A community I use recently had a problem that wasn’t covered by the Code of Conduct but which a number of members felt required some kind of administrative action. Ultimately the community owner decided they were right and imposed sanctions on another member over the situation.

I sent the administrator a private note letting them know I’d have made the same decision and that I’d have felt awful for having to do it. I also mentioned that this is why I like to have a “because I’m the mommy” clause in the code of conducts for communities I manage.

A reality of most codes of conduct is they’re backward facing: to some degree, you are attempting to prevent situations that have happened before from happening again, and giving you the opportunity take action when they do happen without a lot of debate. The problem is, as a community grows and matures, the problems that crop up tend to be more complex and nuanced and often aren’t cleanly covered by the CoC, and so it’s in the best interest of the community for the Administrator to have a way to handle those kind of issues without turning every situation into a “this isn’t in the rules” meta debate or a chance for the lawyers to try to argue their way out of a reprimand by nitpicking rule language (which has to be the most fun thing for every community manager forever).

The “mommy” clause for me takes on language something like this.

The Administrator has the right to make decisions to protect the operations of the community and the safety of its members as needed.

I always recommend you sit down with your lawyer when crafting a CoC to make sure you get the language right and within standards for your organization. If you find a lawyer who understands communities and wants to work with you to make your CoC human readable, bribe them heavily and keep them nearby because those are to be cherished.

You have just created new problems for yourself, of course

Having that clause in the CoC gives you as the administrator the flexibility to do what’s needed as opposed to what the rules say (if they say anything about this at all).

This creates new problems for you, of course. It’s important that you be transparent about your use of this clause, and while I think getting into the weeds in the meta discussions about community operations and oversight can be its own kind of hell, it’s important that members know both what you’re doing and why you’re doing it. If they start feeling you’re being arbitrary and not working to the greater good of the community, you risk losing their trust, and that can be damaging or fatal to a community. Members who feel they have to stare over their shoulder in case the admin is coming after them tend to shut up and go to the sidelines.

It’s also important to not use the mommy clause unless you need to. If you’re using it too often, your Code of Conduct is flawed and needs to be fixed, or you’re using it to solve problems that maybe shouldn’t be fixed and maybe you need to be fixed. This is why I feel transparency on using it is so important, because the community itself and the leaders within the community become your check and balance on use of the rule. It is not quite a tool of last resort in the toolbox, but you should consider it one you use because you have to, not because you want to. The community will usually let you know if you start using it too — liberally. Listen to them.

The meta discussion that follows disclosure of using the rule will also help you understand what follow on might be necessary after using the Mommy rule.

Do you then update the rules?

Does the need to invoke this clause mean you need to update your CoC? My general take is: hopefully not. I rarely feel you need to revise the Code the first time a problem occurs. Does it occur again? Then it may be time to formalize the language around that problem.

I’ve found long, complicated, legaleses CoC to be a real problem. First, you’ll find nobody reads them, so they don’t actually do a good job of educating users of expected behavior (yes, readership of the doc will be low anyway, but the longer and user hostile the language is, the faster people will bail from it). Is your CoC so long and complicated you had to write a summary doc explaining the doc? Sit down with the lawyers and talk about replacing the CoC with the summary.

Shorter is better. Simple language is better. Adding clauses to cover every administrative thing that happens any time something new crops up works to destroy those two goals for your CoC. So my goal is to limit changes to the CoC unless it’s clear we need to cover some kind of behavior. Sometimes a single instance of a problem is enough to justify that, but often, it’s better to wait to see if you have a trend developing that you can use a CoC change as a reason to educate the members.

Congratulations, you’re growing up

One other thing I said to this administrator was a quick congratulations, because the problem they had to solve is an indication that the community is growing and functioning well. One side effect of a well functioning community is that the simple problems either fade out of the system, or the community will self police them and you won’t need to step in. This means that as a community grows and matures, the issues an administrator has to step in and deal with will tend to be more complex and nuanced and the solutions are less obvious. When you notice this happening, congratulations, you’re doing a good job managing the community.

Or more correctly, you’ve built a good community that’s doing a good job of managing itself and your jobs less about directing the community as course correcting around the inevitable potholes.