In Praise of the Forums

Forum thread moderator resolution menuI go to a lot of WordCamps and meet WordPress users in person, I get a lot of email, and I monitor several official WordPress twitter accounts in addition to my personal one. Through all these channels, the most common question is not, “How do I become a contributor,” or, “How do I get more traffic to my site,” it’s “Where do I go for help with WordPress?” Little do they know that the answer to the latter is the answer to all: the Support Forums.

When I tell people (in person, via email, over Twitter) to head to the support forums, they often reply with annoyance. They want immediate one-on one assistance, phone help, me to rebuild their site and get them more traffic….. oops, tangent. The point is, people who don’t come from an old school web background mistrust the forum format. Their concerns:

  • No one will answer my question
  • How do I know they know what they are talking about
  • I will look dumb asking my question in public
  • Someone is going to scam me

This morning there was an example that made me think about how much better public support is than private.

  1. Bill asked his question in the forums about a Publicize notice appearing in his self-hosted dashboard.
  2. esmi (volunteer forum moderator) saw the forum post and replied within an hour.
  3. Bill clarified something in a reply, also within an hour.
  4. Nighttime. Sleep.
  5. In morning, esmi sees the reply and says she will ask around to find an answer.
  6. esmi emails the wp-forums list at 7:12am to see if other moderators have seen the bug/have any idea what’s causing it.
  7. I reply to list at 7:21am suggesting it may be Jetpack-related, and comment on the forum thread asking Bill for his URL (because then we could View Source) and whether he uses Jetpack.
  8. I post to an internal blog (7:31am) at Automattic for the team that makes Jetpack, noting the behavior and asking if they know what’s up.
  9. Westi (lead WP dev) sees my internal blog post and pings me in IRC at 7:33am to ask for more info, agrees it’s likely a Jetpack bug.
  10. Westi and I both leave additional comments on the internal blog (7:36am and 7:38 am, respectively) for Greg, the lone Jetpack team member who’s not en route to Lisbon for a WordCamp/team meetup.
  11. Greg replies to us at 9:34am (he’s in a time zone an hour behind me) and gets to work on fixing the bug.
  12. At 10:36am Greg posts to the internal blog with a link to the changeset that has his bugfix.
  13. Greg then posts to Bill’s original thread apologizing for the bug and notifying him that it is fixed.

Granted, this doesn’t happen with every thread, or even most of them. Most of the time the volunteer moderators are able to answer things on their own. But when they can’t, the moderators know exactly how to get the attention of the right people, and those people give them that attention because the moderators have earned trust — their requests for help are not seen as noise, but as a valuable community resource.

Little did Mr. Bill realize that when he asked his question he would get the attention of an experienced moderator, the UX lead, a lead developer, and one of the Jetpack developers all at once. And thanks to him asking that question in the public .org forums, the right people were pulled in, and the bug was fixed right away.

So, back to those concerns.

  • No one will answer my question. Well, first you should use the search box and see if they’ve already answered it for someone (or some hundred) before you. Then you don’t have to wait at all. If you do post a thread, it will most likely get an answer pretty quickly (or at least a request for more information to allow volunteers to troubleshoot).
  • How do I know they know what they are talking about? If someone is labeled as a moderator, keymaster, core team member, etc., they know what they are talking about. Other volunteers may also offer help. Usually additional people will weigh in to say if their advice is correct or not.
  • I will look dumb asking my question in public. No, you won’t. We all start somewhere, and the first question you ask in the forums should be a mark of pride: you’re learning how to do something new! And while I encourage this bravery, some people are just too shy to ask. With almost 60 million WordPress installs worldwide, I guarantee you are not the only one with your issue/bug. Asking in the public forums means other people can benefit from the answer as well.
  • Someone is going to scam me. No one who is official in the forums will ever ask for your admin password, for money, or for sketchy personal details. If someone does, please add the modlook tag to your thread so we can check them out and correct the behavior (if they just didn’t understand the rules) or ban them (if they are scammers/spammers).

Oh, and as for those other questions people tend to ask me that also can be answered with the forums…..

How do I become a contributor? You can start by helping people in the forums! This is a great way to give back even if you’re not an expert yet, because there’s almost always something you’ve learned already that someone else hasn’t. If you’re a developer, it will also help you find bugs to fix. Helping people in the forums with consistency and accuracy builds your reputation with the core team, and gives you an “in” with the powers that be. Having a close connection to WordPress users via volunteering in the forums gives you insight into the way people use the product and what bugs or workflow issues need the most help, which will help you focus on the most important things to improve in core.

How do I get more traffic to my site? Well, you can specify your site URL in your forums profile, and it will be linked from your name in your forum replies. If you give helpful answers in the forums, people will tend to click that link to learn more about your awesomeness.

And a bonus tip if you are a WP freelancer or run a WP-based business: Paying one or more of your employees to spend some time helping in the forums (and/or contributing to core with patches) is a smart idea for several reasons:

  1. Your company will suddenly know a lot more about the needs of the WordPress community and can address them better with your products/services.
  2. You’re investing in the platform that powers your business.
  3. You gain reputation — both bragging rights and core team appreciation and respect.
  4. Clients like to hire people/companies that have their hands in the actual project, because they feel more secure knowing that you will always be ahead of the curve and know the codebase better than your non-contributing competition.

So! Asking questions in the forums? Win-win. Answering questions in the forums? Win-win-win. All hail the forums, and the amazing efforts of volunteer moderators like esmi, Ipstenu, alchymythandrea_r, samboll, and zoonini,  and active volunteers like kmessinger, Rev Voodoocgrymala, crondeau, and danhgilmore.* The next time I write a post like this, I hope your name will be listed here!

*This list is based on activity I see on the wp-forums list, a tweet asking for recommendations, and a quick query on posting activity. We really need to start gathering stats on forum activity. What kind of activity levels do these guys have? Here are the top five posters and how many posts they’ve made to the forums in the past 3 months:

  • esmi: 8514
  • Ipstenu: 4432
  • alchymyth: 2018
  • andrea_r: 1385
  • kmessinger: 1074

Remember, you don’t need to put in this much time to make a difference. Having a goal of helping one person a day, or even per week would make a big impact if everyone did it. Happy helping!