Manage Guideline Violations on Your Community

Patrick O'Keefe

You run an active (or maybe not-so-active) community. You have a vision for this community. You know what type of place you want it to be. You’ve created a set of User Guidelines that help you to accomplish this vision, and you make sure that your users abide by them. Good job.

But, despite your best efforts, there are always members who break the guidelines – unwittingly or otherwise. How can you track the violations that each user has made? How about the action that’s been taken against them? Responses? And extenuating details?

In this article, I’ll explain an effective way to keep tabs on what and how much each user has done, so that you, as administrator, can make informed and correct decisions, regardless of the size of your community.

Two New Forums

First, you need to set up two new forums. These forums should be viewable by administrators and moderators only, but moderators should not have moderator power in them. They should not be able to edit, delete or move any threads or posts in these forums. It’s not that you don’t trust your moderators — they just do not need to have privileges in these forums. These two forums represent an archive of sorts, and the only one who should be able to modify that archive is you.

First Forum: Trash Bin

The first forum is the Trash Bin. This forum will be home to all threads and posts that are deleted or removed from public view. I do not permanently delete (i.e. remove from my forums database) any threads or posts on my communities. All threads or posts that violate our User Guidelines or must otherwise be removed are moved into this forum. Bad threads? Moved here. Duplicate posts and "accidents" — moved here. If someone makes a bad post on an otherwise good thread, it is split off into this forum (making it its own thread). There’s no reason that a good thread must end because of an idiot or two.

If you were to manually edit content out of a post or delete the post entirely, you would lose documentation that you could not get back, or refer back to in the future. Even if you deleted a thread or post and privately made a note of what the member had said, that’s no substitute for having the exact record of a post that they themselves made with their Internet protocol (IP) address attached to it. That’s why we have the Trash Bin forum.

Second Forum: Problem Users

The second forum is the Problem Users forum. This is where you will organize your documentation by user, making it easier to see just how much a user has done — and what exactly they’ve done — on your community.

Whenever a user violates your User Guidelines, you will make a note of it in the Problem Users forum. If this is the user’s first violation, you will have to start a thread for them. The subject title of the thread should be that user’s username within your community. The exact username, even if it is XxXGP-TrIcK19Z. This makes it easier for you to search and find the thread in future.

If the user has violated your User Guidelines before, they will already have a thread, so you won’t need to start one. Simply add a reply to the existing thread with details of the latest violation.

In your post, you should link (if necessary) to the violation, specify the violation made, and mention the action taken. So, for instance, if I were taking this action on the SitePoint Forums, I might post:

http://www.sitepoint.com/forums/showthread.php?p=111111111111
Advertising. PM sent.

This would mean that the user created a thread or post to advertise something in a way that violated our User Guidelines, and that I sent them the appropriate private message (using contact templates, if you offer them to your staff members). The link goes right to the thread or post, located inside the Trash Bin, that contains the violation.

There are some types of violations that do not require a link. One such example would be:

Signature too long. PM sent.

This would obviously mean that the user’s signature was longer than your User Guidelines allowed, and that you’d sent the appropriate private message.

You can also make note of other things within Problem Users threads. For instance, did the user send one of your moderators a nasty private message back? Have them post it in the Problem Users thread so that you can deal with it personally. You can document any other suspicious or negative behavior in this thread as well.

And, of course, you can customize this process to your liking, as you see fit. For example, you don’t have to send private messages: you might send emails. This is just a general example.

Required Procedure

This system can only be effective if you require that it be maintained by you and your staff members, with no exceptions. Every single time.

Besides just telling your moderators what the process is, and that they must act on it every time they see a violation, you have to do it, too. Document violations just as you ask your moderators to. Send private messages just as you ask them to. You are the example, as with everything else. There are no short cuts!

You have to make this new system part of the process of handing violations: see a violation, remove the violation (if necessary), document the violation and contact the offending user. That’s the process, and it will need to become a part of your and your moderator’s daily lives.

The Benefit

Finally, the major benefit: this system gives you something to refer back to. It allows you to go over all negative activities that a user has perpetrated or participated in.

Over time, these threads will grow and you will notice that certain users seem to be disregarding your warnings — something you may or may not have noticed before. This is crucial to your decisions on when and if to escalate action (a more serious private message from you or a ban, perhaps). The system helps to ensure that repeat offenders aren’t necessarily allowed to run wild, and allows you to have increased confidence in your decisions. It will make it easier for you to make the correct decisions for your community in order to accomplish your goals.

Good luck!

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