Sunday, September 23, 2012

Rumors of Quora's Demise Have Been Greatly Exaggerated

Note: I have been less active here of late because of other time constraints and something had to fall off the list. This blog was it. I have, however, been very active on Quora, where I answer all sorts of questions about just about anything except Social Media. ^_^ Recently Quora has been tagged by a number of former users as a site that is just about to implode. Here is my rebuttal, with a healthy dose of Community Lifecycle discussion. If you've got any kind of a community online, forum, mailing list, Facebook, consider reading section 3, 4 and 5.

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1. Introduction

Elitist, clique-ish, stuck up and broken, Quora is reported to be in the middle of a mass exodus of tech talent and contributing users. Or so some people would have us believe. Certainly, some former users have written angry screeds based on their own personal experience in this apparent snakepit. One of the founders is leaving, so clearly that is a signal to anyone with a brain to get out now!

The problem with these reports is that they are, in most cases, conflating two completely different aspects of Quora, and trying to make the one responsible for the other.

2. Quora, Product and Community

Let's have a frank discussion about Quora. Quora is a beast with two faces - a community, which has all of the very typical problems of all online communities, and all of the benefits, as well. And there is Quora the product, which as of yet does not have a strictly defined existence in the public eye, but is strong enough to have gained a second round of investment.

Quora the product is a fully-fleshed out community architecture without an [apparent] business model. Neither users nor spectators really know anything about Quora the product's future. At the moment, Quora has neither advertising nor subscription and if content is being sold by Quora to media outlets, none of the users know anything concrete about those agreements.

What Quora the product will evolve into is, as of yet, entirely unknown to users of Quora. Pretty much any conjecture or opinion you hear from disgruntled ex-users is just that...conjecture or opinion. Charlie Cheever leaving means that...Charlie Cheever is leaving. We cannot reasonably connect any change in his status at Quora with any external change in Quora the product.

The second half of this equation - apparent problems with Quora the community- is driven by the community lifecycle. Online platforms have a lifecycle of their own, and each user on that platform has a lifecycle on that platform.

3. User Lifecycles

Think of MySpace for a moment. It was a pioneer in the social space, stepping on the shoulders of less-popular but still functional Livejournal. For a while it was the go-to social platform. When people ask the question now "What happened to MySpace?" or expound upon its downfall, they are merely showing off their lack of knowledge about communications platforms and the lifecycle that accompanies them.

In Perils and Pitfalls of Community Management, I wrote about the stages of creation, organization and moderation of an online community.

Along with the lifecycle of a community, each individual user goes through a lifecycle process:

1) Newbie - Everything is new and exciting. Some people seem to effortlessly acclimate, others bang against walls, still others fall foul almost immediately of community guidelines and moderation.

2) Experienced Community User - A person has been active on the community for a few months, can answer basic "how to" and "where" questions and still has a lot of enthusiasm for the community.

3) Senior Community Member - This person has been active on the community for more than 6 months and has been assigned cognitive or real authority on the community.

4) Moderators/Admins - Ideally, these people have shown uncommon skill in handling community interaction. (This is often not true, however, and many communities will promote heavy users without any real people skills.)

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What does this mean for a person who has just joined Quora? It means that there are roughly 3 months or so for the honeymoon. In that time, the new user will be building their profile, their interest map (i.e., following topics and people) and building their reputation. The reputation one builds in the first three months will be critical to future interactions - this is the online community equivalent of a "first impression."

After that 3 months, the user continues in the role they have created for themselves - whether it be "active user" or "gadfly"or "occasional poster," very little will change for another cycle of three months or so.

At 6 months, the user has had time to acclimate - or not - to the community and to establish behavioral patterns there. If the reputation the user established is as "knowledgeable and helpful resource" then they might find themselves rising in cognitive authority in the community. On Quora, the PeopleRank algorithm is a direct expression of this, as the user gains status through community approval.

For the community, this three-month user lifecycle means that, at any given time, new users are joining and asking all the same questions, while previously active users are retiring, either due to life changes, changed status on the community, or merely because they have hit the end of their lifecycle and are not as motivated to be there any more.

People who engage, but are not recognized, on online communities very often were not able to gain positive attention through normal community activities. They take their opportunity to gain attention and garner reaction with a dramatic exit, called "a flounce." Ironically, many users who engage in a flounce do not actually leave the site at all, but remain on the periphery, commenting (negatively) on the community's downfall.

Changes in staff, formatting and community standards can all affect user lifecycles. Some users take these changes as chances to leave quietly, while some take the opportunity to flounce off publicly.

4. Successful vs Unsuccessful Engagement Online

The recent spate of "Quora is over" posts are almost all written by people who never quite "got" Quora, people who leave with a flounce. What is the difference between the person who "gets" a community and a person who doesn't?

- Experience on other community platforms
A new community member who has never been on a moderated platform before might find the constraints of that society confining. The Internet is a big place, and in many places, freedom of expression without consequence is a standard expectation. On a moderated community like Quora, consequence of expression is a daily occurrence. Some people, when forced to comply with community standards, will find themselves unable to do so

- The ability to separate knowledge/experience from opinion
New community members whose agenda include "winning" conversations and those who cannot imagine that their own biases and experiences have colored their perspective, often find it nearly impossible to function on a moderated community. These people have a hard time separating qualitative from quantitative information.

- The ability to separate constructive criticism from personal criticism
Quora is designed to allow anyone make suggestions to alter a question or answer. Many new Quorans are shocked and appalled when complete strangers edit their answers. Others are enraged when their answers are tagged with "Need Improvement" or "Does Not Answer the Question" or any of the other tags with which Reviewers, Admins, Moderators can tag a post.

The inability to separate out the needs of the community from the needs of the individual Quoran shows a critical misunderstanding of what Quora the community is about. Quora is, on the face of it, a group effort - a constant process to ask good questions and benefit from great answers.

5. What Cliques With You

Let's take a moment and look at the accusation of "cliquishness" that inevitably arises within a community. What, exactly, does that mean for a public community?

In school, a clique is a social sub-network that forms within a larger social framework. It is impenetrable to outsiders, and is easily broken or destroyed by interactions between insiders. Can a public online community really be "cliqueish?" Well, yes and no.

After a community is established and stable, any new user is likely to find an in-crowd in existence. You expect a store to have employees and a hierarchy in place to keep it running - a community needs no less. Users of any level who have interacted for any length of time before you arrive will, of course, have already developed relationships with one another.

How hard is it to break into this "clique"? To a small extent that depends on the reason for the clique in the first place. If the group was formed for the sole purpose of providing a way for a small group to communicate, it might well be very difficult for a new user to make a positive impression.

But public online communities very rarely exist to serve a small group of people. It's far more likely that they exist to provide a forum for communication and information-sharing for a large group. So - how hard is it to break into that in-crowd? Not hard at all. By providing useful, thoughtful perspective, insight and information, a person can rapidly be recognized as a positive resource on that platform. Again, Quora makes this simple, by providing the community a chance to increase cognitive authority for any given user with upvotes.

Why, then, do people have a hard time getting along on Quora?

It's easy to see people who will not last long on any online community. These people start off rude, or loud, or "clever" and slowly, but surely, the community ceases to hear them, tunes them out or escorts them out the door. Multiple warnings from admins are seen as personal vendetta, rather than a call to engage with the community in a positive and meaningful way.

Recently, a few experienced users have taken time off from Quora. Some of the more public "Quora is dying" articles have cited these people leaving as proof that Quora is rotting from within. However, if you look at individual cases, you can see that as many people have left because of life changes and community lifecycle changes as have left because of any intrinsic (much less endemic) failure on Quora's part. In other cases, Quora has moderated a few people for their inability to follow community standards - these actions have almost invariably been followed by loud, public flounces by the parties involved. This is followed by those parties conflating Quora the community (with which they never meshed) and Quora the product, about which none of the users have concrete information.


6. Conclusion - What Does This Mean For Quora?

This, of course, is the big question. And honestly, we have no idea. Quora the product is a privately owned entity. We, the users, are not privy to decisions made about the company or product until they are made public. Any conjecture about the health of the company is, as I said, merely conjecture.

What we can say is that Quora the community is as vital as ever. No, the quality of questions has not dropped - people are just getting through to the last part of their lifecycle and are tired of waves of new people coming in and stomping around the site. Yes, Quora *could* do better with onboarding. A brief training video, followed by a single, easy to find Index of information (not in Q&A form, which just encourages confusion about rules) could, potentially, solve some of the problems. But it would cause others. In any case, no one reads the FAQs.

Users who joined post the Initial Quora ramp-up, it is still possible to find a place here. It just takes a little time and effort and a little goodwill and desire to make Quora a better resource.

For those of us who use Quora in this fashion, at this moment, at least, the rumors of Quora's demise have been greatly exaggerated.
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