to guide your staff on how to deal with community issues rather than come across as a stern, unbending dictatorial boss to your members who read them. Based on my own experience, stock rules are nearly always useless and sometimes have a negative impact on communities.
Tip 1: Don't have rules (initially at least)
It might surprise a lot of admins to know that they don't need rules when they start out a forum with just 1 member - themselves. It's astonishing to see how many newly started out forums have a rules page that incorporates dozens of clauses with a list of things that can get members banned. This is one of the worst things to drive away members. First it's hard enough getting registrations on a new forum with 5 members and 20 odd posts. To make people read this stuff before or after joining is a sure community killer. Most people won't even bother. The typical attitude you project is that you're a admin more for the sake of being a dictator and enjoying power rather than building a community.
New admins who build communities should work on a "mission statement" instead of a rules page. They should try and project what their vision is for the site and what kind of a community they want to build rather than copy-paste a set of generic rules from another well-established community.
Tip 2: Perceive your community culture
The biggest reason for conflict on communities is more based on the real difference between the staff's perception of how to enforce rules and the community culture which might be completely different. Your rules might incorporate a lot of things which are completely different from ground realities and if your staff uses that guide to deal with situations that arise on your forum, you're going to find a lot of conflicts occurring and a resulting confusion about what your forum really is about.
Rules are very important. Your community culture plays an important role in how you frame your rules. Be aware of your audience and frame rules which takes into consideration your forum culture.
Remember, if the staff use your rules page as a guide on how to deal with community situations, it needs to be tuned to reality and not your perception of it.
Tip 3: Use your personal values to guide you
Framing good rules is not only about responding to community situations but also about incorporating what you actually believe in and your own sense of personal values as an admin. The values you project are very important and can help your staff in setting the right tone for your community. Very often community culture trickles down from top to bottom. If your values are right and you succeeding in communicating those values to your staff members, your community will be much more tuned to your vision rather than evolving randomly and creating conflict.
Tip 4: Be realistic
It's fun framing rules which sound stern and unbending. I've seen too many of these rules. They use the word "ban" in several clauses and use a tone which is innately aggressive.
Unless you have a large community with 100,000+ members and you need to be very strict in enforcing community rules, you need to be realistic about rules. In many cases, you should allow the situation to dictate your response and not the rule itself. If you try and incorporate every possible situation in your rule-book, your rules will become huge and unwieldy.
Have a realistic approach in framing rules and allow your staff freedom in determining responses to certain situations. Resist the temptation of jotting down every possible response to every possible situation. And stop sounding like a school-teacher. A good rule-book should never sound intimidating or threatening.
Tip 5: Be professional
A good rule page should never be written in a casual, talkative style. It should be well-written, not have grammatical or spelling mistakes and should be impersonal in tone and reasonably polite. Never adopt a personal stance "you will be banned if you do this" etc. That comes across as aggressive in nature. Rather write without addressing the reader. Let the reader not feel personally affected by the rules and rather see it as a document of guidelines.
Additionally embrace the staff as a whole. Use "we" rather than "I". Let the rule book represent the staff as a whole rather than you as an admin.
Tip 6: Finally some technical and formatting tips
In conclusion I would like to say that no rule book can be perfect. Every community needs an evolving set of rules and guidelines to keep in track and help the staff understand the underlying culture and their response to situations. Collaborate with your staff and try to get their point of view. Allow them to suggest sections and get them involved in framing the guidelines. Point out some of your values and vision to them so that they can be tuned to the spirit of the community.
- Don't write lengthy paragraphs. Keep them fairly short.
- Use bulleted or numbered lists to incorporate sections and clauses.
- Space out your paragraphs and don't make it hard to read by using one huge block of text.
- Make your main points bold to draw attention.
- Try and keep revisions of rules locally so that you can always refer to them whenever you want to make changes.
And last but not least, don't take rules too seriously. Enjoy your community, give yourself the freedom to change them when needed or interpret them differently in different situations and never let the rule book rule you.