Setting the basics of the social norms. The help center

Table of contents

  1. On-topic
  2. Be-nice policy
  3. Nuances one needs to pay attention to
  4. Doing above the very minimum: Manifesto and Community Core Values
    1. Specification of the community. The manifesto
    2. Community core values

The culture of an online community is a set of beliefs, values and norms collectively held within the group. One needs to define the initial piece of culture before launching a community by setting up a help center, the description of how a person can successfully get engaged in the community.

Keep the help center short. Add only rules that the community must have at the beginning. The help center will evolve naturally when users encounter a problem, discuss it, and ask the community manager to make changes to the help based on the results of the discussion. There are two critical aspects that are needed to be covered in the help center of any community: a description of what is on-topic in the community and any kind of encouragement to users to be kind to each other.


The purpose of the on-topic article is to describe what content the community wants to see on the platform. The article should have a list of clear criteria that any content on the platform must satisfy. If necessary, provide specific examples. The article should provide enough details so a person can draw a clear line between what is allowed to be posted on the platform and what is not.

Be-nice policy

The goal of this article is to inspire people with the idea of a community where users care about each other. This policy is the first step in shaping the culture of your community. By this article you want to find people who share the same views and will help you maintain a friendly atmosphere in the community. Don’t be afraid to sound a bit sentimental.

The policy can be described from two sides, either to describe what users should strive for or what they should avoid. People are drawn to good things. Describe positive aspirations first. Add examples of negative behavior as needed.

  • The most important positive behaviors that can be mentioned are: assuming good intentions, being patient, being friendly and nice.

  • Examples of unacceptable behavior: rudeness, name-calling, bigotry, inappropriate language or attention, harassment and bullying, passive aggression, spam and self-promotion.

Be-nice policy has many other names like “expected behavior” or “code of conduct”. In essence all these policies are about the same: convincing users to be kind to each other, to feel compassion and empathy for others. You can have several similar sections that explain the idea of being kind from different angles. It is impossible to exaggerate the importance of good attitude towards each other.

Nuances one needs to pay attention to

  • Avoid mentioning punishments in the help center. The goal of the help center is to explain what a user needs to do to be successful in the community and how to do that. The description of incorrect behavior should mostly exist only as part of additional clarifications of the expected behavior and without any mentions of penalties for wrong doing.

  • Add new articles to the help center only if it is something that the community must have. Some of the community rules will always exist in an implicit form and are passed from user to user through their interactions with each other. That is fine.

  • Describe the rules in general terms. To cover all nuances of the culture of your community in detail you will need a lot of very narrow rules. Too narrow rules always need to be supplemented with exceptional situations which makes the help center to be even bigger and more complicated. At some point, users may even not try to read it through.

  • It is very important to create a culture in which users respect each other from the very first day. Newcomers derive many rules from observing interactions of other users and adapt to existing norms that they have derived.

  • Users must agree with the rules and internalize them for the rules to be effective.

  • Some help center articles require consultation with a lawyer, for example, terms of service. Be careful.

Doing above the very minimum: Manifesto and Community Core Values

Once you have a complete vision of the culture of the community, you can create two additional help center pages that describe a manifesto and core values of the group. These two articles define the cultural identity of your community. Having them is critical, but you can add them after the launch.

Specification of the community. The manifesto

Any product has a specification that describes its main parameters. For an online community it is its manifesto. The manifesto of a community is a document that describes the key unique features of the community in a compelling way. The best practice of writing a manifesto is to use it as a way to reveal the mission in detail (since it is your unique value proposition). At the same time, the manifesto still should be concise. If you see a need to share additional information, history of the problem, or any other important thoughts, create a separate post in the main area of the platform and link to it from the manifesto.

Community core values

Core values are the fundamental principles that underlie a community knowing which users will behave correctly in most cases, even without knowing anything about the rules.

Core values don’t have to be unique to your community. All online communities face similar challenges like trying to avoid insults, staying on topic and focused on achieving the mission and unite users. Core values typically highlight these aspirations.