Missing: Code of Conduct

I have spoken about the importance of a Code of Conduct in the past. Since conversations have cropped up around several communities and events in technology regarding Codes of Conduct, I am going to discuss my experiences with them.

Over the years I have spent a lot of time in and around gaming communities. During that time I realized that community guidelines and a code of conduct are an important tool. In watching these recent conversations, I feel some people have been too focused on their practical application. So I will talk about why a community should have a code of conduct, what you stand to gain by implementing one, and address some of the common arguments against them.

I wrote a step-by-step guide to writing a code of conduct here, taken from an earlier blog post addressing another community that lacked a code of conduct.

I'm not a bad person, why do I need one?

I have not read the code of conduct for most communities I have been a part of one. I also do not know the specific laws of my city, province, or country. Have you? Unless you are a lawyer or have been involved in a legal dispute, I am confident that you could not recall the laws regarding any action you may take on a given day.

A code of conduct exists to provide a documented process for dealing with behavior that you do not want in your community. The code of conduct clearly and explicitly states what actions are not allowed in your community, as well as the process for dealing with those that break it. Just like the legal system, a code of conduct does not step in to solve problems that are not reported or that cause no harm. 

In my experience, moderating members of your community is easy. The code of conduct is a tool for community members to hold the administration and each other accountable for their actions. As with other administrative documents, it provides you two large advantages: Liability, and Image Control.

Liability

For a code of conduct to be useful it must be written in unambiguous terms. There must be very few things that are left up to interpretation. These clear terms and processes laid out by the document frees up moderators from having to justify their decisions.

For example: If you wanted to eject a member of your community for harassment there is a preset process for handling the situation. Since the members of your community made an agreement to follow the code of conduct when they joined, ignorance is not a defense.

If the process for resolving breaches of the code of conduct is reasonable, it actually makes moderator's jobs easier. The number of judgement calls that they will have to make when an issue arises goes down because the code of conduct has their back. Moderators will be able to act faster when harassment happens because their response to those reports was predefined.

Following the harassment example: When your community's response to harassment is predefined and enacted quickly, nobody can blame your community for the harassment. You have shown through quick action that you do not condone that behavior, and that you are prepared to deal with those situations.

Communities will be able to take ownership of the solution, rather than the problem. With a code of conduct that is implemented and enforced in good faith, your community can become stronger. Your moderators will have an easier time with disputes and you do not have to argue with hooligans. This protects your administration from any legal actions that result from breaches of the code of conduct because you have pre-condemned illegal behavior and have have set a precedent against it.

All of this assumes that the code of conduct was implemented and enforced in good faith. There are many communities that have codes of conduct that are toxic and harmful environments. There is a reason why: Serial abusers and harassers seek out positions of power. If an individual in your administration is abusing their power, members of your community have tools to combat that. All members of a community, especially the administration, need to be accountable to the code of conduct.

Nothing can fix a community that is built and controlled by serial abusers and harassers.

Image Control

The time when a code of conduct is proposed is the time when it has the most power. People do not like to lose things. Serial abusers and harassers who currently have power will identify themselves clearly and unambiguously. It is also very telling when an entire community speaks out against a code of conduct.

This is because a code of conduct is a statement to the world that your community has rules. Arguments have been made that a code of conduct does not need to exist for harassment to be prevented. Though, as I said before, it is easy to moderate members of a community. A code of conduct, being a public-facing document, is part of the message you are sending to onlookers.

The idea that you do not require communal rules is steeped in privilege. It says that you have not experienced the types of harassment that others have gone through. It says that you have not listened to their accounts of harassment. The lack of codified rules in a community does not mean that there are no rules at all. There are always rules in a community. Absent of codified rules a community will self-police.

The issue with allowing a community to silently police itself is that the only way for potential members to know what is acceptable is to engage. Asking people who are vulnerable and who are often the targets of abuse and harassment to join your community without concrete assurance is not going to work. If you have the words to assure minority groups that your community is welcoming to them, you should put those words into a code of conduct. You should listen to their feedback and accommodate them.

No community is passively welcoming to different people. The people in a community often share life experiences, which gives them the ability to empathize and understand one another. If you want to welcome people who do not already fit in with your community you have to take steps to accommodate them. One of those steps is ensuring that they know that you want them there. For vulnerable people that means giving them assurance you will protect them. A code of conduct is assurance.

Conclusion

There is a lot more that I can say about codes of conduct. It should be telling that I have not spoken about what a code of conduct should contain. Every community or event needs to create one that matches their own values. If you want a place to start you should browse the code of conduct and community guidelines for organizations with which you align.

I spoke about why you should have a code of conduct. It makes life easier for your moderators. It gives you the tools to moderate effectively. It protects your administration from liability for harmful behavior as long as you actively enforce your rules. It is part of your community's public image and having one lets people know that there are processes in place.

The code of conduct does not solve every problem. In fact a code of conduct solves no problems unless it is consistently used in good faith. It is, however, an important step in creating a community that people want to be a part of.

About the Author

AwfulyPrideful is a networking and telecommunications student with a passion for infosec. They can be found on twitter talking about infosec, technology, games, and politics. They maintain a blog of their journey into infosec, explaining complex topics in layman's terms, sharing the lessons they learn, and providing commentary of tech culture. If you want to support them directly you can do so via paypal and patreon.

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