This is the email circulating the Valley. The high profile venture capitalist's name has been redacted along with that of the recipient.
February 1, 2013
Since you asked what I think about Quora and its latest pivot, here's my answer. It's probably far more than you expected but bear with me. From its early days the big question about this site has been “can an almost unlimited supply of Silicon Valley cash and hype turn a mediocre idea into a success?” The question certainly needs to be addressed again now that Quora has made yet another desperate business model pivot into a blogging platform. Before that Quora was going to be a Pinterest knock-off. Before that it was going to be a Q＆A site to compete with Wikipedia. There have been one or two other lesser pivots that I have lost track of since2009, but you get the picture. This executive team is http://clueless. It's really been no secret in the Valley that Quora's been a slow motion train wreck since pretty much 2010. The sole reason it's survived this long is due to the deep pockets of some of its founders. In a nutshell, a group of ex-Facebookers, who had cashed out, decided that more fast money could be made by starting a for-profit version of Wikipedia with the end game being to eventually IPO-it. However, any profit sharing would be limited to the founders and not the actual content creators. Quora's philosophy can be summed up as why should the serfs get a share if they were dumb enough to work for free in the first place? This attitude leaves a bad taste in one's mouth. And so was launched what is perhaps the most arrogant site in Internet history. Veteran observers could see as far back as 2010 that it was going to have difficulty in justifying its existence considering the plethora of better communities and more focused resources. Quora has always been a solution looking for a problem to latch itself onto. However, while Wikipedia has matured into a citable resource, at least for high-school assignments, Quora has only succeeded in cultivating an image as the place where chronic windbags and lime-light seekers hold court all day. So now we are all supposed to brace ourselves for the thundering stampede of bloggers as they desert WordPress and Typepad in order to contribute, for free, yet more content to Quora? As you asked, could this pivot just be the latest in a long list failures for Quora?
To answer the question, let's take a look at some of the reasons why Quora has failed so far despite all the money and hype it received early on. While I am only speaking for myself here, there are no doubt many other former and current Quorans who will agree with much of the following assessment.
A Bad User Experience
In return for investing long hours to generate unpaid content for Quora, members are rewarded with an unpleasant overall user experience, which has been reported endlessly by others online. This is no hyperbole. Let's take a look at what people object to:
The No Humor Rule:
Humor is a de facto taboo on Quora. While the occasional demonstration of wit will evoke no more than a scowl and shake of the head from the community, more regular use will draw a barrage of down votes and risk the possibility of banishment. The staff attempts to deny that this is true but fails to convince anyone. Many Quorans simply don't appreciate humor and will automatically down vote any post that contains it. The most common argument proffered for this norm is that someone in a faraway place, such as Helmand Province or central New Guinea, may not get the joke. Is this really a sufficient reason to force people not to inject a bit of wit into a post considering that 90% of the audience is American? The arguments over the use of humor are endless on Quora. The end result is that Quora often feels like a meeting of the campus Young Marxist-Feminists Alliance.
The Be Nice at All Costs Rule:
Far worse than the No Humor Rule is the Be Nice at All Costs Rule which has done more to destroy any value Quora might have had than anything else. The rule was introduced to appease the “soccer mom wave” of membership that washed over the site in 2011. This influx had a profound impact on the community transforming it from a place where, in theory at least, busy people exchanged information and advice to one where the imperative became to simply make everyone feel welcomed, supported, and molly coddled no matter how vapid their contributions happened to be.
Speaking of vapid, despite the founders' intentions of building a high-brow forum, Quora quickly became inundated with endless, mind-numblingly, stupid discussions such “Who is the most charming Quorite?”, “Who is the friendliest Quorite?”, “Who is your favorite Quorite?”, “Who is the hottest Quorite?”, “Help! My boyfriend is addicted to Quora, and I don't know what to do!”, ad nauseam. There is really only so much of this garbage that anyone can take. The community also suffers badly from a nauseatingly high level of self-congratulatory “Look at how smart we all are!” posts. One post in 2010 breathlessly exclaimed “Wow! Another Quorite helped me to solve a problem!” No doubt this person has never heard of the Internet where this happens about ten million times per hour, on average. Quora's fan base loves to look down its nose at Yahoo Answers but the differences are often minimal.
Another serious problem with Quora is that it allows staff and volunteers with strong ideological biases to “moderate” forums that they really should have the integrity to recue themselves from. This can lead to harassment of members with opposing views on the subject matter. People posting anonymously have been “outed” by spiteful moderators. It should be added here that politically speaking, Quora is to the left as Townhall is to the right. If you're a moderate you won't feel comfortable with much of what goes at either site. Practically every out-of-the-closet conservative or Republican Quoran has been either banned or chased off the site. How Quora manages to retain business-people and moderates as members considering its extreme political slant remains one of life's mysteries.
The Broken Promise of Anonymity:
Quora claims to offer users the option of posting anonymously. Veteran Internet users understand and appreciate that one of the most important benefits of the Internet is the ability to ask and answer tough or delicate questions anonymously. Unfortunately Quora's for-profit business model requires that identifiable and, hopefully, expert members are seen answering questions. An anonymous answer from a leading authority doesn't have the same beneficial effect on its valuation as does a mediocre one from a B-list celebrity.
The effect has been an aggressive push to drive off users who prefer to post anonymously. What's mostly left now are the attention and acknowledgement cravers.
Political Correctness Run Amok: The political correctness on Quora often reaches levels where it feels as if it will make your eyes bleed, even if you're socially liberal. For example, Quora quickly became the place to congregate for people fighting the good fight to turn all public toilets around the globe coed. It's difficult to tell whether these people are simply misguided activists or just a particularly sad group of fetishists. One also has to wonder if there are fifty people on planet Earth for whom this is an actual issue. Quora is also a popular spot for privileged young women, frequently newly graduated from Ivy League schools, to kvetch about how much tougher they have it in life than, say, poor white males working in Kentucky coal mines. They join the professional victim wing of Feminism to carpet-bomb the site with absurd questions asking “Is X misogynistic?” [Insert any noun for “X.”] Everything under the sun is misogynistic to them. Sadly, such farcical abuse of the word destroys its integrity. It also needs to be pointed out that any mention of the bona fide misogyny found, for example, in many Islamic countries will result in the post being quickly deleted by the staff and the poster being banned. The heavy presence of the so-called Rad-fems poses a problem for Quora. Let's be honest and acknowledge the elephant in the room, shall we? When you combine the No Humor Rule and a hyper-Political Correctness with a strong Rad-fem contingent, you are going to have an environment in which people have to tip-toe around practically everything. Participation will be akin to walking through a mine field. Stalinist Russia was more open in comparison. Make just one single politically-incorrect misstep on Quora and you have instant enemies for life. The Taliban are a more forgiving lot.
The Greed Factor:
It's not an exaggeration to point out that Quora clutches the content produced by its unpaid membership with the same death grip that Gollum clutches the ring. If you suspect that this is hyperbole, log out of your Quora account and try to view the site as if you were a first time visitor. You will find yourself blocked from seeing content unless you first invest 15 minutes registering through your Facebook or Twitter account. Recently they created an app that you need to install to read all the answers.
Such appalling stinginess is accelerating the pace at which Quora's traffic shrivels. It appears to be driven by spite: if you won't invest in subscribing to our site then we won't let you see our goods. It's a juvenile attitude. Whatever happened to the original humanitarian mission of attracting smart people to save the world? Oh right, the real plan all along has been to exploit free labor from naive members starry-eyed over the fact that they belong to a community where Justin Timberlake posted (once) and eventually dump the thing on the public with an IPO.
Taxonomy of Users
Quora attracts an unusual crowd, to put it tactfully as tactfully as possible. Let's take a look at what types constitute the remaining heavy user base. At this point in 2013, it appears that there has been an exodus of Quora's better users . Many have been driven off by staff and power cliques that dominate the community. What remains is not that appealing to the average person. Here's an overview of the most popular types of members.
Originally Quora promoted itself as the place where busy productive people could obtain fast answers to their questions. The result has been anything but. What transpired is that the site has attracted an army of anal-retentive personalities, Aspergers Syndrome-types, and plain old windbags who bog down the simplest and most straightforward of discussions with long and mostly unreadable 3000-word essays. Some members actually respond to everything in this manner. Most people learn to just skip these posts but it doesn't deter the culprits in any perceptible way.
While these come in both genders, Quora suffers from far more male attention-whores than female ones. These guys cannot resist publishing more unreadably long pontifications on movies, politics, sports, and other varied topics. However, unlike the anal-retentives who simply have nothing else to do, the attention-whore's motivation is to flaunt their erudition. They further help to create the impression that Quora is now little more than a catwalk for those with a pathological craving for attention to strut upon.
The Petty and Vindictive:
When Quora went through its Pinterest phase and introduced “boards,” some of the members used them as platforms from which to snipe at those they happened to disagree with. Their targets were not allowed to respond. Throw the egotists who cannot bear to be corrected on anything, the fetishists, the Rad-fem/Lesbianbloc, and the thin-skinned anal-retentives into the mix, and you get to re-experience the very worst of your high school years all over again. And you thought I was exaggerating the other day about the personalities that Quora attracts.
Quora's worst sin is that it's just one more online time-waster. Despite its intentions to save the world and make a fast buck while at it, if you are at all awake, it eventually dawns on you that Quora is just one more online sinkhole for your life. Spend enough time there and men will come to repossess your car and furniture. The little information of genuine value found there has already been published several million times all over the Net. What's left on Quora is a group of cliques carrying on mostly insipid conversations, stroking each other's egos, smiling and backstabbing one another, and harassing dissenters off the site. On the plus side, Quora can be worth visiting occasionally if all that you are seeking is trivia with which to dazzle friends at the next party. The one thing Quora is good at is aggregating useless information. Now to answer your question about Quora's latest pivot into a blogging platform, I'll state that I simply can't see it succeeding. Here's why. Who in their right minds will invest the blood and tears necessary to build a blog on a platform notorious for both heavy-handed censorship and the regular banishment of members? On top of all that Quora's gated community approach will severely limit your audience.
The answer is nobody but a fool will blog there. I still occasionally use the site but it happens with less and less frequency. It's simply not an enjoyable experience once you become conscious of the low ROI and political backstabbing. To conclude, WordPress and Typepad have nothing to worry about.
Notes from Xah Lee
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