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  Community Guidelines (TOS)?
What are community guidelines and why do I need to have them?

Imagine being in a business meeting where individuals were allowed to scream obscenities at one another or physically accost another colleague based on a differing of opinion. a) Nothing proactive and productive would ever be accomplished, b) Viable communication would be hampered c) Individuals would be less likely to participate or would quit the company and d) Participants would be placed in harm's way. Similar to any community, whether that be virtual or face-to-face contact, there are certain norms that are followed to ensure that appropriate conduct is practiced.

In an online community those norms are defined within your community guidelines. Guidelines communicate what is expected of community users and moderators when participating and are the backbone to your community. Guidelines (sometimes known as Guidelines for Participation, Conditions of Service or Terms of Service) provide for the safety of the members and maintain the integrity of the site and services.

Guidelines also provide support in the event that you are required to remove a member's message board post, ban their presence in a chat room or exclude them from a community entirely. As a reference point and accepted set of rules, community guidelines provide the means for community managers and/or moderators to clearly and consistently adjudge and act on any violations which occur within their community. They are vital when taking any steps to administer moderation and/or exercise membership bans.

For a better understanding of what guidelines are, the following sample for a community using message boards might be useful:

"A member's posts will be removed if they:

- Defame, abuse or threaten others.

- Are bigoted, hateful or racially offensive.

- Promote illegal activity or discuss illegal activities with the intent to commit them.

- Contain unauthorized copyrighted material.

- Advertise or contain any form of commercial solicitation.

- Are Spam, that is deemed posts repeated on various boards and folders with little or no reference to topic.

- Contain personal phone numbers and addresses.

- Contain vulgar, obscene or indecent language, information or images.

- Contain hyperlinks that lead to sites that violate any of the above guidelines.

- Solicit or promote the use of an illegal substance.

- Promote the dissemination of computer viruses or other destructive material."

Where a post violates any of the above guidelines and is deleted, your guidelines should be referenced in any communication with the member who posted the offending message:

"Your message board posting (insert date) in thread (insert name) has been removed in accordance with the Community Guidelines you accepted when you registered for the participation in the community. In particular the post violated our guideline regarding (insert area from above). If you wish to review our guidelines then please visit our Community Guidelines page (insert hyperlink) or if you have any questions regarding the deletion of the message or about our Guidelines then please do contact (insert contact details)."

It is critical that community guidelines be placed both at the point of registration in a manner where their acceptance is clear, and also after registration in a highly visible area where members can have continual access for review. It should always be clear to your membership that by participating within the community, they have agreed and understood the guidelines set. Members should be encouraged to contact the site for clarification if they have any questions or comments about either the Community Guidelines or their participation in the community.

We hope this information has helped to clarify what community guidelines are and why they should be used. If you have any further questions, please do not hesitate to let us know.

- Jon Nix and Pam Thomas
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