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?