Quora is a question and answer website, recently discovered by almost everyone in the social media business along with a startling number of journalists, apparently as a result of a remarkably complimentary article by Robert Scoble – closely followed by a Techcrunch writeup and a huge amount of media attention. There’s been lots of noise since Christmas about various aspects of the service, with lots of hype touting it as the new Best Thing Ever; I’m sceptical, because it doesn’t trust me. But maybe it’s right.
There is growing friction between what the admins of the site want and what the users and the wider site community want. Moderation processes and rules – like the site’s user interface itself – are hard to find and can be counterintuitive. Questions can be and have been unilaterally altered, not just in ways that change their grammar but also in ways that – perhaps unintentionally – alter their meaning. This has caused some push back from individuals who dislike what they see as censorship.
At other times, flippant, humorous or sarcastic answers have been marked as “not helpful” by admins, essentially consigning them to a greyed-out land of no hope at the bottom of the question page. But at the same time, facetious and sometimes ludicrously broad or specific questions are left up to be answered in all seriousness.
There’s a very real lack of consistency, and perhaps a lack of understanding on some admins’ part that what they personally deem as “not helpful” may in fact be helpful to others. This is, presumably, work that the community editing tools should be doing – and perhaps over the months as the community adjusts to its new popularity, admins will trust – or train – the community to make the right decisions more often.
But without that trust, people asking genuine questions will be upset when they are edited to become something they didn’t want to ask, and people who spent good time writing answers will be upset that their work has been – without explanation – deemed “not helpful”. Or will discover that the question they spent time answering has been summarily deleted and their response has disappeared.
And there’s a very telling language issue. At present, every question (and, as far as I can make out, every answer) has to be in English, or an admin will delete it.
Quora has high aspirations for quality, and needs strong safeguards against spam – but it seems staggeringly short-sighted to open sign-ups to all and then refuse to allow people to participate in their own languages. And it’s handled in an unusual way – rather than making the issue clear at signup, users who want to talk in other languages have their content deleted. That is not going to give these users the warm fuzzy feeling of belonging.
And again, it shows a lack of trust in the community. The implication is that community moderators speaking other languages won’t do the job to the exacting standards required.
Speaking of which – what are the exacting standards required? A surprising portion of admin activity seems to involve telling users who have posted answers to questions that their answer should in fact be a comment on the question, or a comment on another answer. Quora seems to be trying to alter user behaviour away from established conventions – including those of anonymous behaviour – and at times its user interface seems almost wilfully obscure and difficult to fathom. Combined with admin comments that don’t explain precisely what you’ve done wrong and a lack of easily available guidance on how to get it right, the impression I get is one of a system attempting to resist users, not to accommodate them.
But maybe that’s the point. Maybe Quora shouldn’t trust me; maybe I and every other user is a potential vector for spam, or for self-promoting PR or marketing answers, or for a sarcastic lightness of humour [check the collapsed answer, too] that doesn’t match what it wants to become. The admins and founders of the site seem to strongly want it to be like Wikipedia in its depth, breadth and style, creating definitive pages on various subjects and building a persistent knowledge base. Perhaps it’s right not to trust users who want to use it like Twitter, to have conversations.
Because it’s going to have problems. I don’t know if they’re insurmountable problems or not, but it is going to have issues with spam, and scalability, and evaporative cooling, and brands, and people taking the mickey [check the collapsed answers], and people gaming the influence system, and duplicate content, and provocative content, and anonymous trolling, and controversial bans, and people using it in a whole host of ways the creators didn’t envisage.
So maybe Quora is right not to trust anyone just yet. And maybe I’m right not to like it, given that it seems so keen to push me away.