Robert Maxwell: On Quora vs Community, with coda on Top Writer selection

Originally comment by Robert Maxwell at…

I think Quora doesn’t know quite what it wants. It’s odd.

See, Quora claims to be a Q&A site dedicated primarily to spreading knowledge. And that’s fine – but Quora’s own design implies that it sees itself far, far more as a social site. Quora tends to isolate writers more often than topics, and writers you’ve followed seem to dominate feeds more than what they’re actually writing about. If you follow Mr. X because you’re interested in, say, France, but Mr. X goes on a spat of answers talking about Trump, you’ll get those answers, too.

On Quora, you’re linked far more often to a person and not a topic of interest. If you build your social network, more people will be exposed to your answers – “power users” are given disproportional influence not due to their expertise, knowledge, or even quality, but due to the visibility as a function of your network. (The argument that “high quality answers attract upvotes and followers,” and hence that one is an indirect expression of the other, is fallacious – but I’ll get to that in a bit.) The fact that people are tied primarily to you as a writer inherently promotes the creation of personae to which people can easily attach themselves: an author who’s able to create a personal connection with a reader is more likely to gain a follower, who will then be redirected to other things that author wrote. See, for instance, the large number of high-follower “power users” that inhabit the survey section.

Quora’s core “quality” mechanic, upvotes, reinforces this, as does the idea of “followers.” No one who’s been on the internet for long could take a look at “upvotes” and confirm that it’s a reliable measure of quality. Especially on sites that promote social connection, those upvotes become an expression not just of quality (if they express quality at all), but their personal connection to the author, and if the author they’re upvoting has interacted with them in the past. Who hasn’t upvoted people only to notice an upvote in return? As to Quora’s follower system, liking an author sufficiently enough to follow them does not inherently mean they are producing intelligent, high quality responses: they may simply agree with you or make you feel good about yourself.

As an aside, I’d say that the only system that works well in even slightly avoiding this is Reddit, which is explicitly decentralized, fragmented, and thrown under a huge veil of anonymity. Even then, though, there are certainly cliques in subreddits.

And all that’s fine. That’s not a critical failing in Quora – it just means that Quora inherently has, abets, and is built around social interaction through the medium of Q&A. That’s not a problem.

But what is a problem is that, despite the system promoting such interaction, normal expressions of that interaction are forbidden. People interact socially in a huge number of ways, and those ways are to a huge (even dominant) degree dependent on the context of the relationship. Social communication is inherently contextual and discarding context in favor of looking only at the message in isolation is inherently inimical to social interaction and to the appropriate policing of social interaction.

If we adopted this standard in the real world (and Quora Moderation, certain individuals argue, is in and part of the real world), we’d be arresting people for openly carrying knives in the street – but we’d also be arresting chefs carrying them in the kitchen. Context is key there, and it requires us as adults to think critically and evaluate non-verbal cues.

I suspect, but cannot prove, that the ultimate justification for this is two-fold.

First, that Quora Administration is badly understaffed, and therefore cannot both pay reasonable attention to the context of a comment and issue moderation decisions at a brisk enough pace. Disregarding context means faster work (in their opinion). I wouldn’t be surprised if this were the case – Quora’s has generally not scaled well at all.

Second, it’s becoming clear that Quora is becoming increasingly reliant on algorithms to supplement their staff shortages – in essence, as an attempt to deal with pressing concerns with scaling. In Marco North’s answer to What do Quora users think of Quora Product Management?, Marco North (as explained in a comment), confirmed via a direct conversation with a member of Quora staff that things such as TW selections are mostly done via algorithm, hence certain rather odd selections for TW. We also know that, to one degree or another, certain aspects of moderation have also been offered up to the algorithm. Social context is difficult for an algorithm and, rather than work on that or subject the reported comment to an investigation of context, it’s easier to simply disregard it and treat all positives as true positives.

Then again, this could be a genuine expression of how they feel policing should be done: without reference to context or relationship on a social networking site.

John Gragson:

I think TWs are not selected entirely by algorithm—some glaring omissions from the list give the lie to any strictly objective process. But this is quite insightful, especially the “Q is a social thing but they don’t want to admit it” angle.

Robert Maxwell:

I can’t speak to the degree that algorithms are being used in the selection of TWs – and I certainly don’t find it hard to believe that there’s some bias involved – but relying heavily on algorithms would explain the number of very anomalous TW selections.

Marco North’s explanation according to what he was told (he used to be a volunteer moderator back when Quora had those):

“There was a rash of new TW’s that had less than 100 answers a few years ago. It was explained that they were writing answers in very specific threads, which merited the TW nod. Meanwhile, the answers were truly mundane at best. The algorithm looks for what is “best” in certain categories and sub topics, for example. How did i get to this answer? It started when I asked who edited the three-volume anthology of TW answers a few years ago as there was no editor credit. The admission? Much of the selection was an algorithm, and (shocker) many, many TWs asked “why the hell did you choose THAT answer for the book?” well, it was edited by a fancy server – what do you expect?”

Because we have zero clue on the actual process, it’s basically all hearsay, but it would certainly explain a lot of things. All in all, I think you’re right – there’s some input somewhere, we just don’t know how much latitude that overseer is granted. Perhaps the algorithm comes up with a huge list and they whittle it down; perhaps the algorithm comes up with a list and they’re only allowed to alter it under very specific circumstances.

As with most things when it comes to how Quora works, the answer is that we just don’t know beyond, at best, a rough sketch.

Robert Maxwell: On Quora vs Community and Reinventing the Wheel

Originally comment by Robert Maxwell at… (Xianhang Zhang: Community Management issues on Quora, posted 2010)

Jumping off from John Gragson and his wonderful point [that the identified issues were the same 6 years ago], I find the continued existence of these issues to be insane.

I’m not old enough to have broken my boots in on the old pre-Eternal September Usenet boards, but I’m old enough to remember scores of IRC chatrooms, forums, and discussion sites that appeared, rose, fell, and vanish over the years – many because they exhibited the exact same community issues discussed here. A number of those sites developed, out of necessity, a veritable art of effective community management that could include things as simple as effective onboarding and basic transparency to impressively complicated governance mechanisms.

Yet Quora still faces many of those same problems. Even more, Quora seems unwilling to deal effectively with them, much less pull from past experience.

There’s a pattern I’ve seen a lot of these days. A sort of appeal to novelty seems prevalent in Silicon Valley and its outposts – the new need not pay heed to the old. You see this on Quora in the form of some veiled special pleading: Quora is new and unlike that which came before, so old experience does not apply. Quora (and many other new community sites) find themselves reinventing the wheel over and over again, trying not only to find answers to already-answered questions, but to do it on their own – when it comes to things like onboarding, transparency, and moderator interaction, Quora seems to hover between nonchalance and stumbling attempts at naive self-correction. It’s hard to believe that the people in charge of Quora’s community governance ever witnessed or experienced the forum implosions or scandals of not too long ago, because they seem to operate without reference to the lessons learned therein.

It all comes back to Quora’s scaling issue, for me. The site’s governing apparatus smacks of a small-community moderation team that got overwhelmed with a sudden influx of visitors – except they’ve been overwhelmed for six years. Meanwhile, supports like community moderators have been done away with, resources seem allocated to unnecessary UX tweaks, and Quora expects (or even needs) bots to pick up the slack. New users are mostly expected to be acculturated by the community – the site’s basic rules, patterns, and elaborations thereof are buried with every other question, shrouded by a poor search apparatus. In such a system, you can forego exhaustive explanations or documentation, because assimilation will take care of it.

Even its basic rule, BNBR, seems more fitting for a smaller community. I’m perhaps the only person I know that hates BNBR, but I feel my reason is solid: I don’t dislike the rule because I feel people ought not to be nice or respectful – the motte part of the motte-and-bailey argument often deployed in its favor – but because it simply doesn’t fit Quora. It fits a small community where the culture and social context can fill in the blanks of what, precisely, is considered nice or respectful in discourse. It does not fit a large community where that context and those shared mores don’t exist. In such a situation, it comes out as a black box – an answer or comment is fed into it and it may, or may not, depending on the arcana used, be registered as a violation. It’s a general rule that, as communities grow, its rules must accommodate that loss of shared social context by becoming clearer and less ambiguous, and Quora has grown beyond that. Despite the protestations of Quorans who see BNBR as a breath of fresh air, the rule to me is a deja vu of newbie forum admins who’d try and set “simple rules,” and end up overwhelmed. Perhaps this is partially why Quora is so keen to cultivate its Top Writer community: it’s a group small enough and acculturated enough for their system of governance to actually approach effectiveness.

That, for me, is what Quora Administration (and the upper management that influences it) is: newbie forum admins that have refused to learn precisely why things were done the way they were done or consider precisely how the people who came before them might have gotten things right. I recall a certain individual saying that D’Angelo quite possibly suffers from the “Silicon Valley Disease,” where one goes “I can code extremely well, so I should be able to run a business well, too.” That’s a viewpoint that, I suspect, pervades Quora.

To me, the community management style is like “naive art” – untrained and uninformed by what came before, they can do good work in their own milieu and, in their particular technique, may indeed be skilled. But having Quora Moderation as it exists now police the community of today is like having Grandma Moses or Henri Rousseau paint the Sistine Chapel: they’re simply not equipped for it.

What is the first language that had order for letters in alphabet, and how did people decide to use this particular order?

See Michael Moszczynski’s answer to How did the alphabet get its order? Who came up with the order of the alphabet? The first such language was Ugaritic, several centuries before Phoenecian. As Michael Moszczynski points out, two alphabetical orderings of Ugaritic survive, one via Phoenecian, and one via Ge’ez into Amharic. He concludes that, while the cause for those particular orderings is unrecoverable, we can tell from their independent survival that they were conventional.

And once the convention was invented, it stuck, and it stuck hard. Abecedaries, inscriptions copying out the alphabet in order, are very common in archaic Greece. And it took the Greeks centuries to work out that the Phoenician alphabet had letters redundant for Greek.

Is there any word which cannot become a conceptual metaphor?

I’m not strong on cognitive linguistics, but it’s an intriguing A2A.

What does it take for a word to become a conceptual metaphor? The meaning it expresses needs to be transferred to an analogous conceptual domain from its normal meaning; as a result of this, some of its meaning is preserved (the meaning that survives the transfer), some does not.

Now, function words clearly have meaning, though they do not always have denotation (they don’t always point to things in the world). But can their meaning always be transferred into an analogous domain?

That’s routinely true for prepositions. Prepositions historically tend to start off as spatial relations, and those relations are used as metaphors for other things all the time. If I say you’re on drugs, I’m not saying that you’re lying on top of some ecstasy pills. I’m saying that the dependency between you and drugs is analogous to the spatial proximity of something on top of something else—drawing on metaphors of closeness, coverage, foundations, and so on.

Conjunctions? They tend not to be spatial but conceptual already; but they’re no less subject to analogy. Transferring causation from the locutionary domain (causes for things happening in the world and described through speech acts) to the illocutionary domain (causes for speech acts themselves), for example: I’m late because there was a traffic jam (this happened because…) vs I’ll be there, because I’m a man of my word (I say this because…)

Pronouns and articles are trickier, but still doable. 1st and 2nd Personal pronouns presuppose personhood, but they can be metaphorically used of anything that can be individuated or in a collective. If I say “we spoons are dumped at the bottom of the pantry”, there’s a metaphor of personhood being imbued to spoons, alright; but the only place that metaphor resides linguistically is in the pronoun. Every other word is literally true.… issued a challenge on indefinite articles. Indefinite articles have a meaning: they indicate that the referent of noun phrase is not previously defined in the discourse, or is generic.

What’s going on when some boxer, say, says I’m not just *AN* athlete: I’m the best athlete there has ever been?

Well, the sentential stress on an should be telling you immediately that something unusual is going on: the whole point of the indefinite article is that it’s not something you emphasise, even contrastively. And the phrase cannot be literally true: a boxer is an athlete. An here is being used metaphorically: it’s being transferred from the conceptual domain of “generic” (which “an athlete” is: it’s a type) to the metaphorical use of “generic”: “uninteresting, ordinary” (which is not intrinsic to an: Usain Bolt is an athlete is true, and that does not imply he is uninteresting or ordinary).

The claim at first glance looks overwrought, but all words have some meaning, all meaning has at least a default semantic domain, and all meaning can be transferred to an analogous semantic domain, shedding some of its sense and retaining some of its sense. The only way that would be impossible is if a meaning were both atomic (and I’ll concede there are some semantic atoms), and not in a semantic network with other meanings and presuppositions (which is clearly not true, as we saw with we).

So… yeah. All words (including function words) can indeed be used in a metaphorical manner.

How long would it take for English from anglophone countries to become separate languages?

I’m pretty much agreeing with Dmitriy Genzel’s answer: Dmitriy Genzel’s answer to How long would it take for English from anglophone countries to become separate languages?.

If you look at my related answer to How long would it take an isolated group of people to develop what would be considered their own language?, you’ll see that historically, it could take something like 500 or 1000 years for languages to diverge. Universal literacy has a profoundly conservative effect on language, however, and those effects look to be intensifying, as English-speakers from different parts of the world are now becoming more in contact, not less.

This does not mean that their dialects are actually converging. Linguists have argued that vowels are currently off doing their own thing in different parts of the US, and there is no evidence that the subdialects of US English are converging—the opposite is happening. There are several clear grammatical differences that are entrenched between different variants of US or British English.

But my guess is that there are enough conservative forces in the current Anglophone culture, to slow down any divergence of national variants English significantly, compared to the historical norm.

Whether those conservative forces remain in place—that is to say, whether Western Civilisation or Globalisation survives—is an entirely different question.

How long would it take an isolated group of people to develop what would be considered their own language?

This is a question linguists don’t want to answer, because it raises the spectre of glottochronology.

Glottochronology is an assumption made in the fifties, that a core 100 or 200 words of vocabulary in all languages would be lost at a constant rate. The figures that a study came up with was 86% retention per millennium for a core 100 words, and 81% per millennium for a core 200 words.

Glottochronology is derived from lexicostatistics, which uses the same core vocabulary to classify languages. The rule of thumb that field linguists apply is that two languages are separate if they share only 80% of the core 100 words. Joining the two together, you get maybe 1300 years to separate two languages.

Lexicostatistics is still used in poorly attested language families, when you have no other choice. It gets a lot of use in Papua New Guinea. 80% seems to me to be on the low side, though.

Glottochronology on the other hand was discredited very early. The statistical study was heavily flawed: the languages were almost exclusively European, and Latin ended up counted 5 times. A study done in 1962 found that Icelandic (universal literacy) had lost just one word out of 100 in a thousand years, whereas Inuit (taboo substitution of words) had lost close to half in the same period.

So there is no constant rate at which languages separate.

But we have plenty of instances in history where people migrated away, and the language slowly diverged. The instances I can first think of, such as early modern resettlement within Europe, or colonialism in the New World, show that 300 years is clearly not enough. A ballpark figure is going to be closer to between 500 and 1000 years. With all the provisos already given.

Do you think of your ‘Quora friends’ as real friends?

I have a medium-large circle of acquaintances here, that I’m happy to hear from periodically. I have a core of maybe half a dozen people here, who are as close to me as any friend at this stage of my life.

In refutation of all those who think this site is not social media (including respondents to this question):

If you are prepared to use this site as social media, then your relation with other users will graduate to the kind of relationship that people cultivate on social media. Ipso facto.

If you think friendships can only exist in meatspace, well, go back and read any number of epistolary romances from 500 years ago. And I’ll just get the hell off your lawn.

If you think Q&A sites preclude personal engagement, then you’re following the Precepts of the Founders, who have bafflingly never wanted this site to be social (and who for the past 7 years have banished “Quora Community” discussions from the feeds of non-subscribers).

Your loss, if you do. The fact that users do form friendships here is testament to the human spirit, which leaps over any hurdle the suits of Quora UX can fashion.

I will make a concession: I have admired writers from comments and answers, but I have only progressed to friendship with other Quora users through messaging. And Quora’s messaging UX is such that eventually, I’ve had to migrate my conversations out of Quora, to keep my sanity.

So I guess Quora UX won there, after all.

Are you only popular on Quora? For example, someone might have a few thousand followers here and none or very little on social media or have many followers but not many friends in real life.

I’ve looked at the answers to this question. They are making me go all Michaelis Maus contrarian. So no one has pursued fame outside of Quora? And most of you are embarrassed at the notion of a mass audience? Really? Wow…

Right now, Quora is my major outlet, and I possibly gotten the most eyeballs here. By follower count, for what that metric is worth, I’m in the “popular” Villines tier.

But the blog I used to have on Greek linguistics didn’t do that badly on eyeballs either. Some Australian linguists will recognise my name, and several linguist working on Greek and Byzantinists know who I am. I was a big thing in my time in conlangs. And some of those past renowns have had echoes.

If that answers your question, OP.