Designing Good Policy for Online Platforms and Communities

I’ve been thinking a lot about online platforms and the types of policies that govern them. In recent months we’ve seen Twitter and Reddit come out with new policies designed to improve the free-for-all that those spaces are better known for. Google recently created new policies banning nudity on Blogger and then reversed course after backlash from the community. During my time at Kickstarter, we were always working on policies to help users walk the fine (and subjective) line between creative projects and everything else.

Designing good policy is hard work! And the ones you hear about — the ones that make the news — are just the tip of the iceberg. If you find yourself faced with that “we need a policy for this” moment, here’s a few best practices when it comes to designing policy for online communities and platforms.

  1. Be calm. First and foremost, are you stressed/panicking/worried about bad press/overly-tired/super hungry? If so, take care of that before drafting any community policy. Count backwards or eat a slice of pie with ice cream. Do anything but write policy.
  2. Always ask yourself: Can the product help with this? The best policies in the world, if not supported by the product, are only ever just words buried on a forgotten page. Policy problems often arise because of a lack of internal tools, user-facing tools, or some other product limitation where policy becomes a stand-in for those absences. Instead of relying on ever-increasing policy making, prioritize more sustainable product solutions. Give your policy-enforcers the tools they need, and listen to your community when they’re consistently using workarounds to do something on your platform.
  3. Make sure your policies are accessible and enforceable. If your policies only live in your TOU, it’s time to drag them into the light of day to be reckoned with. Put them on their own page, in the FAQ, link all over to them where it’s relevant. Communicate openly and transparently what your policies are so that your users know what to expect. Give your policies a public-facing home so that your community team has the back up they need when enforcing policies.
  4. Create policy with your best users in mind. The need for policy often emerges because something bad is happening in the community and you want it to stop. Rather than outlaw something and slap a big rule on top of it, take a step back and think about who your best users are and how they’d feel if they saw that rule. Would they look at that rule and think “who on earth are they talking to?” If so, it’s likely that policy needs to be reworked.
  5. Know what the outcomes and goals of your policy are. If you are reacting to something (bad press, an angry mob, a group of frustrated users, a nasty message tweeted at your CEO) and just want a policy that will fix everything, take a big step back and breeeaaaathe first. Focus on what the actual goal of your policy is, and whether it’s something worth implementing for the long run or more of a one-off decision needed for a specific crisis. (One-offs are okay too!)
  6. Don’t write policies that limit something you eventually want your community to be able to do. Often these situations arise because the community has demonstrated an interesting but potentially confusing emergent behavior. In the moment, these behaviors can seem messy and bad for the platform experience. But, these areas often hold the most potential for community-driven growth. Rather than ban these behaviors entirely, design your policy to accommodate the workarounds until you can better understand the behavior and design a more comprehensive product solution.
  7. Also, don’t let exceptions be the rule. Exceptions/edge cases/grey areas play an important role in policy making — you should have a good sense of what those things are as they will most certainly become a contested space that your community team will need to be properly prepared for. But if you let those edge cases guide the policy itself, you’re more than likely going to end up with a policy that’s more convoluted than it needs to be. The goal shouldn’t be to get rid of edge cases, but to shrink the overall volume of behaviors that ride that line by creating clear expectations (and policy) for your community.
  8. Talk to your community — ask them what they think! While the goal isn’t to get 100% consensus, open dialogue is important if you want to avoid becoming that place where policies are written in the cover of night and when announced, community members are like “what the hell just happened?” Make your community part of the process.
  9. Talk to other people in your company. If you and a small handful of people have been staring at a draft of policies for weeks on end, open it up to people on other teams. Fresh eyes and a non-policy POV means you’ll quickly find out which words sound crazy.
  10. Maybe you don’t need policy at all. Sometimes all you need is to help your team internally have a clearer understanding of where your company stands and your overall approach to handling a community issue or behavior.
  11. You cannot please everyone. Somebody will always be upset about a policy. Your policy could literally be to give every new user a puppy, and somebody out there will be very, very upset (probably your accounting department and cat people). But that is okay! The goal isn’t to make everyone happy, but to create policies that ensure the platform is healthy.
  12. Think about who is missing from your community, who is not represented, who does not currently have a voice. Does your policy account for the experiences of women, minorities, or other groups that are typically underrepresented or may not feel safe on platforms? Does it take into consideration differences in socio-economic class? Does it serve everyone or does it only serve those with experiences that most closely resemble your own? We’re all always working from what we know, which is why good policy design requires proactively looking into what we don’t know, and in particular, who we are not.
  13. And remember, you can always change your mind. It might be hard and painful but in the end nothing has been signed in blood (Right? Right.) and that means sometimes you will put out a policy that sucks and needs to be fixed. If you’ve been communicative, if you’ve demonstrated trust in your community, they’ll meet you halfway.

I hope this has been helpful. Your feedback, as always, is much appreciated.