Project Telemetry Is On Hold, But Does WordPress Really Need To Gather Data From Its Users

Project TelemetryWordPress supports millions of websites used by hundreds of millions of people. When Matt Mullenweg first released WordPress, it was — as is true of much open source software — designed to scratch his particular itch. He wanted a better tool for blogging than was available at the time, and so he made one. Over the course of more than a decade, the same basic motivations have shaped WordPress development. The features added to WordPress are the features that developers want and that they think users might want.

The problem with approaching development from a top-down perspective is that WordPress’ developers may be wrong about what users want. Think about your WordPress site. How many of its features do you use? Which features would you like to see added? When deciding where to focus development — which features to add and which to remove — the WordPress developers have made good decisions, but without hard data about how WordPress is used, it’s impossible to know if better decisions could be made and where to invest scarce developer resources.

Morten Rand-Hendriksen, a WordPress developer, expresses the problem like this:

“WordPress prides itself on being an application built by the user for the user. The problem is with the popularity and reach of WordPress today, the distance between the WordPress 1% (or even .1%) and the average user is becoming so vast we (the people who contribute to WordPress core) know almost nothing about the actual people who use WordPress or how they use the application.”

Last October, Hendricksen proposed a solution. The WordPress Telemetry proposal suggested that the best way to discover how WordPress is used is to collect data from the millions of WordPress installations around the world. The “big data” could be analyzed to provide insights into what users want and what they don’t.

WordPress Telemetry, as proposed, would be disabled by default, but presented to the site owner on installation or update. The code would collect anonymized usage data, which would be aggregated so that it couldn’t be connected to individual sites.

When I heard about WordPress Telemetry, my first thought was that privacy-concerned WordPress developers would react with horror, but leading voices in the WordPress world approved for the most part. They recognize one of the best ways to stop WordPress falling into irrelevance is to understand what its users want. It’s worth noting that almost every application includes similar data gathering code because it’s so useful to developers.

As things stand, it seems unlikely that WordPress Telemetry will happen in the form suggested by the proposal. Matt Mullenweg, CEO of Automattic and WordPress lead developer, rejected the proposal on the grounds that it didn’t fit with his newly introduced areas of focus. He intends all WordPress development during 2017 to focus on three areas, and data gathering and user research isn’t part of the master plan.

Nevertheless, I’d like to take the temperature of WordPress users on the issue of data gathering: do you think the collection of data about the real-world use of WordPress should be a priority?

Matthew Davis is a technical writer and Linux geek for Future Hosting.

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