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A Comment Policy Improves Community Participation

Adding a simple commenting policy sets expectations and gives you a game plan when trolls and negativity rear their ugly head. You can copy mine if you like!

If you’re running an online community, particularly if it is a successful community, you know that not every commenter has the best intentions. Sometimes, people are just oblivious to how their words affect others. Other times, they intentionally try to derail a discussion. If left unchecked, these types of things can dissolve the bonds of a community. This is where a comment policy can help.

What exactly is a comment policy?

A comment policy is simply a short body of text describing the basic guidelines for community involvement at your website. It can exist as a stand-alone document and be incorporated with your Terms of Use policy by reference. The policy need not be a long document full of legal terms – it should be succinct, non-adversarial, and written in a way that any average 5th grader would understand. You can call it whatever makes sense for your site – I’ve dubbed mine the Community Participation Policy.

Why do you need a comment policy?

The purpose of a comment policy is to help protect your website and community from harassment, and to provide you with a plan of action when issues do arise. When you notice bullying or trolling happening, you can take action. Your policy gives you a Plan A: warn the person and link to the policy. If the behavior doesn’t cease, you can easily refer again to the policy, remind the commenter of the previous warning, and then possibly ban them.

With a policy on-board, your community members will be more likely to report the behavior rather than tolerate it. Your policy will let your membership know that you have their back which, in turn, will empower and improve your community.

What should your comment policy include?

Your comment policy should include enough language to cover a broad set of situations without attempting to cover every possible situation. Here are key points to include:

  1. the expected behavior of participants
  2. possible reasons that comments will be removed or moderated
  3. possible reasons that a user may be banned
  4. what happens when the policy is violated
  5. how to report violations

What should your comment policy not include?

While it’s easy to come up with a list of items to include in a comment policy, it may not be so apparent what shouldn’t go into it. No worries. Let’s break it down.

  1. Avoid writing the policy in legalese. The text should read as human.
  2. Avoid a passive voice. Be direct and don’t appear wishy-washy.
  3. Avoid listing every possible offense. Broader terms will be sufficient.

Need help writing your comment policy?

Google is always a good place to start a search for examples, but take this warning with you: don’t steal anyone’s text! It’s exceptionally easy to root out textual copyright infringement online and you don’t want the nightmare of that. Maybe just take a quick look at my short Community Participation Policy – you have my permission to borrow it.

How to enforce your comment policy?

Enforcing your policy should follow a logical course. A warning can be provide on a first violation. Be sure to indicate exactly why you are issuing a warning. Including a link to the policy is a good idea. It’s possible that the person just made an honest mistake, or was having a bad day and took it out on someone inadvertently. Unless someone is being unquestionably malicious, give them the benefit of doubt. On subsequent violations, a more serious warning is warranted – a link to your policy and a link to the previous warning should be included. Third violations probably mean the commenter is ripe for dismissal.

Of course, the above assumes you are willing to give second chances when you might instead prefer to move straight for the ban. Of course, banning someone is easier said than done. You may have to do anything from disabling the account to blocking a range of IP addresses to notifying the authorities or even contacting the commenter’s own internet service provider. In other words, it could potentially cost you a fair amount of time. Regardless, this is your community we’re talking about, so it’s important to decide how you will enforce your policy and stick to it.

Wrapping Up

Creating a positive community environment will encourage engagement and interaction among your membership. While each person has a personal responsibility to be respectful of others, we, as site owners, have the additional responsibility of enforcing principles that keep our communities healthy and thriving. We must accept that there will always be some people who prefer to cause a disruption than to participate in a meaningful way – it’s an unavoidable byproduct of anonymity. But, we don’t have to take it lying down. We need to be ready for it and have a game plan in place. It’s time to get your plan in place.

What do you think?

Have you tried using a comment policy? If so, how did it work out? Did is lessen the trolling or in some way help? Can you think of any other things that would make the policy more effective? I’d love to hear your thoughts – let me know in the comments!

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