On Quora, empathy and editorial value

One of the things I wanted to do more of this year was write about digital products. I’m going to start with Quora, because it’s a site I keep coming back to you, and yet I don’t think they know what they’re doing.

Their announcement of a blogging platform this week is a good illustration of how lost they are. Quora hasn’t given a compelling reason for it to exist, so it looks like the main motivation was the momentum behind Medium and Branch. It’s a shame Quora feels so lost, because part of what has been created there – by both the team and community – is brilliant. I also think Quora is worth studying because it exemplifies both the thinness and the brilliance of many shoot-for-the-moon start-ups with digital products.

“Quora connects you to everything you want to know about,” says the site’s About page (though they just changed it to “Quora is your best source of knowledge”).

Lofty. That’s shooting for the moon. And of course, a terrible curse to place on your product.

Let’s consider three things I might want to know about.

1. How to bleed a radiator
2. The pitfalls and advantages of various digital magazine platforms
3. What it’s like to have synesthesia

The first is knowledge at its purest and least subjective. There is a correct way to bleed a radiator. It’s easy to structure a question to ask for this piece of information, and easy to get a reply. It’s also a very dull piece of knowledge – apart from when you want to bleed a radiator.

Question two is a much less distinct kind of knowledge; it’s not a simple question to frame and the answers are likely to be somewhat subjective.

The final question is the softest of them all; it is a kind of knowledge, but there’s no right or wrong answer. I want to know what it’s like – emotionally, descriptively – I want someone with knowledge of the situation to tell me a story that takes me there, and allows me to experience it vicariously. This is knowledge which is mostly empathy.

The weird thing about Quora is that the site’s design is hugely biased towards serving the first type of query whereas the best content on there are the answers to the third type of queries.

Here’s the radiator question on Quora. Terrible; Google’s results are much, much better – a way better selection of information (including a video) than Quora, where the question has been answered very briefly and not particularly clearly by a guy who’s a video technologist. Er, great.

Google’s results are much better because Google doesn’t attempt to directly create and structure the pages which hold answer. Quora attempts to provide a location for both the question and answer but because it’s a bit of functional information which excites little curiosity from either the asker or the answerer, it does a bad job of this. Why would anyone go on Quora to answer this question? Other than alturism, or the fact they were just passing through, which is why I assume Konstantitnos the video man has done it.

And here’s the synasthesia question. Wonderful – first person accounts from people who have this intriguing condition. They’re raw, detailed and humane, and there’s plenty for me to learn. They’ve put real effort into their explanations and I think it’s because the core of Quora’s design – attributed written content, with a nice easy voting system offering rewards/praise, for the general reader – encourages empathetic connection.

However, almost every other part of the site’s presentation and structure works against this flicker of empathy and it’s because of the site’s thin view of what knowledge is, and thinking everything ought to be treated like query 1. Consider:

* There’s a big search box at the top of the site – ideal for people with simple, direct queries like my one about the radiator, not great for softer queries. I bet you found the synasthesia post interesting, but how many people would think to search for it?
* There’s a series of related questions displayed close by so I can refine my search. Not good for the synesthesia question – they look spammy, and really, as a general reader, how many synesthesia questions do I need to see?
* In fact, the entire site feels like it’s built out of SEO friendly designs like topic pages, and not out of human friendly editorial design. Just look at how much better Medium’s treatment of text is.
* And then there’s the social/follow/notifications stuff, which makes no sense to me at all. Give topics to people? What is that?
* The site’s bone-dry, picture-less design means there’s little to get you interested or guide your eye around. There’s no sense that this is a place for reading; there’s no fun and no sense of story.
* The entire design is dry, texty and academic. There are no images, and when they do appear, they look out of place. There’s lots of clutter: buttons and sub lines about details. Edit buttons so you can jump on errors. The site does its best to look authoritative and serious.

Good as the the “what is it like to be” questions are, there’s an even better type of Quora thread: discursive questions where someone sets an unaswerable but fun conundrum to ponder. Consider this one: “what is the most important human decision ever made?” Before you click, think of what your answer might be – after all, this classic Friday-night-in-the-pub kind of musing.

The obvious responses – Hitler, nukes – are all present and correct, but the fun stuff starts with the second to top answer. Vikings, says Jameson Quinn, arguing that had the Vikings tried to live in peace with the Native Americans, European colonization of North America would have been drastically different. It’s a cogently argued and nifty “what if” point; later in the thread there’s some balanced discussion of the role of Constantine, and both Christianity and Islam’s role in shaping Western power. It’s a great combination of the punchy and the rambling with a reserved, non hysterical tone that makes it relaxing to read in the way that can’t be said of much internet discourse.

What’s enjoyable about Quora is what’s enjoyable about the best kind of people-focussed journalism, the kind you get in the Sunday papers or big magazine features: a sense of looking into someone’s world and spending time among their thoughts. By its nature, this kind of knowledge is somewhat subjective, incomplete and personal. It’s got empathy at its core; the writing is connecting you the reader to the person on the other side. But Quora is better – or at least different – to that kind of journalism. It’s unfiltered, more direct, and more specific. It can cater to niches in the way the internet has always excelled at – for product managers, getting an informal Q&A from Amazon’s Ian Macallister is really intriguing.

So why doesn’t the site embrace this kind of editorial, empathetic content? Some  thoughts:

1. Its culture. Quora is a Valley start up, and editorial products are not valued by technologists or VCs. Buzzfeed’s Jonah Peretti: “I had several VCs say they were interested in investing if we could figure out a way to fire all the editors and still run the site. I’m not joking.”

2. Changing course to focus on editorial would require culling huge amounts of cruft (features, UX, design) from the site. This would be traumatic for existing users and the staff themselves. Editorial is not seen as a big mission.

3. Quora was not built as an editorial product, but as a combination of search and social. It’s trying to be Yahoo Answers with a social layer and decent UX, really. It’s a Silicon Valley thing that’s tone deaf towards words and treats content as just stuff. The lofty aim is not to have great content, but to solve a problem.

4. …Fundamentally, the problem doesn’t exist in a solvable way. “Being connected to knowledge” is so vague as to be meaningless, especially when it leads you to quantify knowledge in such a thin way as Quora does. The kind of empathetic knowledge which flourishes on Quora – stories – resists easy structuring and programmatic investigation  because these things often rob stories of their emotional richness.

So, what should you take from Quora if you’re a digital product designer and manager?

1. Their voting system works really well. The core mechanic of Quora – ask a question, vote up the good stuff – is great, and yields excellent quality content from users. It’s hard to imagine a newspaper site with as well mannered and interesting a community as Quora.

2. Concepts matter, they are your foundations. Quora is undone by its thin conception of “knowledge”, and this dictates poor design, UX and product decisions.

3. Be aware of how hard change is. Quora has a smart team. They are not blind to this, and I would be very surprised if they’d not thought of all this stuff – but they can’t make the changes. Probably because of how destructive they’d need to be.

Quora’s design treats answers as solutions. Its community treat answers as ideas. Its readers – well, this reader – want them to be stories.

2 thoughts on “On Quora, empathy and editorial value

  1. Quora’s voting system was corrupted by politics and personal grievances long ago. If you are not part of the in clique or a moonbat fighting for unisex public toilets, you will be punished.

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