More Power in the Hands of WordPress Support Forum Users

What level of control should users have over their WordPress support forum topics? That is the question at the heart of a recent discussion opened by Mika Epstein on the Make Support blog. The goal is to grant more power to users, particularly when they post private or privileged information to the public forums.

The proposal is twofold. One idea is to give users total control over deleting or “archiving” topics they create. This would remove it from public view at least. The second part of the equation would extend the amount of time users have to edit their topics.

Currently, users can edit topics for one hour after posting. For the most part, this is reasonable. However, there are some cases where users inadvertently post sensitive data and need to remove it later. After their hour is up, the only solution for editing is to contact a forum moderator, increasing the burden on the WordPress support team. The easiest solution is to increase the length of time to edit.

The big downside to editing topics is that they can be changed so much that replies are out of context. This can make discussions, particularly, lengthier ones with more replies, hard to follow. However, given the nature of the WordPress forums being for support instead of long-form discussion, increasing the time-to-edit should not hurt. It should help users fix mistakes and lighten the load on forum moderators. There are proposals for increasing the limit between three to seven days.

In general, I am supportive of increasing the time-to-edit for forum topics. There is some room for abuse of the system, but such abuse will not likely outweigh the benefits. However, the ability to delete a topic does not sit well with me.

I see the problem. WordPress’s user base has changed over the past decade. The average user from 10 years ago was tech-savvy enough to not drop private info — or info they are not legally allowed to share — into public forums. The game has changed. Users are no longer webmasters, running every aspect of their sites. They are using one-click installs to launch software they have no technical knowledge of. They do not know the difference between a debug log and server info. This is not a bad thing — the more WordPress users the more we inch toward that democratize-publishing goal. However, the makeup of WordPress’s users has shifted drastically to a point where many may not realize they are posting information they shouldn’t.

The burden ultimately falls on forum moderators. They do all the cleanup, and it is likely overwhelming at times to keep up. It is a decision that should probably fall into their hands.

One of the catalysts for this discussion was a forum topic from last week. “Someone had posted information that isn’t exactly ‘private’ but could land them in legal trouble for sharing,” wrote Epstein. “They did so by posting a debug log that had information that probably should not be public.”

The WordPress support system has had a long-standing, in-house rule of not deleting posts except under extreme circumstances. However, the proposal would allow users to delete their own topics at any time.

I dislike the idea of removing support forum topics. The best form of support is to already have a question answered. This gives others the ability to search and find the answer to their own questions. It allows moderators to link to existing answers for repeat questions. Allowing users to remove topics means that others could miss out on free knowledge.

I ran a plugin and theme support forum for over a decade. It racked up hundreds of thousands of posts. I personally answered every question or made sure that each was answered by someone else. Over the years, the forums became a wealth of knowledge because, except in those extreme circumstances, no topic was ever deleted. Granted, my support burden was far lighter than that of the WordPress support moderators. However, past forum topics were an important tool in the arsenal.

Moreso than my time running support, I have relied on past support forum topics for my edification throughout the years. Rarely has there been a time I have needed an answer that I could not find through a basic support search. No need to hassle others with my already-answered questions.

I dislike the idea of deleting knowledge.

Of course, we must weigh this against privacy. I doubt many users would take advantage of the ability to delete their topics. In those rare cases when they do, I imagine they will have a good reason for doing so, such as hiding information they no longer want to share publicly. Still, the idea does not sit well with me. I want a balance of retaining knowledge while removing personal data.

I do have respect for privacy. There are steps WordPress.org could take. Users should absolutely be able to remove their own accounts from WordPress.org. Currently, they can remove any personal data from their profile, which is essentially the same thing. The one problem with this is if their username, which cannot be changed, identifies the person (e.g., I use justintadlock for many online accounts).

I would still take this the extra step and allow users to completely delete their accounts. This would be a clean sweep, ensuring they did not accidentally miss something when clearing out their profile. After doing so, their former topics in the forums should simply be assigned to an anonymous account. It doesn’t matter who created a particular topic, only that the content still exists.

What steps do you think WordPress.org should take to provide end-users more agency over their support topics?

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14 responses to “More Power in the Hands of WordPress Support Forum Users”

  1. Personally I love the idea of being able to edit my support forum replies indefinitely, rather than just an hour after posting. Often an old support forum post may be providing obsolete advice, and it is not possible to edit it to alert users of that fact. Adding a new reply to the topic may not be helpful since there may be multiple pages of replies. I want to be able to edit my old replies and make use of that DEL button to mark up advice that should no longer be followed.

    Another example is an FAQ topic that gets stuck to the forum. We may add a bunch of FAQs to that topic and then in a month another question gets frequently asked. Currently we have to unstick the first topic and then create a new one that copies all the old questions and adds the new ones in a brand new support topic that then gets stuck to the forum. Having the ability to edit old topics will solve this problem.

    Maybe there also should be a way for users to level-up to obtain the privileges of editing their topics at any time. If a user has a long history of being a responsible forum participant, they would be more trustworthy of that power. Brand new users should perhaps have a trial period where they have only have an hour window to make edits, and after that, allow them to edit

    • I thought about the FAQ example about five minutes after posting this. As a plugin developer, I have created sticky topics several times in the past to inform users of stuff. I’d have to create a new reply instead of editing the topic each time. And, eventually (I think one year), the topic gets closed.

      I like the idea of getting more control/responsibility as you level up.

    • Wow, the support team sure is in the wind of late 😆

      I totally agree there’s more we could do for authors here, unrelated to the current topic (the current topic is primarily about all users), but I have been brainstorming some thoughts around authors, and mentioned them in slack discussions, they’ve just not been given their own post like this as of yet.

      But I would like to open up to allow authors a bit more control of their own day to day, the ability to close their own topics (not other users topics, because unfortunately that would be abused), reply to old reviews (users can update their review at any time, but nobody can reply to them if they were originally written more than a year ago, I view this as a bug my self), and I’m very open to hearing other thoughts and ideas around this.

      Authors already have the ability to pin their own topics at least, so the underlying system is in place to allow for these things.\

    • This is already a thing, if you choose to send in a data erasure request, your forum account will be anonymized (granted, your post content will remain), this has been in place for a while now, although I don’t know how widely known it is.

  2. I think Americans should un-learn what data is. Here in the European Union we have certain data laws that protect the data that we have created. No company can place itself above the law. Upon GDPR I have the right to protect any personal identifiable data by requesting erasure or request full download. None of that is present on WordPress.org, you have a form that is not working most of the times. You don’t even list a legally compliant entity there responsible for handling that, nor a proper Privacy Policy or GDPR disclosure. In terms of the law WP.org is not legally compliant in the European Union.

    Everyone should be able to request to see what data is managed there, to download it or to erase it [erase doesn’t mean archive]. Anyone should be able to delete his account as well [not disable/deactivate it]. On the other side – everyone who sees his personal identifiable information there exposed – email address, postal address, IP, name, other personal identifiable data, should be able to request deletion of it.

    None of that is present on the current WP.org. You have a weird legal entity connection where Automattic people are responsible for WP.org moderation, but the Automattic.com support team says they won’t handle anything related to .org. Then you have a WordCamp email to address GDPR and privacy issues.

    In accordance with the European laws you have to have a clear legal entity listed there with all details – legal name, legal entity postal address, email etc. This entity should be responsible for handling the legal requests from people that are protected under the GDPR law. None of that is there, not even a GDPR privacy policy form.

    These things were all setup in a way that purposely confuse and diluted responsibility. A global product should upheld the laws of the countries where it is distributed, not just the US law. Here in EU we place the law above corporations, companies and foundations. No privacy policy ot terms of use could breach the law.

    The WP.org site doesn’t even have a cookie consent which is mandatory from many years in the European Union, the UK [their own laws] and other countries.

    Americans should wake up, we don’t all live in their country, we have laws and regulations here and if they want to distribute their software and services in other countries and unions, they should follow the laws of these places where they conduct business.

    It seems like the team behind WP.org is completely filled with only US lawyers who have no idea of the EU laws or the international law and principles.

    Don’t worry, the European Commission would come after them as well.

    • For the record, I was born and raised in Europe (Cyprus to be precise), and now live in California.

      My servers are in the US (Arizona to be exact). So when anybody from overseas arrives at my website which includes Europeans, they “digitally” have to cross the Atlantic ocean and enter the US and purchase my products and services. Therefore the transactions are happening in the US and not Europe, thus any laws that should apply are US laws and that’s it. Therefore, it’s up to EU then to impose import taxes on their citizens, and not impose export taxes on the US based businesses.

      Besides all that, what makes the EU think that it has any jurisdiction over any US based businesses that has no physical presence in Europe? Is the EU that naive or stupid to think that they can force me to pay any taxes to them under any circumstance? I don’t leave in Europe, my business and servers are not in Europe, and yet these socialist/semi-communist clowns think they can “colonize” me and digitally make me their “digital slave”… what a joke !

      But I do agree with you on one point… we (at least I) simply don’t care about your laughable, unrealistic, over reaching laws. So, what are you going to do about it? Before you get “tribal” again, remember, I am from Europe myself !

  3. My observation (made in German language WordPress forums) is that there are many not-quite-so-competent “webmasters” around looking for help in topics that they do not really master.

    Right after having gotten competent help and/or a working solution for their problem, they want to have the whole thread (including the solution) deleted in order to hide the fact that they were looking for help in the first place. They obviously do not want to see their “limited competence” displayed in public.

    I’m afraid that allowing forum users to edit (or even delete) their postings over a longer period of time would probably result in more obscurity than in more accessible knowledge…

  4. According to my own research of WordPress.org activity, just in the last 2 months there have been 53,000 new support threads just for plugins. So that’s ~880 new support threads per day. The number of comments is probably 5-10x.

    That’s about the volume of content that forum moderators have to… moderate :)

    My research that also contains data about the support forums activity:
    https://www.ilovewp.com/blog/state-of-themes-and-plugins-wordpress-2020/

  5. Remember that time that the entire Woocommerce user support forum was removed? I think it was when Automatic acquired Woo. There was so much good info there! I was literally in the middle of a project and using a question thread one day and then the next it was gone.
    I know it’s not likely to happen but I think some sort of rating system of quality of questions would be nice. I used to go to the forums and try to help with my limited knowledge but it got old answering the same questions because people were too lazy to do a 10 second search for their question.

  6. Pushing for more edit options would be a fair start, but on the long run views are bound to tilt towards giving more power to WP-forum users. The reasons have been brilliantly delineated in your article, and culling information for public consumption sure needs expert handling. I’m open to different views though.

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