Anecdotal examples are nice and all, but here's the real question: to what extent can individual communities/sites override network policies? To what extend should they be able to do so?
Well, they can override them to a fairly large extent, because the entire system is designed around community enforcement of these standards. And they should: if the community doesn't establish their own standards and buy into ours, they won't enforce any of them. As Robert notes, we provide plenty of guidance, but each community must make it their own - and during that process, each site develops a bit of local flavor. Some sites are extremely strict as to form and topic, others are considerably more flexible. And that's ok...
Ignoring the rules
One of our primary strategies for building Stack Exchange has always been to learn from those who have gone before us, borrowing what has worked elsewhere while trying to avoid the mistakes we’ve observed there. USENET, wikiHow, Experts Exchange and countless flat forums all have something for us to learn from. Out of these forebears, I find myself more and more frequently looking to Wikipedia for inspiration (and cautionary tales); after all, this venerable community has been dealing with the trials and tribulations of serving a large and disparate userbase for a long time now. Among their myriad rules and policies, can be found this meta-policy:
If a rule prevents you from improving or maintaining Wikipedia, ignore it.
What a wonderfully subversive bit of guidance, eh? Kinda turns all the rest of the rules into sort of an idiot test, right?
Well, no. Rather than granting the reader carte blanche, it serves as a reminder that these rules exist for a purpose - and that it is wise to keep focused on this purpose rather than the rules themselves. In fine Wikipedia tradition, there exists another page to explain the rule (with a series of lists, of course), in which can be found these key points:
- Don't follow written instructions mindlessly, but rather, consider how the encyclopedia is improved or damaged by each edit
- Rules derive their power to compel not from being written down on a page labeled "guideline" or "policy", but from being a reflection of the shared opinions and practices of many editors
- Most rules are ultimately descriptive, not prescriptive; they describe existing current practice. They sometimes lag behind the practices they describe
I think that sums up how most of the policies on Stack Exchange should be viewed: not as inscrutable edicts handed down from on high, but as advice based on experience - things folks have tried and found to work or... not work... and the policies we've observed these communities enforcing as a result. For instance,
- Want a bunch of lists of recommendations? Be warned that they’ve led to the death of at least one site, and bitter arguments on many more. If you're trying to attract experts, then focus on questions that require some sort of expertise to answer.
- Want help shopping for equipment? If that equipment has the lifespan of a mayfly, you’re just gonna end up with piles of rotting, useless, obsolete answers to clean up.
- Want answers to very subjective questions? Demand that those answers are backed up with facts and experiences, or you’ll just end up with a bunch of flame-wars.
A community expresses its preferences by their actions on the site: which questions get answered, which questions get closed / flagged / down-voted. Meta discussions are used to coordinate these actions and communicate consensus within the community and to outsiders - thus, a rule on Stack Exchange generally takes the form of a problem statement and a proposed solution which is then applied.
You can ignore the rules, but you can't ignore the problems that led to their creation; not if your goal is to produce great answers to real problems at least. Oh, yeah - and that does have to be your goal...
We're still not building a Ute
Obviously there are some invariables - we’re building Q&A sites here, not discussion forums or service directories; no matter how much you might want Aww.SE, we're just not building a truck here, and we're not gonna let you use our shoes to drive nails. That's why, even on sites with elected moderators, we'll occasionally step in to remind folks what the purpose of these sites are, and try to refocus them on that goal.