One of the things I've learned over the years as a moderator and community manager is that rules lawyers can work me ragged. When I point out a Terms of Service (ToS) violation, a rules lawyer will find a way to avoid the letter of the law while violating the spirit. This is especially annoying because the ToS is primarily a legal document so it's designed to be a document for lawyers to argue over.

So when I updated the College Confidential rules a few years ago I focused on:

  • Simplifying the language
  • Removing a bunch of sections that addressed edge cases
  • Broadening the rules so that they covered a wider range of behavior while also
  • Softening the language to give moderators discretion when it comes to enforcement.

Our legal team regularly updates the ToS and we do want to enforce them. But it's best to think of ToS violations as really obvious and severe problems. So, for instance, the College Confidential ToS bar people from "racial" posts. While that can cover a lot of things people might write, the goal is to bar people from hosting Klan meetings on the site. When someone violates the ToS, there should be a serious discussion about banning their account for a very long time.

My thinking has been heavily influenced by this philosophy of moderation written by the late Shamus Young. A key quote:

Instead of making rules to compel crazies to behave – which can become a full-time enforcement project – I allow them to act out. And then I ban them. I want to know who the crazy people are, as fast as possible. The sooner they reveal their character, the sooner I can pull them out of the pool before they make a mess. This isn’t hard. Problem People are usually easy to spot.

Another way to put it is that moderators have the site rules/guidelines as tools designed to be a standard of behavior. But if people are breaking the community without breaking the rules, we don't need to just throw up our hands. I strongly suspect a few people (maybe as few as one) cause most of the problems on most sites. I might have a hard time sorting things out because there are a lot of accusations being thrown around. Just because someone breaks the rules sometimes doesn't mean they incapable of being decent members of the community.

So I try to identify the person who causes the most problems in a community. I don't necessarily mean violating the rules, but rather the person who draws the worst out of others. That might mean riling up people they disagree with or it might mean rallying people who are on their side. (Or both. Both happens in the same person often.)

Then I take action (usually warning or silencing them). What's interesting in my experience is that I can usually tell from their reply if we've found one of the true troublemakers. I really like this image from the article I linked to earlier that illustrates the range of people in a community:

Fred, Han and

I don't usually have a problem identifying rules breakers, but most of them are Han Solo types. What I want to find is the Jack.