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Why Writing Down Community Rules is Important

Community
November 21, 2022
Amanda Quintero
Senior Manager of Business Operations
Why Writing Down Community Rules is Important
Welcome to The Observatory, the community newsletter from Orbit.

Each week we go down rabbit holes so you don't have to. We share tactics, trends and valuable resources we've observed in the world of community building.

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Recently, I had to download Orbit’s Employee Handbook as a piece of evidence for our SOC2 audit – for those of you lucky enough not to know what SOC2 is, it’s a compliance standard related to data security and privacy. 

Because we’ve put it together over the past 2 years, and it’s organised as a web of Notion sub-pages it looks closer to a Wiki than to a document. Which is why I was surprised to find out that our internal rulebook has 260+ pages!

When I shared my surprise on the company Slack, someone asked a valid question: why do we need so many pages for such a small group? 

That conversation circled back to SOC2 and I moved on to the next unattended fire, but one week later the topic resurfaced at a different setting: a community dinner. 

At this point, dear reader, I know you’re thinking: Omg, what a fun evening. I wish I had been there! Don’t worry, I gotcha. 

Gathered around bite-sized salmon and terrine de cochon, the group was heatedly discussing expense management policies. Is it better to file everything in a monthly bulk or as you go? What about corporate credit cards? Pictures vs. paper receipts, and the poor souls who have to approve other people’s expenses. 

A gasp was heard, What?! But don’t you have expense guidelines to clarify that?

The conversation quickly moved towards how much of a difference it makes having guidelines on what is an acceptable expense and what is not, as well as other contentious behaviors.

Admittedly, I’ve written a good portion of Orbit’s Handbook so I may be biased here, but I find it fascinating that even though most people tend to prefer leaving things unsaid for the sake of flexibility, the nerd in me advocates for clear rules for all.

I am aware that I sound like Monica Geller from Friends.

Why community benefits from clear rules

Communities are first and foremost feel-good, safe spaces where like-minded people come to gather and flourish. Flourishing can mean having a good time, playing games, making art, playing sports or developing professional skills, etc. 

Usually, there is a common activity that attracts people in the first place, but that’s not why they stick around. 

People stay in the community when they feel welcome, included, connected, and get the perception that most members genuinely care about other people’s best interests. 

Regardless of the form and the forum, community is a place where participants support and help each other. That’s why vibes are such a big deal in community.

Now, a key element of creating and keeping feel-good, safe spaces is to define a boundary around the community – who belongs in, and who belongs out – and offer guidelines on appropriate behaviors in order to preserve the vibes by building a predictable and trusting environment.

Rules shape culture

As an example, back at the community dinner, someone shared that when they worked at Airbnb, the company would not reimburse employees for coffee bought in big-brand chains, but they would reimburse coffee purchased in local coffee shops. 

And that makes sense. A core element of Airbnb’s brand is promoting local experiences. Therefore, a rule like this one not only reflects the company’s core values in practice, but also sets the tone of a meta-logic that can be applied more broadly, i.e. prioritize local.

The same can apply to other behaviors, e.g. what kind of content do you allow in your community? 

In this article, Sophie Skyes walks us through 8 essential content rules for a community. From copyright infringement to adult/explicit images, the “inner ring”, i.e. those who belong in the community, benefit from knowing what kind of content can be shared, what type of answers are allowed, and the tone of communication acceptable in the community.

As in physical spaces, the culture of the place – even a virtual place – molds the way we behave. 

Do you allow cursing? Memes? Conversations about current affairs in national politics? All of this will influence who feels connected and attracted to the community, and who doesn’t. 

4 advantages of having written rules available to all

Some advantages to having written guidelines that are available to all community members are:

  1. Saves everyone from having awkward conversations

Back to our expense management example, instead of someone having an awkward conversation with their manager or HR about whether they can expense X, they can run a quick search in the company’s Employee Handbook and gain clarity in the privacy of their own laptop.

  1. Saves community leaders time in answering questions 

Instead of having to repeat themselves every time someone asks a common question, they can just share a link with the answer and let the person know that they are available for further questions.

  1. Creates precedence for those of us who like to test boundaries

Some of us are more rebellious than our peers. In those cases, having clear rules available to all can save community leaders the trouble of explaining why someone will be expelled or penalized if and when something goes awry. This TikTok really captures the essence of what I mean.

  1. Transparent rules that apply to everyone.

In the absence of clear public rules, settlements are decided by a few “community elders”, which can lead to preferential treatment based solely on their personal relationships to the decision-makers

Prioritize principles over details

In the process of fleshing outs dos and don’ts, some people are tempted to write a treatise including all the possible cases, especially because most rules are born from a past conflict.

However, wordy guidelines are rarely useful. Also, it is impossible to imagine every scenario. Instead, you want to “paint done” or capture the spirit of the rule.

To put it another way, you can start with a high-level rule, give a few examples, and close with a guiding principle.

For instance, in issues that require self-regulation or moral judgement, I like to use the newspaper frontpage test as a guiding principle, i.e. close the guideline asking 

If you do X, and a newspaper finds out and writes a frontpage story about it, would you be:

  1. Proud?
  2. Fearful that you’re about to be fired and/or sued?  

Start small, grow specific

Have you ever read something along the lines of “This vacuum cleaner is not designed to absorb water. Please refrain from vacuuming your shower”

You look at it, and your first thought is “did they really have to write that down?”. Yes. Most likely, it’s there because someone did it and the company’s lawyers had to include the clarification in the vacuum’s manual. 

I heard Patrick use this example not long ago, and I found it truly encapsulates why it is easy to grow from a 10-pager Employee Handbook to 260+. 

The reality is that as Orbit has evolved, we encountered situations where it was beneficial to have:

  1. Standard guidelines to keep things like image, language and vibes cohesive.
  2. Clear rules and guiding principles to handle payments, expenses, and contracts.
  3. Quick summaries of different laws and regulations that apply to employees and the company as a whole.

Among other use cases.

For all these reasons, I genuinely believe community builders can benefit from keeping an updated version of their Community Handbook and make it available to all community members, even if it just consists of a few guiding principles.

I would love to hear from any community builders on this topic, either at @OrbitModel or join the conversation in our Discord server.

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