Perspectives on the Insurgency #3: Where Jennie dings Quora and not just the Movement

This is part #3 in a sequence of exchanges between myself and Jennifer Edeburn, on the appropriateness of complaints against Quora. Unlike the first two sections:

the following sections are revised from what Jennifer first wrote me; different context, different audience, different week. Same format, same effort to reach consensus!

And I ain’t gonna call Jennifer Jennie, just like I can’t bring myself to call Edward Conway Ed. “Where Jennie dings” is her title.


Just so you don’t think I can only complain about the movement, many of the complaints about Quora’s management and handling of moderation issues are legitimate. I have seen the goal of the movement stated as transparency, but I don’t think that’s required. Constructive engagement and consistency, however — those are. Otherwise moderation is a force for punishment of users, not rehabilitation.

  • There have been numerous complaints about receiving BNBR warnings without even a link to the reported content, enough that it is difficult to believe they are all without merit. When users spontaneously post questions on Quora asking about when they can expect to hear about their appeal because it’s been two weeks, or inquire why Quora admins have stopped responding to their emails, it seems likely that these are not just empty protestations to support a claim of innocence.
  • There are users who are legitimately confused about how they have violated BNBR; users who would be happy to modify their behavior. It may be a bit much to expect a full explanation with every violation, but a checkbox message is not too much to ask, and a pointer to the offending material seems only a reasonable request.
  • A FAQ showing some common examples of unintentional violation of BNBR, with explanation, would be helpful.
  • Putting the link to the Quora guidelines and policies somewhere blazingly obvious, so that people are more likely to see and actually read it instead of just trying to “osmose” the meaning, is not too much to ask either. The current point of access is just completely obscure.
  • Making sure users actually receive a concrete resolution of every appeal … well, let’s just say that the practice of giving users the feeling that they have sent their appeals into a nameless, faceless black hole does not leave them feeling that anyone is listening to them, or appreciating that they might actually like to understand, in order that they may improve.

In short, there is *plenty* that Quora could do here to be more constructive and teach people how to do a better job in the future, that they appear not to be doing. It’s true that the lack of faith in the accuracy of moderation that is visibly evinced by the movement is not doing Quora any good, in my opinion. However, neither is Quora exactly helping themselves to put their best foot forward.

My Response:

I don’t have much to add here. I agree with criticisms of Quora after all!

Onboarding has been a problem with Quora since its inception, and a problem that Quora won’t address by putting any clear links to resources in, when users sign up. That is a design philosophy that won’t change, and that will get my continued disgruntlement.

But the community does desperately try to remedy this; Ins and Outs of Quora by Heather Jedrus for example is an effort to collate how-tos in general, and there are any number of FAQs and blogs, both official and not, about how Not To Poke The Beast. ACTION: I’m happy to promote such resources through Necrologue, which seems to have more eyes on it than this blog does.

I am also very happy to hear from Christopher VanLang that the community mods are still there, are still speaking to the Behind The Curtain mods, and are making the Behind The Curtain mods aware of their interpretations of policy; VanLang had the analogy of Supreme Court rulings. Whatever education effort there needs to be to smooth things over, the community mods are allies and resources, not opponents.

I have little confidence Quora Moderation is going to change anything, or is motivated to change anything. That’s me. But then, as I’ve started telling people, I don’t write this because I think I will bring about any change. I write this because I cannot acquiesce to injustice.

We have talked, you and I, a fair bit about transparency vs constructive engagement. You haven’t elaborated here on the difference between the two, so allow me to tendentiously quote you.

  • If you trust moderation, you don’t need a blow by blow account of what went down. You just need confirmation that what they’re doing is fair, and follows the rules without favour or malice, and provides helpful feedback and constructive engagement. Aiming to rehabilitate rather than punish.
  • If you do not trust moderation, you do want to see transparency, to restore that trust.

It’s uncontroversial to me that moderation has lost the trust of a significant section of the community. I’m not a fan of Feifei Wang’s, but I’m happy to cite I’m not angry, I just want to see some changes by Feifei Wang on This is CHINA!!!. Feifei after all was at the epicentre of RunOverPedestrianGate, an incident which severely dented users’ trust in Quora moderation (and that Bodnick was involved in). Feifei calls for both transparency and consistency. And it’s easy to see why.

Something is broken. Something needs to be done. On both sides. But that means both sides. If Quora Moderation continues to be Moloch, and impassively and mutely receive burnt offerings… well, no point getting angry at Moloch. He’s just an oven. But the anger of those who see the smoke billow will persist.

Why do the Quora moderators allow a broken algorithm to decide if a question or answer needs improvement, rather than do it themselves?

Why do they allow an algorithm to do it?


That’s all there is. Doesn’t mean it’s great, doesn’t mean it’s always wrong, either.

And I’m far from defender of how Quora mods do things, but I concede: the mod bots are often stupid, but they are not useless.

Why do they allow a broken algorithm to do it?

Because we’re not in 2030 yet. And these kinds of bot decisions actually need more smarts than a bot can currently muster.

Who, in your opinion, is the most dangerous person alive?

Ah, Mez. I was going to dodge this, but I won’t.

What’s the danger I care about most? Not the planet blowing up, and not what happens to America in isolation from the rest of the planet. (I mean, of course I care, but not most. And boy, will there be a bunch of isolation from the rest of the planet for the next four years.)

The danger I care about most is the dissolution of our civilisation—of life as we know it. Even if we survive it, I don’t think life will be worth living as cavepeople.

What are the biggest threats to life as we know it? The rise of the robots (Tom Higgins, I never did read your “bring on the Singularity” answer; sorry!) And global warming.

The rise of the robots could go well or it could go very very bad. Global warming will only go very very bad.

Who made sure that we couldn’t stop global warming when we had a decent chance to? Who’s working to make sure we still don’t?

Plenty of people who are going to find life even more unpleasant than their neighbours, when shit goes down and their neighbours look for scapegoats. Including lots of ex-presidents, and lots of reactionary and (sadly) libertarian pundits. Lots of political strategists (Frank Luntz might “accept the science” now, but he targeted the science back at the time of Kyoto). Lots of “sceptics”.

But you know, if I had to pick one guy, I’ll pick the most influential denialist politician, and he’s the most dangerous because he’s still in office, and he’s still influencing environmental policy in the US—which is where leadership has had to come from. I give you the Gentleman from Oklahoma, the king of snowballs: Senator Jim Inhofe.

Yeah, yuk it up, Jim.

See you in hell, buddy. Don’t bring your snowball there; it won’t last. Won’t last up above under global warming, either.

What would happen if you were banned by Quora tomorrow?

Ah, if I should die, think only this of me…

A2A. Why the A2A, Ishan Bhateja? Do you know something I don’t? 🙂

All things pass. You just hope they don’t pass sooner than you’d prefer. Or at the least, sooner than you are ready for it.

If I get banned?

  • Kick myself for not archiving my last few answers. Matter of fact, I think I’ll go do some archiving now.
  • Kick myself for not getting the contact details of all the close friends I have made here.
  • Reach out to all the close friends whose contact details I do have, and bind them to me, somehow.
  • Join a Quorans in Exile group. They do exist, apparently.
  • Quora now deletes the profile bios of the banned, so I can’t farewell the community on my own terms. So I’ll reactivate my defunct blogs, post my farewell there, and get back to blogging like it’s 2005.
  • Since it’s back to my own blog: violate lots and lots of BNBR. Έτσι, να βγάλω το άχτι μου, ρε πούστη μου! Γαμώ το φελέκι μου μέσα γαμώ!
  • Symbolically burn a few artefacts. I’ve found it does actually help.

What will kill Quora?

You know, I’ve been thinking about this a lot. See Why do I loathe Quora Inc. by Nick Nicholas on The Insurgency. And for that matter Nick Nicholas’ answer to Is there any chance that Quora will turn into a paid website in the upcoming years?.

What would result in there being no more Quora?

Let me run through the things I listed in my blog post.

Not the at times bizarre and unclear moderation. That has chased and will chase away a lot of people, maybe even a lot of the most interesting people; but the bulk will not run into it, and will stick around. And there’s plenty more new users signing up, to make the churn of people dispensable.

Not the UI churn. It may be the most annoying UI out on the market, but it’s no more than an annoyance.

Not the taciturn customer relations. Customer relations really only need to cultivate the top writers to keep them writing (80/20 rule), and in fact from all indications, they do. (Modulo moderation.)

Not the commodification of users (the user is the product). The masses on social media are fine with being commodified. Including me.

Quora is supposed to be a business, and if it fails, it will be for lack of it succeeding as a viable business, and (failing that) succeeding in being acquired as a viable business. (Not-for-profits are businesses too, btw; but that’s not the model Quora has been pursuing to date.)

Like I’ve said:

  • Leadership
  • Vision
  • Sustainability

I’m not privy to what’s going on with these. Neither are you. Neither are the shareholders, because Silicon Valley startups are not capitalism as you or I know it, and there are no shareholders. I do hope the venture capital dudes know what’s going on.

But that’s what will do it. There’s lots that I don’t like about Quora, myself, but I’m still here, so obviously there’s enough to compensate. That goes even more for the majority who aren’t as annoyed about Quora. If Quora fails, it won’t come from its current user base.

What good is adding topics to posts?

The greatest benefit of adding topics to posts is that it allows posts to be distributed in feeds to people who follow a specific topic. This has become all the more necessary, as Quora in its wisdom has removed the ability to assign a topic to an entire blog.

Of course, Quora has severely reduced the visibility of posts in feeds, and unless you actually subscribe to a blog, chances are you won’t see any posts in your feed anyway. I have seen posts in my feed only rarely, and I’m not completely sure that wasn’t a bug.

Topics do appear as a filter in the search page, so they can be used to retrieve posts in search. I doubt the topic filter functionality is used all that much though.

Likewise, you can browse all content associated with a topic, and that will bring up posts as well as answers. I suspect that functionality is used even less.

What does it feel like to have more followers on Quora than a Quoran who gave you inspiration? Did they gain more followers than their mentor?

Ah, a good question.

Once again, I wanted to be all contrarian and say, “In your FACE, Mentor! The apprentice is now DA MASTER! Bow down, ye mortals!”

I can’t. Geez, I wish I could. But I’m falling in line with the others.

Of course, I don’t do mentorhood anyway. Or rather, I love mentoring (you may have noticed), but I haven’t had much experience or expectation of being a mentee. I am arrogant enough that I rocked up to Quora and went, right, I’m writing here, and you can all fall in line.

(Yes, I know mentee is an analogical formation in English. Sometimes English gets it right!)

Now, there are people here whose writing and character I look up to. But I don’t regard that as inspiration or mentoring; just as peers I admire.

My first reaction was to check out the Magister, Michael Masiello. Because last I’d checked, I’d just pipped him to the post of 1000 answers:

To the victor, the spoils by Nick Nicholas on Gallery of Awesomery

(Snapshot taken just before I pipped him to the post)

Well, I checked, and he’s on 2k followees and I’m on 1.5k. We both feel that’s pretty random, and well, meh. Doesn’t change much of anything.

The cheerleader beside us is Dimitra Triantafyllidou. She’d opted out of running for 1000 answers, because she was resuming studies and wouldn’t have the time to; but she was happy to cheerlead. She has 620 followers. But she does have a quill now. 🙂

How does that feel? She’s good. I love her answers, and I love that she smacks me down when I’m wrong. (I don’t love it too much!) She’s got fewer followers? Meh. She’s good. It’s not important that she has fewer followers than me, or that Michael has more. The Enemy shall not have purchase in sowing envy between us. Dimitra’s got the followers that matter.

Like ME!

Same goes for any number of smart, perceptive Quorans with integrity, who happen to have fewer followers than me. Clarissa Lohr, say, one of the most judicious thinkers I know. Or new linguist on the block, Daniel Ross, whose every answer is a joyfully read dissertation. (A somewhat longish dissertation. 🙂 Or Jennifer Edeburn, who is fast becoming the third angel on my shoulder, and I don’t think Manichaeanism is meant to work like that.

They have fewer followers than me? Pft. I learned from them, and I learn from them. And you will too. The follower count is random, and as much as anything, it’s about tone and not content.

How long did it take you to become popular on Quora?

I didn’t keep enough notes as I went, Habib le toubib. But inasmuch as I am a popular user now:

  • I joined August 2015.
  • By Villines Tiers (or at least the easy metric, number of followers > 1000), 16 months: Dec 2016. The views cutoff came earlier, but I didn’t track it.
  • By hanging out with lots of popular Quorans, and starting to lose track of all the people following me, and vaguely feeling I’d somehow sold out on my early connections and interests, 14 months: Oct 2016
  • By first time I had more than, oh, 5k views in a day, 13 months: Sep 2016. Ditto first day I got more than 100 upvotes.

I think these all converge around the same time. My most viral answer *sigh* topped 25k views in a day, this past month; but viral answers are really not what I’m about here, and they’re not much of a metric for me being popular as me.

How did you learn Klingon?

It’s a someone idiosyncratic method, and while it worked for me in both Klingon and Lojban, I certainly wouldn’t recommend it for a natural language.

I did lots of translating from English. Lots and lots of translating. With some experimenting, trying to work out what looked more fluent.

(The question of what the hell fluency means in a made up language is a fascinating one. It does in fact have an answer. But that’s not what you are asking me here.)

This helped me memorize words and grammar which otherwise would have been a chore. And it helped me prioritise what I actually needed to remember for my purposes.

It occurs to me that one of the reasons this is a useful way of learning conlangs, is that there is a dearth of reading material. I did not need to do this for Esperanto, because there was plenty to read. Although I strongly suspect that’s exactly what the very first generation of Esperantists did.

Can you read this Victor Hugo poem in French?

Can I? Sure.

Should I? No.

Will I? Challenge accepted.

Vocaroo | Voice message

And just remember what happened to Lyonel Perabo’s ears, last time I tried to record some French…