The Quora Crisis: How Long Can the Center Hold?

The buzz surrounding Charlie Cheever’s abrupt departure from Quora and the successive public relations blunders of his former colleagues has grabbed the attention of Twitter, tech blogs and Quora users themselves. The criticism of Quora that dominates these expressions seems to have unmasked an unpleasant reality largely unspoken in the Quora community.

For reasons that seem unfathomable, Quora has resorted to public relations tactics that have consistently failed— media blackouts and Nixonian stonewalling—while insiders insist that it’s simply “nobody’s business.” According to one source, a company spokesperson from Quora told Gigaom that Quora “would not be providing any further information on the matter.” On September 11th, Techcrunch said, “We’ll be updating as we hear more.” We are still waiting.

In the meantime, an image of Cheever being burned at the stake is making its way around the Internet, and inside Quora some users are answering, “What’s the most fantastic fanfiction you can come up with as to why Charlie Cheever is leaving Quora?” Charlie Cheever Status topic questions are mounting, and the Quora Community topic is getting questions about a possible buyout.

Several people have observed the obvious fact that the timing of Adam D’Angelo’s announcement on September 11th was in poor taste. That has led to speculation among users that the decision came swiftly and without warning. As of today, the question, “Which other Quora employees are leaving because of Charlie Cheever’s departure?,” has been answered just once: “Charlie Cheever.”

Additionally, users are wondering, “How is Quora enforcing silence on Charlie Cheever’s departure?” The top answer here is written by a user who prefaces with, “I don’t work at Quora,” and includes the following:

I suspect that the standard non-disclosure of private company information that’s in most contracts covers this. What’s more, a Quora employee will be aware that the Anon function is hardly going to protect them in this case.

In response, a Quora admin comments, “I am convinced that Quora would not break the absolute privacy of the anon identity to discover a leak among its employees.” Quora admins are privy to the real identity of anonymous users; this is but one reason why an employee might not risk leaking information on the site.

In another Quora question, “How is Charlie Cheever’s exit going to affect Quora as a product and its users?,” the only answer is by an anon user who writes:

Charlie has asked 50% more questions than Adam, answered twice as many questions as Adam, follows twice as many topics, follows six times as many people, and has three times as many boards.

Charlie is simply a more engaged and active user of Quora as it is today, and has a better handle on the site’s user base. Charlie’s departure is a blow, perhaps a death-blow, against the site that we know and love today, and is a harbinger of future change at Quora, whether that’s a departure from the current mission or a full-fledged self-immolation like a sale to Yahoo.

Many Quorans are rattled by Charlie’s departure, but have nowhere to turn for answers. Meanwhile, the core remains in denial or purposely silent. Charlie made contributions to the site on a near daily basis. But since the 11th of September, Charlie’s profile has been inactive. At least a few users don’t expect to hear from him again.

Despite the upheaval, vapid questions such as these are making the rounds on Quora this week: “Who are the most charming Quora users?” Indeed, it seems Quora narcissism has overtaken tech as the most asked question topic in recent months. Following Quora topics often means scrolling through a stream of questions such as, “How would you complete this joke: ‘A Quoran walks into a bar…?’” Most insiders have their own topic categories.

Such an obsessive focus on oneself destroys the bonds that unite the larger Quora community. The playground obviously needs a few more monitors who actually pay attention to that wider community, not just themselves, and the consistent application of supposed community-wide standards.

Consider also, the Be Nice policy, which is more honored in the breach than the observance. One Quora reviewer, for example, rails against potential abusers—insisting on bans rather than blocks for first-time offenders and that all of their content be deleted. Yet here, she calls one active contributor “sexist,” “net punk,” “troll,” and “child.” Along these lines, “How can I become an asshole?” is a prominent question with the top answer penned by one of Quora’s finest. No matter how one defines “nice,” this vitriol cannot qualify.

From a business perspective, many have pointed out that the Facebook model doesn’t work for Quora. While many Facebook and Twitter users are heavily invested in their virtual communities, Quora has the potential for even deeper engagement and richer community. One might argue that Quora’s at-large community is its greatest asset and could make the site stand apart from all others. It could be a contemporary WELL, which is also rooted in San Francisco and one of the first virtual communities, a term coined by WELL user, Howard Rheingold.

Describing the WELL in “A Slice of Life in My Virtual Community,” Rheingold, critic, writer and teacher of modern communication media, says:

I have found that enthusiastic members of virtual communities in Japan, England, and the US agree that “increasing the diversity of their circle of friends” was one of the most important advantages of computer conferencing.

Rheingold also speaks of an unwritten, social contract of reciprocity among people who have a mixture of motives. People do things for one another out of a spirit of building something between them—a “marriage of altruism and self-interest,” rather than a “spreadsheet-calculated quid pro quo.”

Sadly, most Quorans find that model of little use, and the community concept seems to connote the more sterile-sounding user-base. On Quora, a core of insiders often decides what is considered wit, correct language use and currency of knowledge for the rest of the community. They implement their biases by using several tactics, one of which is collapsing answers—even those with a very high number of upvotes.

Such an approach is ultimately self-destructive because Quora’s success may in fact depend on its wider community, not infusions of capital (which have been plentiful). By not realizing this fundamental truth, Quora has irreparably damaged itself. Its handling of natural curiosity and calls for explanations regarding Cheever’s resignation further emphasize a glaring lack of public relations prowess, even awareness. At this point, many are questioning whether there will ever be a return on investment.

Quora has been struggling to find a balance between adding new features to widen its user base and maintaining a quality standard for the site as a whole. Some users believe that D’Angelo and Cheever had very different philosophies about how to find that balance. Moderation claims to be working tirelessly to sift through the riff-raff that these aggressive features invite.

Quora’s identity crisis is not new, but it just got a lot a whole lot worse.

Also Read: Why Quora Won’t Scale

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