{PODCAST} In-Ear Insights: Unwritten Rules of Community Management

In this week’s In-Ear Insights, Katie and Chris tackle the written and unwritten rules of community management, especially for private social media communities like Discord. What makes a community management team successful? What makes it prone to chaos? How do you set up your community and your moderation team to be successful? Tune in to find out!

Key Takeaways:

• Unwritten rules are an important part of culture, but there are also important rules that should be written down.
• When setting up a community, there should be clear roles and responsibilities and a sense of ownership.
• Hate speech is often a broad term, so it’s important to decide what constitutes hate speech for the community.
• Having written rules can help hold people accountable for violations.
• Process for the sake of process and rules for the sake of rules are usually too many.


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{PODCAST} In-Ear Insights: Unwritten Rules of Community Management

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Machine-Generated Transcript

What follows is an AI-generated transcript. The transcript may contain errors and is not a substitute for listening to the episode.

Christopher Penn 0:00

In this week’s In-Ear Insights, let’s talk about rules, specifically rules around communities over the weekend and one of the discord communities I’m a member of, there was a big kerfuffle, a substantial conflict among the moderators and administrators of a community different people say, you know, all sorts of emotional drama, someone saying that you’re showing favoritism to this person.

And there’s no, there’s no process written down for how do you deal with this kind of situation.

And one of my responses back as part of the moderation team was to say, well, and Katie, I was channeling you.


I said, a big part of the problem here is that we have relatively few 13 written down rules, we have no standard operating procedures.

And we have a long list of unwritten rules.

And we’ve often said in the past, that culture, like a company’s culture is essentially a list of unwritten rules.

These are things that no one writes down and says, like, you know, here’s the ways we behave, or here are the things you know, here’s who we’d like, sort of the cliques within an organization.

But there’s still rules that if you want to be fully integrated into that community, you have to abide by the unwritten rules as well as the written ones.

And I said, in this particular situation, there are some rules that clearly need to be written down, like who’s in charge when the the head administrator is not in charge? They’re not there.

But what’s your take on that, Katie, on the unwritten rules of community? And when do you decide, okay, this kind of needs to become a written rule versus just something that’s part of the informal culture?

Katie Robbert 1:46

So to take a step back? Yeah, so you definitely need to have some sort of, you know, org chart of who’s in charge when the head moderators not in charge like that.

That makes me nervous.

You know, and I think it’s funny, because when we think about, like, our community analytics for marketers, we have some unwritten rules of who’s in charge and who’s not in charge.

You know, so it’s sort of unwritten that.

I’m the lead voice in analytics for marketers, I ask the question of the day, I kind of keep things running.

It’s unwritten that Chris, you are the analytics experts.

And when people have questions, you know, you chime in.

You know, and then it’s just, it’s interesting to think about I, you know, I don’t think about it too often, because it’s like, it just kind of happens.

And I think that’s how these unwritten rules come about, of, you know, out of necessity, you don’t really sit down and think about what do I need to put together? What is this going to look like, you just kind of happens.

And I think that that’s one of the reasons why companies don’t want to necessarily write down what the culture is going to be, because some of it needs to happen organically, if you are dictating what the culture is going to be, that’s no longer a culture, it really is just a set of rules.

Culture is something that is a combination of all of the different diverse people included in the community.

And by telling them how they can and can’t act that again, sort of that’s not culture, that’s just a set of rules, that’s just dictating the behavior.

And sort of like, you know, showing up on your first day of kindergarten, and suddenly finding out that, you know, you have to ask permission to use the bathroom or you can’t eat whenever you’re hungry, you have to wait for a certain amount of time.

And those things, they’re not fun.

That’s not really like you expressing yourself.

And so I feel like there’s two topics, there’s, you know, how culture comes about in a community.

But then how many rules are too many rules, I guess, or war? What are the necessity? What are the needed rules? For a culture in order in for a community in order to keep it on the rails? So, Chris, when you’re describing, you know, what was going on in your discord community of people complaining, like you’re showing favoritism this that the other like? That, to me doesn’t strike me as a rule that needs to be written down? I mean, obviously, I don’t have all the context that just sounds like somebody who was having a bad day and taking it out on the community.

Christopher Penn 4:30

Well, so to be clear, this is within the staff team.

This is not the general community itself.

I see infighting among the staff.

Katie Robbert 4:39

I see, then.

Yeah, I mean, when you sign up as a moderator, or you know, a team member, you know, someone who’s in charge, then those are expectations that should be written down.

That’s not I want to take culture and responsibility in two separate buckets.

And so what you’re describing is a lack of XP rotations around responsibility, versus the culture that’s being set the culture that’s unwritten is, you know, let’s all be nice to each other.

Let’s have fun.

You know, you can write those down as rules.

But then what that actually looks like is what happens more, organically more unwritten.

But what you’re describing, to me sounds like, Yeah, everybody who’s on the moderation team needs to have a set of expectations, and written down, you know, job descriptions, essentially, to say, you do this, you don’t do this, when, you know, Katie’s out of town, Chris is in charge when Chris is in charge everybody else, you know, falls in line, wherever the stuff is.

That’s not culture.

That’s just, you know, basic do’s and don’ts.

Christopher Penn 5:44

Right, which in a lot of online communities are absent, right.

Those are things that don’t exist.

In in the context of marketing, very often, you know, communities that are run for marketing purposes, just kind of inherit the corporate culture of the company that’s running it.

The analytics remarketing, Slack, kind of inherits the Trust Insights culture by default, because we’re the ones running it.

But in a, in a purely volunteer community, like the one on Discord, there is no corporate will end up culture.

And the people who are mostly in charge, or people who don’t have enough life experience in organized systems to even know that something is missing, for example, one of the things I brought up is that there really is no defined your mission and vision of the organization as a whole.

And as a result, the decision making process the moderation team uses can be very capricious, and very, very unfocused.

Oh, let’s try this, oh, let’s do this, I suppose to say, here’s our mission and vision.

Does this decision or idea or whatever, promote that or detract from that? And without that, that sort of North Star it feels like, yeah, a lot of the decision making is is random or very, you know, on the whims of how are people feeling that day?

Katie Robbert 7:09

And so, even with a volunteer community, there should be some sense of an owner, is there not?

Christopher Penn 7:20

There is, but that person is largely absent?

Katie Robbert 7:23

Ah, well, I think you’ve found the problem, Chris.

But that’s a really good point, though, because they’re still, even with something, whether it’s an online community or an in person, community, volunteer organization, even if people aren’t getting paid, to give their time to moderate to run things to, you know, keep things on the rails, there still has to have a sense of ownership of who is in charge.

And so what you’re describing Chris is basically nobody’s in charge.

So therefore, nobody’s being held accountable to do anything.

And when people give suggestions, there’s nobody to say, yes, let’s do that, or no, let’s not do that.

So that’s, let’s put that aside for just a hot second.

Because you know, I do want to come back to that.

But, you know, when you’re talking about communities, there does need to be someone who at the end of the day owns the thing.

And so with analytics for marketers, we own the community, we are the ones responsible for the safety of our members for making sure people can get in and out for the user experience for all of those things that, you know, if someone has a problem, they know who to come to, we are the admins.

And so we own it, do we have to run it unnecessarily, we could completely step back and not run it at all and identify, you know, different people to run it.

But those people would then still be looking to us to say, what is it you want me to do? Because if we’re not giving them direction, then what you’re describing Chris is what then happens is just kind of pure chaos.

And nobody’s in charge.

It’s it’s not great.

Christopher Penn 9:00

It’s actually worse than that.

It’s there several different people who all think that they are in charge.

And they’re fighting with each other because they’re like, Oh, I’m in charge.

No, I’m in charge.

It’s it’s a very disorderly.

Katie Robbert 9:13

And this is a good use of your time.


Christopher Penn 9:16

These are? These are people who entertain me.

Oh, fair,

Katie Robbert 9:18

fair enough.

There is definitely that entertainment.

I think, you know, we get a lot of questions about how to set up a community or what are the best practices for running a community and, you know, you’re giving a really great example, Chris, of why having some basic roles and responsibilities and rules and ownership in place is really key because unfortunately that infighting amongst team members does leach into the community itself.

And community members, you know, they’re very, you know, aware of what’s happening around them.

They’re there for a reason and you If the culture of the community have, you know, team members fighting, you know that it gets uncomfortable people start to leave.

This was something that we were talking about a bit last week of what happens when the community starts to go sideways, because nobody’s in charge, you may lose community members because of that you may be destroying what you created, because the leadership team can’t get their acts together.

Christopher Penn 10:26


And even just basic, simple operating procedures and stuff, which, you know, I used to be allergic to.

Are I know,

Katie Robbert 10:34

you still are.

Italy? Absolutely.

It’s more of just a, you know, annoying itch at this point.

It’s totally manageable.

Christopher Penn 10:43

There’s a cream for that.

For example, how do you know when to ban someone? Right? So that’s, that’s a really straightforward question, except that it isn’t.

So there’s, in my head, at least when we’re having this discussion, there is sort of the longevity of a member, you should play a role in it.

Someone who just pops into your community signs up, five minutes later, just start spamming like, Okay, that’s pretty easy ban that person because they’re just here to, to see all in, you know, make a bunch of noise and leave.

And that’s a pretty safe person in the band.

On the other hand, if you have someone who’s maybe is has been in your community for six months, a year, two years and something changes about their behavior, right? Do you do you ban them with the same vigor that you do with a spammer who just stops by to hawk their latest NFT? The argument I’ve had said is, it depends on how egregious the violation is of the of the written rules, right? If they start parroting, say anti semitic content, like okay, you gotta go like that.

That’s pretty clear.

That’s not okay.

You start putting in misogynistic memes, like, yeah, it’s time to go.

But for other stuff, there’s, there’s a big gray area, in general, like, how do you decide when do you privately message someone sort of give them a warning, and then, you know, ask them to go or just boot them out the door.

None of that is defined, that’s written down.

And those are things those are rules, processes that administrators or communities need to think about in advance.

Katie Robbert 12:19

Well, so let’s go back to you know, the anti semitic anti, oh, my goodness, why do I struggle to say it? Hate speech? Thank you.

Let’s, let’s simplify.

Let’s go back to hate speech.

I always think about it in terms of what it hold up in court.

And so sure, I don’t like hate speech.

I don’t want to see it in my community.

But if I don’t have any rules written down that say that it’s a violation of the community guidelines, and I kick someone out for doing it.

And they say, Well, no, where was it written down? That I couldn’t do that? That’s always something that you need to consider.

And it’s okay, if your guidelines change.

If you figure out okay, people are spewing hate speech, because I never said they couldn’t do it.

Let me go ahead and update my guidelines, then at least I have something to hold them accountable to, you know, so I always tried to think about, you know, it’s a obviously it’s a little bit more intense, but like, would it hold up in court? And so Chris, if you happen to just pop into my community and started, you know, mansplaining the heck out of me? Sure, it would be annoying.

But unless I explicitly had rules, I would have a hard time, you know, bouncing you out of that community, even though other people it makes me and other people very uncomfortable.

And so that is where you have to really consider how deep into those rules and regulations do you need to go? And that’s, again, that goes back to the ownership of the community.

You know, I’ve had people reach out to me, not so much these days.

But on early on in analytics marketers have I saw so and so doing this, can you remove them? No, because it’s not written that they can’t do that, just because you’re annoyed by their behavior doesn’t mean that I as the admin, need to go ahead and remove them.

And those are the things that, you know, you need to have somebody in charge to deal with be like, I will take that into consideration.

Let me recheck the guidelines.

Let me see what they’re doing, what the violation is.

And then maybe it is a warning system of like, hey, you know, I’ve been getting complaints about this kind of behavior, could you tone it down, knock it off, maybe this isn’t the right place for it, you know, but then the person who’s committing the violation has every right to push back and say nowhere in your guidelines does it say I can’t do this.

And that’s where, you know, you have to have them written down.

Again, that’s not a culture thing.

That’s a you know, just the straight guidelines.

The culture to me is you know, how light hearted or how far you you know, push the line of Not Safe For Work things that again, those are all things you could have written down of You know, you have to have a G rating on all of your posts or ropes.

You know, this is not the community for you, for example,

Christopher Penn 15:07

side note site is a very great there’s a great podcast called you’re wrong about and I was listening to it this weekend about how movie ratings developed go look it up it’s a lot of fun is about an hour and a half long and you realize, talk about a capricious system that has no rules, it’s completely arbitrary.

That’s a good thing to listen to.

So I want to go back to rules, though, because you were talking about adding things into rules.

I’m gonna read aloud here from the analytics for marketers community rule number four is do not share or create prohibited content privately or publicly.

This includes sexually explicit content, hate speech, spam, fraudulent content, sadistic or animal cruelty, promotion of self harm and suicide, child exploitation, private or confidential information, content, promoting illegal activities, and malicious content, such as viruses and malware.

If you see prohibited content, please report it to a moderator immediately.

So that’s a pretty wide ranging rule.

The question I have and this goes back to something you started the show with, is how do you know when you’re at too many rules when you’re starting to document every little thing? Like, you know, hate speech is pretty broad.

But somebody could valve could ask the question, what constitutes hate speech for the analytics remarketing community?

Katie Robbert 16:15

Yeah, and that is something that we would then need to decide on, like, where do we draw that line? Because you’re right, it is a pretty broad stroke in terms of what it could you know, what could fall under hate speech? I feel like it’s sort of the same thing with process, like process for the sake of process is too much process rules for the sake of rules are probably too many rules.

It’s, you know, but it goes back to what is the purpose of the community.

You know, in general, like, we created analytics for marketers to create a space for people who are interested in both analytics and marketing and have questions about it.

And, you know, want to connect with other marketers, and analytics professionals.

And so we were pretty clear about what we wanted it to be, we’re also pretty clear about what we didn’t want it to be.

And it’s not a, it’s not a place for people to just, you know, sell their stuff.

They don’t, we don’t want them to pitch their thing.

We want people to show up and relax a little bit.

And feel like it’s a safe place for them to ask questions that they may not be able to ask to their teams, their bosses, their organization.

And so with that, being our North Star, we can then decide within each of these rules, how far do we take them? You know, if we were to say, no, no conversation, that doesn’t include the words analytics or marketer’s, we could absolutely make that rule, but then we would probably have a hard time getting people to stay in the community.

And so when you start to get down to that granular level of rules, I think that’s when, you know, are people enjoying themselves? Are people meant to enjoy themselves? Is this strictly a professional? You know, like, very corporate, very black and white kind of thing? And for us, it’s not.

But I can definitely see where there are going to be communities that are, you know, nope, you stay on topic, this is not the place for you to not stay on topic.

But you have to make that choice.

And that starts with what is the purpose of the community?

Christopher Penn 18:22


So for a community that is sort of the total Wild West, wind, how do you roll out those new rules? How do you start defining those processes, whether it is a community that you joined, that you have responsibility for now, which is the case for a lot of places I want to discord, or community that you own? You’re starting from scratch like analytics for marketers? How do you start that process of creating both the written rules and the culture.

Katie Robbert 18:54

So the written rules are fairly straightforward, you just write them down, you choose them, and then you start to roll them out.

But then it’s not a one and done, you have to have buy in from your team members, the other moderators who say I will help enforce these rules.

And if you can’t get that kind of agreement, then that’s your number one problem, you first need a team of people, or you know, even if it’s just you, who are willing to take the time, to not only create these rules, but also enforce them to carry them out.

It’s like maintenance, you know, you buy a piece of software, it’s not a one and done, someone then has to maintain it to make sure it’s working, whether that’s minimally like one hour a month, or, you know, every single day.

And so that’s, you know, that’s the first choice that needs to be made of, do you have the time do you have the team to enforce the rules before we even write them? If you don’t, that’s where you need to start.

Then you decide what’s the purpose of the community? And then the rules should all align with here’s the purpose I mean, to your question about, you know, the mission and the values.

That’s a great thing to put in writing.

You know, we don’t believe in hate speech, we do believe in people having fun and you know, having a safe place, those are two pretty good culture drivers.

Because then other things can sort of fall into line, you don’t have to have written rules around how people show up and have fun, everybody is going to do it in a different way.

But as long as they aren’t violating the hate speech rules, they can go ahead and have fun, you don’t need to write down and dictate what that looks like.

Christopher Penn 20:29

And I’ll put in a plug here, again, sounding exactly like you, that ache for your community, put yourself in the community’s shoes.

So as a marketer, I need a safe space, to network with colleagues so that I can ask questions that I don’t want to ask in front of my team or my boss.

That’s one of the user stories we came up with, for analytics for marketers.

And then that key phrase of I need a safe space to ask questions is one of the defining principles.

And so there would be you know, we do stuff like ask questions about pineapple on pizza, in that context with that user story that is totally aligned, because it is a safe space for people to ask questions and network with others, right? It does not detract from that user story.

If we capriciously said, you know, only people who dislike pineapple on pizza are allowed in this community that works against that rule, because now you’re excluding about 40% of the population.

Katie Robbert 21:32

And me, I would no longer be allowed in my own community.

Christopher Penn 21:38


But I think having that those user stories also is helpful because it helps you think about your community from the eyes of a community member.

Katie Robbert 21:50

And that’s, you know, that’s a big part of it is you want to make sure that, at the end of the day, it’s about your community, building a community is it’s like building a team, it’s 100%, not about you, you as the manager, as the owner, are just the person who is making sure everybody else can get their job done.

As a community manager, as the owner of community, your job is kind of like being the cruise director, like your job is to make sure everybody shows up and has fun.

Hi, I’m Julie, I’ll be your cruise director.

But then you just kind of fade into the background and let people do their thing.

You’re you’ve given them their guidelines, you’ve given them the itinerary, you told them what the weather’s gonna be like today, you you know, you’ve pointed them towards the all you can eat buffet, and then you just kind of fade into the background and let them do their thing.

And that’s it.

Like, that’s your job.

And if that, but there’s a lot of work that goes into becoming, you know, having the ability to fade into the background, like there’s so much work that goes into it.

I think that’s the part that people don’t understand is, if it looks like we’re not doing anything, that’s because we are doing everything, but we’re just doing it really well.

Christopher Penn 23:07

And that brings up truth to things from this weekend’s kerfuffle one.

Without that sense of purpose, people kind of feel like, Oh, if we’re not just doing activities, for the sake of doing it, people don’t think we’re doing anything, which is kind of a bit silly.

It’s like, if you’re a farmer, and you’ve weeded the field, and you’ve watered everything and stuff, you don’t have to be out there micromanaging your crops, you just let them kind of do their thing, right.

But the second part that we ran into is some of the team members who are in conflict with each other.

It’s because of ego because they want to be seen as sort of the star and members of the community.

Katie Robbert 23:48

I know it’s a podcast, and people can’t see my face.

But that’s just, that’s dumb.

That’s silly.

You’re doing it wrong.

Christopher Penn 23:56

But to it, that brings up I think, an important consideration for community management, which is, you, it’s difficult to be a community manager and an individual contributor at the same time, because they’re they have conflict, they have conflicts of interest.

Katie Robbert 24:14

It’s the same thing we have about being a team manager and an individual can, you know, contributor, you can do both.

You absolutely can do both.

But you need to set some boundaries around what that looks like.

So when I’m the team manager, this is you know, the things that I’m responsible for when I’m in when I’m an individual contributor.

I’m not managing other people.

I’m just doing my thing, getting it done, and moving on.

And so it’s the same thing with community manager and in individual contributor, you know, Chris, you sort of you act more as an individual contributor in our community, but you are technically one of the community managers.

Fortunately for you, I like being Community Manager and not in the individual contributor, as I like to just sort of like see people do the thing.

And so what I would recommend is see if you can find at least two different people to do those two different things.

If you want to be the Rockstar, don’t be the manager, if you want to fade into the background, don’t try to be the rock star, it’s, you know, you can, you can do both.

But it’s so much cleaner, so much easier.

If you can do one or the other.

Now, again, we can all wear different hats, we can do both roles.

But if you have the opportunity to find different individuals to do the different roles, it’s going to be that much cleaner.

And so Chris, in that discord community that you’re talking about, you know, what’s your preference? Do you want to be the community manager? Or do you want to be the individual contributor,

Christopher Penn 25:54

I am 100%, the community manager, I’ve contributed very little.

And I have no desire to be other than occasionally publishing something here and there.

For the most part, I’m happy to just be the, you know, the the man behind the curtain.

You know, this morning, somebody came in spammed a bunch of stuff and just went in and said, If the band button, okay, they’re gone.

Katie Robbert 26:14

Yeah, that’s why you like it.


Christopher Penn 26:18

But there’s no fanfare, there’s no big announcement, there’s no posturing, it’s like, you’re gone.

And that’s totally appropriate.

For me, I feel like that’s, it’s also a good use of my time, right? Because it takes I can, I can devote 30 seconds a day to the community just to handle administrative stuff and things like that not be the person promoting and being loud about it.

But I think one of the challenges that a community manager would run into when they’re looking for people like that to join the community, as staff members volunteer or not, is that if you are basing your selection process on who is the most vocal and active participant, you are, by definition, choosing someone in a management role, based on individual contributor metrics, and that’s probably not the direction you want to go you if you want people who just are going to stay behind the curtain, and quietly mind the machinery so that the community can flourish on its own.

Choosing someone who’s the loudest person in the community as I feel like there’s a big conflict of interest there.

Katie Robbert 27:26

Ya know, it’s interesting, you know, it, again, it kind of goes back to, you know, what is the purpose of your community? You know, do you want, you know, a cruise director, who is constantly, you know, bringing the fun and the life of the party, and that’s fine.

If you want that person, I wouldn’t also then put them in charge of the admin, because what ends up happening is, then people have a hard time seeing that person as both roles as the fun person and as the Enforcer.

You know, it’s not that they can’t do both, again, it sort of it can happen, but you need to set those expectations up front of, I’m going to bring the party, but I’m also going to tell you when the party is over.

So you know, I don’t know, Chris, I kind of feel like I am that person.

Christopher Penn 28:19

Well, we that roll.

Katie Robbert 28:21

Yeah, it’s the other thing with that is I think it depends on how big the community is.

But there is such a thing as too many people in charge.

And it sounds like, you know, everybody wants like, you know, their 15 minutes of fame.

They’re a little piece of glory there, you know, spotlight on the stage.

Maybe this isn’t the right forum for them, maybe this isn’t the right way for them to go ahead and try to get that fame.

Because you already have 10 Other people trying to run a single community, you don’t need that many people running it unless you have millions and millions of people from all over the world in a community.

I’m going to take a wild guess to say that’s not how big this discord community is.

It might be big, but I don’t know that you need that many people trying to be in charge that is just that’s never going to work because of all the egos.

Christopher Penn 29:15

So it is a community of 950 people.

Oh my goodness with three administrators and seven moderators,

Katie Robbert 29:20

you don’t need that many people.

You really don’t.

We have 3000 people in analytics for marketers.

And we have basically two admin slash moderators.



And it’s fine.

Christopher Penn 29:40

It is fine to it.

In fairness, a good chunk of those folks are like sort of individual cruise directors have their own have their own little section like one person is in charge of the music section.

Once person is charged that video section one person is charged with like the writing contest section so it’s not like it’s a it’s a free for all for everything, but there definitely is.

It definitely is a little top heavy.

Katie Robbert 30:05

And that’s when you know, to go to back to one of your original questions about culture.

That’s when you see, you know, in companies or communities in this case, the culture starts to get really murky, because it is to top it to top Have you have too many people trying to steer the ship? And not enough passengers who wanted to get on the boat in the first place?

Christopher Penn 30:30

Yeah, so it sounds like for people who are interested in building these private social media communities, you absolutely do need rules.

And it’s something we talked about, you can download it in our free paper on the topic, on the Trust Insights website.

And having those defined rules is important.

Having an org chart and, and job descriptions is a really important thing, just to say like, here’s what, here’s what is needed, here’s what needs to happen.

And here’s who’s doing it.

And then at that mission and vision that says here’s the guiding principles that we that this community exists for a reason, so that we can make decisions effectively, you know, whether it’s two moderators or 20, if we know the purpose, right, though, the first part of the five fees, if we know the purpose, then we can align all of our decisions around that.

Katie Robbert 31:21

And I would say, you know, based on what you’re describing, Chris, I think there is some value in having both internal and external rules.

You know, maybe you have some guidelines around.

And here’s how we, as all the moderators have to make decisions, now we have to make decisions by committee.

Yeah, that sounds super painful.

But you might weed out some people who don’t want to do that.

And that’s great, because you don’t need that many moderators, you know, but setting some expectations internally that people don’t see, you know, externally, the community members don’t see, here’s how decisions get made.

Here’s how we put together Ed Cal, here’s how we decide the activities or the channels or whatever the thing is, I think that’s that would be a really smart thing to do.

You know, but again, that goes back to who the heck is in charge? Who’s owning the community so that those things can be put in place? And if you can’t get to that answer, then you know, none of this is ever going to come together.

Christopher Penn 32:19


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