Quora doesn’t trust me – and maybe it’s right

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.

Published by

Mary Hamilton

I'm an operations specialist, analytics nerd, recovering journalist, consultant, writer, game designer, company founder, and highly efficient pedant.

9 thoughts on “Quora doesn’t trust me – and maybe it’s right”

  1. Interesting post Mary – had not heard of Quora before – had a quick look just now after reading your post – and very unlikely to ever use it – partly because two things strike me as unhelpful:

    1) I can’t browse the site from the home page without logging in – that’s like saying pay up to enter this shop before you know what we are selling. So it’s not very inviting – I have no idea what sort of questions it has or whether they are of any interest.

    2) Their ‘about us’ section (aside from sounding rather pompous in its grand aims) has this interesting (and somewhat confusing) statement:
    Collaborative – Almost any public space on Quora can be edited by anyone who knows how to improve it. This includes the text of questions and the details around them, what topics are attached to which questions, and the summaries of answers.

    Now that strikes me as particularly strange – it seems to suggest that after someone posts a question it is perfectly OK for someone else to presume that they know more about what question you were really trying to ask and edit your question accordingly. But, as you say, if this changes the meaning of the question surely it risks invalidating all previous answers. (Q: What colour is an Elephant? A:Grey – Edited Q: What size is a mouse. A: Grey?)

    Seems like a waste of energy posting either questions or answers if someone else can edit them without reference to you. But maybe I am just old and boring.

    Happy New Year – H

    1. Happy New Year to you too!

      There are ways of browsing the site without being logged in as long as you come via one of the question pages – you can browse most things apart from comments on questions without needing to login, but that’s far from obvious from the home page.

      As I understand it at the moment, edits to questions can be suggested by other users and it’s up to the original poster whether they accept the edit. Quora’s own moderators can make edits unilaterally, including complete deletion, which is where a lot of the friction has come from so far. There are also several methods of marking answers as unhelpful, including mass downvoting by site users as well as moderator decisions. They seem to be trying to discourage a sense of ownership over questions – but that’s not always working and not always sensible.

  2. The wide interest in Quora confuses me, in part because I think the folks over at Stack Exchange family of sites have solved the much same problem Quora wants to solve, and done a better job of it. And they did it first.

    A couple things I see as key differentiators of Stack Exchange sites:

    (1) Each topic area is broken into its own separate site. That allows a separate set of administrators to be appointed that have domain-specific knowledge. (In fact, the administrators are in part drawn from the user community using features I outline below). Each site can have its own slightly modified set of rules of what is appropriate and what is not.

    (2) Extensive metrics are kept on each user in order to build up reputation scores. That way, you can instantly see if someone answering your question is a newbie or troll. This helps one decide if an answer has merit.

    Note that (2) only works because of (1): just because I’m good at answering questions about reverse engineering, that doesn’t mean you should trust my answers on stock investing. (In fact, you shouldn’t).

    (3) The metrics (badges, reputation score, etc) also give each site a “game like” atmosphere, which encourages participation, along the lines of Foursquare in its early days. As you get more score, you are given more latitude on the site to edit other peoples questions and so on. In effect, administrators are semi-automatically appointed from the pool of the most active users.

    Caveat: Quora may have some of these metrics and I may not have participated enough to have seen them yet. If so I apologize, but I will also point out that they have a UX issue if these features exist and I couldn’t easily spot them.

    1. Hi Tim, thanks for commenting. I very much like the look of the way Stack Exchange operates, though I’ve not used it enough to know it well. It’s interesting that Quora has a slightly different take on those three points – topics are split but can be administered by anyone and there’s no “topic experience” – all your reputation goes into one pot, which is as you point out far from ideal. It also has very little gamification, and splits users very clearly into tiers – moderator, reviewer, and user. The method for working your way up the ranks is very unclear, and users can vote, suggest edits etc. right from the start, and do so anonymously – perhaps meaning more malicious or michievious behaviour?

      1. See, I was unaware of any of that ranking stuff from using Quora, they don’t display it very well to new users. StackExchange sites are very up -front about how you get different privileges. (Mostly its based on reputation score, but sometimes it is more complex than that, you can click through at that link to see the rules on each privileges). This transparency helps encourage people to keep participating after their own questions have been answered, in order to earn more privileges.

        I think anonymity sometimes has its place on the net, but I don’t see its use at all on a question-and-answer site. Why should I trust an anonymous answer?

        1. Ooo, that list of privileges is fantastic – really simple and clear. Huge contrast with Quora’s approach, where there’s no clear way to move up the ladder – every privilege you’re ever likely to get seems to be available as soon as you sign up, admins are a different “class” from general users, and the system operates by taking privileges (such as anonymity) away as punishment for “bad” behaviour, rather than granting them for “good” behaviour.

          I haven’t managed to puzzle out the point of anonymity yet. It looks like it’s enabling trolls right now and running contrary to the point of the rest of the site.

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