Why Quora Won’t Scale

Quora is buzzing with speculation regarding the sudden departure of one of its founders, Charlie Cheever, only four months after the company received an infusion of $50 million.  In an answer to the question entitled, Charlie Cheever: What is Charlie Cheever’s status at Quora as of September 11th, 2012?, Adam D’Angelo, Cheever’s ex-partner and Quora cofounder, said, “We decided it was best for Charlie to step away from his day-to-day role at the company.” Users immediately called out D’Angelo for his use of PR speak and, specifically, his “we decided” language.  The use of such an impersonal, bland cliché naturally causes the reader to wonder whether Charlie was simply fired.

In fact, the first commenter’s post received more upvotes than D’Angelo’s answer itself, having stated that: “If you can’t give a transparent, honest answer, please just say so – it’s totally understandable. But there’s a weird hypocrisy about encouraging Quora to be a place where this type of response is frowned upon and then giving one yourself.”

Nor has Quora offered any response to the plethora of posts asking for clarification. For example, one of them asks that Quora team members confirm that Charlie Cheever’s departure does not mean that Quora is about to be acquired.   No authoritative answer has been forthcoming.  However, an anonymous source posted that Charlie was forced out because of his resistance to more additions of aggressive new features implemented by D’Angelo to push growth, and perhaps to sell Quora. His post was swiftly deleted by an administrator who called it a ‘hoax.’

While this news might be surprising to some, many others could have predicted it. For many months now, many have expressed concerns that Quora’s admins and reviewers have been running amok, with little or no oversight.

Why Quora Won’t Scale
Quora is a hybrid between a Q&A and social networking site, which “aims to be the easiest place to write new content and share content from the web.” The Silicon Valley startup has been hailed as the next big thing in social media, but growth is sluggish and users are in revolt.

The Spiral of Silence
According to the Spiral of Silence media theory, people tend to remain silent when they feel that their views are in the minority. The model is based on three premises: 1) people have a “quasi-statistical organ,” which allows them to know the prevailing public opinion, even without access to polls; 2) people have a fear of isolation and know what behaviors will increase their likelihood of being socially isolated; and 3) people are reticent to express their minority views, primarily due to fear of being isolated.

The closer a person believes that his or her opinion is similar to the prevailing public opinion, the more they are willing to disclose that opinion publicly. As the perceived distance between public opinion and a person’s personal opinion grows, the more unlikely the person is to express their opinion.

Quora Encourages the Spiral
Quora still exists primarily in its Silicon Valley echo chamber. The users who wield the most power seem intent on keeping it that way. Too often, once users outside that inner circle begin to make a mark — such as garnering deserved up votes too easily, or by questioning methodology and moderation — a backlash quickly ensues.  The less powerful users find themselves down voted to the point of having their answers collapsed into oblivion.  Then, they are aggressively pursued and forced to defend their subsequent contributions.

Once a user is pegged by the core, adding even the most innocuous of answers invites, at least, a mass of down votes.  At worst, such innocent behavior yields a comment stream of accusations and insults or causes the user to be blocked or banned without explanation. Even when valid research is cited, the insiders will dispute it, accusing the user of spreading misinformation.  Of course, such behavior undermines the stated goal of spreading knowledge. For example, one user with a broad fan base has described the New York Times as “sensationalist.” Self-interest trumps objective analysis on Quora.

Quora insiders are made up of its early adopters, beta testers, employees, admins, and reviewers. When tech enthusiast Robert Scoble signed-on to Quora, he garnered the highest number of followers and quickly rose to top answerer in the technology category. Almost immediately, Scoble was chastised in a scathing post by insider Dan Kaplan, entitled, Sorry, Scoble, This Isn’t Your Playground.  The insider’s motivation seems obvious.  Here, the simple fact is that Quora’s own methodology of importing a user’s social graph was to blame for his perceived threat to the core.

Retaliatory Conduct on Quora
Similarly, a Quora administrator quickly pointed to one user’s answer as being the same as another user’s answer to the same question, who also happens to be an admin. The admin’s answer has been up voted to the highest position. The difference is that the user in question cited the original source whereas the admin did not. After the user contested this publicly, the admin simply updated his answer at the bottom to include the original source, continuing to insist that his answer was an invention of his own imagination and the resemblance to the source simply coincidental. The answer submitted by the user who cited the original source has been subsequently collapsed, and the user blocked.

Contradictory and hypocritical behaviors abound on Quora, starting with its aim “to be the easiest place to write new content and share content from the web.” One insider responded to a new user’s initial impressions by telling her, “You are bringing a knife to a gunfight.” There is nothing easy about Quora when a user, quite innocently, steps on the toes of one of its core members.

When insiders employ humor, it is considered wit, but humorous and creative entries by others are collapsed due to claimed irrelevance. Many active users outside the core compare the atmosphere to that of high school – with cliques and pecking orders. Attempts to question flawed methodologies such as strategic up voting, transparency in down voting (at least one Quora admin belongs to a secret down voting cabal comprised of insiders), the ad hoc application of the ironically-named “Be Nice” policy, haphazard application of editing standards and moderation, either provoke a swift, negative response or are ignored.

Regarding the current debate on Quora surrounding transparency in down voting, Quora has remained silent. One active community member, Neil Russo, writes, “I can’t believe the powers-that-be don’t see how this policy undermines the integrity of Quora itself.”

According to Fred Landis, who has over 3,500 answers on Quora, “I have been repeating that the single most obvious flaw in this site is that not only is there anonymous downvoting but administrators have no way of identifying cases of obvious malice or disruptive intent.” He also points to Stewart Brand’s interview with Wired when he says, “The worst mistake made on the WELL was allowing anonymity.”

It is also interesting to note that Reddit, often disparaged around the Quorasphere, has the same policy regarding down vote anonymity.

Quora has declined to comment on users’ claims of misconduct and a question about the possibility that its power users are keeping the site from growing.

Quora is Authoritarian and Elitist
Quora administrators (admins) are also quick to remind users that Quora is not a democracy. Indeed, Quora operates much like a dictatorship by censoring, blocking and banning users from adding content in an attempt to silence dissenting opinion, or maintain an insider’s position as the leading authority on any given subject. Yet discriminatory questions based on broad stereotypes are left untouched, such as Why do Black People like Grape Juice? and Why do Lesbians Wear Men’s Jeans?

Additionally, admins and moderators use topic categories strategically, either to render a question invisible or to promote a question based on self-interest. Most often tagged are questions regarding widespread, underhanded practices by insiders.  The tag takes the form of censures, such as Questions that Contain Assumptions, Needs Attention (which renders the question nearly invisible) and Rhetorical Questions. But questions like, Why do Americans hate the French? are considered “unassuming.”

There are obvious ethical implications of ranking people based on quality, however that subjective term is defined. Indeed, the system itself gives unfair advantage to insiders. One insider recently described PeopleRank this way, “given the mass of down votes [he] was getting on comments and other places, [he] didn’t have to be down voted for individual answers. PeopleRank is dynamic, and given enough down voting, [his] default buoyancy on a page would have been growing lower all across the board.” (Or rather all across Quora, for all [his] answers.) Hence, when the herd swoops in on someone with down votes for disingenuous reasons, a user is essentially discredited around the entire site and unable to gain visibility thereafter, no matter how insightful his or her posts may be.

Other Tactics Used to Preserve Quora Hierarchy
Insiders insult and bully users into obscurity and even brag about intimidating them into leaving Quora altogether. Admins have blocked creative contributors or those who make general observations of injustices citing violations of the Be Nice policy, and send dire-sounding warnings to active and popular contributors who pose an apparent threat to the insiders.

Although most of Quora’s newest, most interesting and intelligent contributors live outside the United States, questions about internationalization and multilingualism receive little more than lip-service.  This is counterproductive because the international community is vital, not only for adding knowledge but for expansion. Foreign language use is still not permitted on Quora.

Alexandre Enkerli, an ethnographor from Quebec made the following observations in his post, What Aspects of Quora Make it Antisocial:

Some of my comments about Quora are about mere annoyances but I do think there’s a deeper social disruption in at least two directions. One is toward less openness, less conversation, more control, and more hierarchy. That’s not the type of social structure I think appropriate, in the current context. The other is toward a breakdown in some social relationships, especially in terms of the divisiveness I observe. No matter how nice people’s goals are, the lines of demarcation drawn by Quora make for something closer to conflict than thoughtful engagement in intellectual pursuits.

An overemphasis on alleged “expertise,” a strange form of credentialism, a “following push” reminiscent of early Facebook apps, a patronizing tutorial and quiz on asking questions the Quora way, a total disregard for the diverse ways people use questions to establish rapport, lack of true social engagement, a voting system which encourages self-promotion, and the attitude some “experienced Quora users” have of brushing off criticism as coming from people who “just don’t get it.”

Quora Shows no Willingness to Change
So why won’t Quora scale? The simple answer is that it doesn’t want to. Scaling implies a significant change in the rules of engagement. The protocols employed by Quora power-users, the self-proclaimed elite who dominate the site, prevent Quora from growing its community in any meaningful way.  Thus Quora’s most invested users are actually working against the best interests of Quora. Plus, the spiral of silence dynamic and non-transparency in down voting encourages anonymity in areas where it is less warranted. Users who exhibit transparency in genuine attempts to contribute to improving Quora are targeted, more often seen as troublemakers than potential allies.

Until Quora insiders alter these tactics, Quora will never scale or gain credibility beyond its self-defined elite.

Image by Maksym Bondarchuk via Shutterstock.

Also Read: The Quora Crisis: How Long Can the Center Hold?

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