When someone has their post removed or amended by a moderator it's a pretty common reaction for that person to feel a bit put out by the action.  That's understandable because they've maybe invested a bit if time in what they wrote, but often it's simply the case that the poster hasn't understood what the forums rules are and if they'd had a better grasp of the intent of the rules they'd likely have posted differently.  But why are forum rules misunderstood?

Part of the answer is undoubtedly that the simply haven't been read (see my Read any good EULAs? post for more on that).  But a bigger issue is probably the generality of the way the rules are written, although I suspect that something we need to learn to live with.

When something goes wrong on a forum and some big issue blows up, it's very tempting to think "Ah, we need a rule to cover that" but that's probably the wrong thing to do in most cases.  Most often it's a one-off issue so all you'd do is create a rule for some special "corner case" that will likely never arise again.

What you don't want is a vast set of forum rules:  If you can't get people to read a half-dozen paragraphs then you sure as heck aren't going to interest them in something the size of War and Peace (or Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows if you want a more contemporary analogy).  So the rules need to be concise but that also means they will tend to be generalised with some room for a degree of interpretation.  That gives a bit of "wiggle room" that allows moderators to avoid seeming heavy handed with a newbie making a minor error.  When you come across the inveterate repeat offender doing the same thing then you're inevitably going to tighten up a bit because you know they're just trying to push your buttons.

A fairly common sort of response to moderation actions is "Why was my post edited when so-and-so did much the same thing but their post was apparently OK?"  Often it's because there's a very subtle difference in the context or content that actually makes a big difference to how it fits or doesn't fit with the intent of the rules.  At some point fairly early in my tenure as a moderator on the MO:UL forums, it was suggested that there should an example or two to go along with the forum rules to help in explaining the rules.  I was a supporter of that idea to begin with but after bouncing it around a bit I began to realise that it wasn't as clever an idea as it first appeared. I think it was probably RAWA who first pointed the potential problems:

  • The example is useful only for exact matches to the example and for every example you give there are probably ten slight variations on that where you'd take a different view.
  • In turn that means the examples can be used by a belligerent poster to argue why their post meets the rules when one of the unwritten alternative examples might have explained why it did not.
  • Examples have the effect or removing the "wiggle room" I mentioned earlier.  While consistency in moderation is a great thing to have, you also need to have a little latitude available so that you can let some things go and keep the flow going: Sometimes you can do more harm than good by intervening for a relatively minor infringement.

Additionally, examples will just add to the volume of text in the rules, making them less appealing to read.

MO:ULa and Cyan forum rules

 I've noticed that Cyan have copied RAWA's forum rules (forum polices) from the MO:UL forum for use with the new Cyan forums.  I always had the sense that RAWA's rules (which replaced the previous rules written by Greydragon for the Gametap era) were rather specific to MO:UL.  In retrospect, they probably do carry across quite well and even the comments in Policy I referring to hacking MO:UL are still relevant because of the references to other Cyan products.  Certainly, and despite any lingering reservations I may have, it makes a whole lot of sense for both Cyan and the users to have a common set of rules that apply equally to both forums.

However, I do have some thoughts about the current rules that sort of gelled in my mind a bit towards the end of my term as a moderator on MO:UL.  The current rules were constructed to try to accommodate the then emerging world of Open Source.  Some things were copied across from the previous rules and other things had their emphasis changed - the old rules presented a fairly "robust" attitude to rules infringement and I think RAWA's intent was to seem slightly more relaxed as by that time we were into the "Free to Play" era of MO:ULagain.  There was a bit of teething trouble to begin with as you might expect but by and large they seemed to work out fairly well.

What I became aware of latterly was that the pruning of the rules might actually have removed some useful guidance.  For example we lost the instruction about reporting posts:

1. Forum Administrators and Moderators are here to assist the forum. Should a situation arise between individuals that cannot be resolved by private messaging or email, Moderators and Admins can be PM'd or emailed in an attempt to resolve the problem. Please refrain from settling scores publicly. Public postings of such issues will be removed from the forums.
Please use the report post function if you feel the forum rules aren’t followed, the Moderators want to be notified of your concerns.

 That was also useful in setting out the role of the moderators, although I can't say if it really "helps" much.  Other things were set out not as "rules" but as "you are asked to refrain from" which is a rather less prescriptive form of words.  What I now have a problem with is that really means they're not very enforceable without some clause that also says "entirely at the Administrators'/moderators' discretion".  For example, the guidance on signatures now seems to be just that - guidance - rather than a rule as in the previous version of the rules:

9. Signatures and avatars must adhere to the guidelines laid out by the Community Management in this topic*. Failure to abide by these guidelines will result in your signature or avatar being removed, and you will be warned. Failure to comply with these guidelines a second time will result in a one-week suspension, with your avatar or signature removed. A third infraction will result in your account being banned.

Note consequences of failing to have a compliant signature!

In due course, I expect Cyan will revamp the rules again as the current rules haven't changed in over three years.  Having said that, changing rules creates new opportunities for confusion, so maybe small adjustments are better than a whole scale rewrite as it's probably easier to bring the community along with you that way.