Robert Maxwell: Maxwell’s Peacocks

I will be assembling a list of the names and terms I make up and keep using to talk about Quora. I like assembling my own personal mythologies; but that does get in the way of communication.

One of the terms you may well have seen me use recently is Peacocks. The term describes the union of “life coach” types and “personal branding” types, who seem to use Quora primarily to enhance their commercial social media presence, and whose contributions to Quora are primarily platitudes and anecdotes of how to live life to the fullest, like them.

I was startled to discover one such, advertising how to game Quora metrics, and I named him here. I got a Benburr for that (oh, that’s another glossary term), and I deserved it.

Because I was sanctioned, I held back from reposting Robert Maxwell’s tirade against that kind of person in comments. But it does not name anyone, and it is actually a critique and not just a rant. And since it was the genesis of the term, and a magnificently written piece of prose, I’m now choosing to elevate it to a post.…

I went to university with a bunch of these marketing/growth gurus—they were wannabes at the time—and, well, let’s say my personal opinion of them would strongly cross the BNBR line. The terminology is spot on—”thought leadership,” for instance. I think of this sort of thing and feel my bile rise on some atavistic instinct, an in-born genetic memory on par with how elephants find graveyards and retirees find Florida. Perhaps, in some dark corner of my ancestry, Glug went on about referral metrics until half the tribe got eaten by a sabretooth.

That said, this is a symptom, and, as much as we might tell ourselves that this is a Quora we don’t inhabit, I sometimes worry it may be the other way around. Quora has long since been the preserve of marketing, PR, startups and that entire ecosystem of preening peacockery that puts one in mind of Hunter S. Thompson’s comments on used car dealers from Dallas chasing the American Dream in the predawn chaos of a stale Las Vegas casino. Even in the early days, those topics dominated.

Another comment asks if we remember the time when people didn’t have to promote themselves on Quora—I think people always did, if, perhaps, more naively, and more narrowly. But now the hucksters have figured out the system, as they do.

Instead, we’ve dug down and built dens and hollows in the earth, showed each other the tunnels and mistaken it for the surface. And when one of the peacocks manages to peck into the tunnel, we shudder and tell ourselves that it’s not of this world. It’d be too terrifying, otherwise.

In Defence of Peacocks

Alfredo Perozo said in a comment on the previous post:

I can learn to live with the trolls, the conspiracy theorists, QCR, the anonymous OPs, the glitches, the bugs, the daily outages, the imbecilic UI changes, everything. But I can’t stand the peacocks.

This, I’m seeing from comments, is a very common sentiment among the readers of this blog.

And yet, I had a long discussion with Jennifer Edeburn about whether that last post defining Peacocks was BNBR, and that prejudice against them was a snobbery, that Quora could have no part of.

There’s been a lot of discussion in comments of why Quora welcomes Peacocks; and I note that Alecia Li Morgan has been articulating a cogent defence, in Why brands should be writing on Quora by Alecia Li Morgan on Quora for Business, of why Quora welcomes answers from businesses.

So I’m going to ruminate through why we don’t like Peacocks (those of us that don’t), and why that can’t matter to Quora.

(And here, I’m going to start reducing “we” from “we who use Quora” to “we who don’t like Peacocks”. Part of the point of what I’m saying is, the latter is a small subset of the former.)

There is abiding confusion on what Quora is for. The mission statement is extremely vague, and Quora’s own interpretation of what it’s about seems to have morphed several times since the beginning, when its hubris was untenable. Mills Baker has admitted that Quora has done a poor job of explaining its mission, although his own attempt was even less clear.

So we’ve made our own sense of what Quora is for. There are clear clefts in the community on what it’s for. Quora is not a debate site. The best of Quora is in the comments. Quora is for hard knowledge. Quora is for opinion.

But there’s a notion that Quora is for smart people. A notion that Peacocks themselves capitalise on: “a community for intellectuals to voice their opinions.”

So. What kind of a site do smart people think they want, and that they don’t think Peacocks belong in?

Smart people, I’ll guess from self-serving introspection, want a forum where they can further knowledge, in discourse with other smart people.

And what kind of knowledge do they value?

Not puppies and cat videos. Weighty knowledge. Verifiable knowledge. Well-argued knowledge. Knowledge provided disinterestedly. Knowledge provided for the joy of it and the sake of it. Knowledge provided by peers.

You can see why that definition of knowledge runs counter to Peacocks or Businesses. The knowledge they provide is not disinterested. It is provided with ulterior motives. It is, by common intellectual criteria, frivolous, not argued, and not open to verification. It does not come across as a peer activity.

Sure. That’s my notion of what Quora’s for.

That can’t be what Quora’s notion of knowledge is restricted to.

First, because the restrictions Quora used to impose at the beginning were much narrower, and many of us would resent them. All Venture Capital and coding, all the time. No meta discussion of Quora. No humanities (an imbalance that is probably still reflected in the distribution of quills). Not that much socialising. If you read the early StackExchange reactions to Quora, it’s dismissed as fluff; we are choosing not to be on StackExchange instead of Quora.

Second, because clearly, there’s an audience for Life Advice and Relationships, though those topics, too, were initially avoided by Quora. There are people that want answers to their questions there. We could say that their questions are less worthy than the questions we take interest in; but how would we draw a line that would exclude half the people we know here? And after all, don’t people deserve advice on what do in their lives, from a site that advances all kinds of knowledge?

And the Peacocks get upvotes there. Massive upvotes, and appreciative comments. There’s an audience for what they have to say. We can think that the advice the Peacocks give is self-serving and facile; we can think that there’s better advice to be had. Some of us, after all, even offer it. But if the Peacocks get the upvotes, that means that what they are saying is being valued by a lot of people, even if not by us.

And in this postmodern time of truthiness, I don’t know of a definition of knowledge to be furthered through Quora, that excludes Peacocks, and doesn’t exclude half of what we value (since we’re not on Wikipedia or StackExchange).

We don’t have to interact with Peacocks, or Businesses. But I’m having difficulty how that can be anything more than an individual choice, rather than a site-wide alignment.

Same goes for the fact that Peacocks get Quills. Lots of people get Quills, promoting lots of different kinds of knowledge, and lots of different aims of Quora. I’d assume that those Peacocks that get the Quill get it for how responsive their content is to the querents that they’re addressing (even if they aren’t us), and that they don’t get it because of how effectively they promote themselves. If the call is made that they do, well, good for Quora; that furthers Quora’s goals, after all. That’s all the Quill is about. Furthering Quora’s goals, of satisfying querents and attracting eyeballs; and Quora gets a lot of different eyeballs.

The good news is, the Quora feed sequesters us into the niches we prefer to sit in. Maxwell’s dens and hollows. I think we have good reasons why we dislike the Peacocks’ content and why we think they write it. And they’re our reasons, not everyone’s. And Quora isn’t just for us.

And… I guess I’ll just go back to my hollow now…

Why do Europeans say, “Where there are Italians, there is dirt”?

Because there was a perception 50 years ago that Italians were dirtier than Northern Europeans. They may not be saying that now, but there is still stereotyping between parts of Europe, and the claims that this saying is impossible ring hollow to me.

I don’t have a smoking gun of someone saying it; but I do have a smoking gun of someone expressing the sentiment. That someone was Greek, and in fact, he was expressing annoyance at how clean Austria was compared to Italy.

Nikos Tsiforos. Gulliver in the land of the Giants (humorous travelogue through Central Europe). 1967. p. 12.

Why does everything have to be so clean? A Southerner will never understand this. Over in Tarvisio, ten Italian paces from here [Arnoldstein], there’s waste paper, filth, dust, leftovers from horse and cow hindquarters. Tourism pleads: “keep the area clean!”, but noone pays any attention—except for the pine trees, who are law-abiding citizens when they’re up on the mountaintops. Here in Arnoldstein, it’s as if they’ve made 300,000 Austrians lick the road clean. There’s not one piece of rubbish. Austria should be ashamed of how clean it is.

He says pretty much the same crossing the Swiss border into Italy at Valpelline.