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.

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