Why Quora & Social Media Experts Don’t Mix

February 6, 2011 § 42 Comments

By: James Hritz

As the Quora user base has grown, along with much praise, has come some criticism. Specifically, many critics view Quora as a snobby, clubby, and intellectually elitist place. It seems much of the loudest criticism about Quora and it’s community and moderation policies come from a Twitter ecosystem creature known as the “social media expert/maven.”

If you are even a casual user of Twitter, I am sure you have seen the social media expert more than a few times. The profile looks something like this: Following 20,545, Followed by 20,100, and 10,000+ Tweets. This user’s tweet stream is populated by a steady stream of retweets and tweets of well-publicized articles from publishers like Techcrunch, Scoble, GigaOm, etc.  Up until December, this creature was conspicuously absent from the Quora community.  Before I go on, lets be clear that this is not an attack on those of you who would call yourselves “social media experts.” For reasons I will lay out, these users do play a valuable role in the Twitter ecosystem.

On Twitter, what are “social media experts” doing and why are they doing it? Who in their right mind could possibly follow any more than a few hundred users on Twitter and still have a valuable user experience? Well, the answer lies in one of the tried and true business models of the internet: arbitrage.  Huh? What could “social media experts” possibly be arbitraging? Simple, they are reputation arbitrageurs.  This statement should not be taken to mean that these people are not intelligent, substantive or even have great personal reputations.  What it does mean is this: these individuals are using Twitter as a personal marketing tool to build and expand their personal reputation either for career advancement (e.g. demonstrating thought leadership) or generating traffic in an effort to monetize a personal blog or website. Sometimes, it is both.

How does reputation arbitrage work?  The first step for many of these users is to setup (through Twitterfeed , Hootsuite, etc) RSS feeds that will automatically tweet articles as they are posted.  These users also may choose to auto retweet certain users (e.g. Scoble, Malik Om or Michael Arrington).  Once they have their feeds in place and are showing a stream full of solid links, they then begin the process of aggressively following and unfollowing users  to create an audience of people who show an interest in the same subject they want to establish or expand their reputation. In this case, it’s social networking. (to Twitter’s credit, they have significantly cracked down on aggressive following behavior).  The reputation arbitrageur then hopes by tweeting and retweeting sources with strong reputations, users will read these tweets, associate the source with the reputation arbitrageur and quite possibly even retweet the link.  With each tweet, the reputation arbitrageur manages to claim a small piece of credibility from what is essentially a costless and riskless transaction. It doesn’t cost them anything (other than time in curating followers) and they never assume risk of an opinion since they generally select highly credible, semi non-controversial, mainstream sources.  It’s the Twitter way of building reputation and influence.

When these user types arrived on Quora, based on their tried and true methods from Twitter, they quite naturally expected the same dynamics to hold true.  Whoa! Not so fast. What they actually found was quite the opposite. During the weeks of Quora’s most recent growth spurt, I found myself followed by some users who were following literally 100s of users, but followed by no one. In all fairness, I am sure some of this aggressive Quora following by new users was due in some part to the sign up process, but the “social media expert” in me also knows that many of these new “social media expert” users expected an auto follow back rate commensurate with their Twitter experience (on Twitter, you can expect about a 30%ish follow back rate).  This lack of follow back by established Quora users, in a large part I believe, led to much of the criticism that Quora is a snobbish, elitist club.  I am certain some egos were bruised.

Why didn’t established Quora users follow back? Well, Quora is a community where you are expected to contribute. You can contribute questions or answers, both are good, but at a most basic level, the expectation is you will contribute. Voting up an answer, sending Thanks for an answer or following a question is simply not enough to inspire the experienced Quora user to follow back.  I have a healthy following on Quora, contribute frequently, and yet some power users of Quora who up vote many of my answers still do not feel inclined to follow me back. Am I offended? No, of course not. For whatever reason, our interests do not intersect as far as they are concerned. This is fine.  This Quora community reality does not sit well with the “social media expert” who is seeking to build credibility cheaply and efficiently.

If you buy the analogy many of these “social media expert” users are reputation arbitrageurs, then the main hurdle for these users in the adoption of Quora is simply a question of transaction costs. The transaction costs on Twitter are low (e.g. hitting the retweet button), but the transaction costs and risk on Quora are high. To succeed on Quora, you must generate thoughtful and interesting questions and/or answers. This is hard and there is no script to do it at scale, although, some users have tried to game up votes using things like Amazon’s Mechanical Turk. Furthermore, there is infinitely more risk to reputation, than the “social media expert” is willing to take on. They don’t want to take the chance that their answer isn’t the most up voted, shown to be incorrect, or perceived to be less than insightful. Why would they take on the time, effort, and risk involved in being successful on Quora, if they could just keep hitting the retweet button on Twitter?

The intention is not to malign “social media experts.” There is nothing morally or otherwise wrong with what they are doing. In fact, I would argue, at least for Twitter, they serve a very useful purpose. Like arbitrageurs in financial markets who provide liquidity and price efficiency, these reputation arbitrageurs perform a similar function in the Twitter ecosystem. Their desire to increase their own reputation leads them to keep the information flow on Twitter going to the benefit of a large number of users.  The price they charge is the small slice of credibility they gain anytime someone reads or retweets their tweet from a credible source.

While many would still categorize Quora as just a Q&A site, I think they are missing a large, but still opaque trend in social media. That trend is one where users are diversifying their social media activity from using purely low transaction cost services (Twitter, Facebook) to higher transaction cost services like Quora, Tumblr or Namesake.  Regardless of how you feel about Quora, its content, or its community, the trend of deeper, longer format conversations in social media and how users adapt to it is going to be something of interest.

§ 42 Responses to Why Quora & Social Media Experts Don’t Mix

  • [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by quorareview, Jesse Stay – Links. Jesse Stay – Links said: Why Quora & Social Media Experts Don’t Mix http://stay.am/i46ECc [...]

  • enkerli says:

    Congratulations on taking special precautions so that your comments wouldn’t be misconstrued. In a way, the “social media expert” (or a special kind of “social marketer” I’d now call “social marketor”) may have become the strawman, in analysis of social media. For instance, it was a running gag at WebCamp, the last time (according to notes which transpired): “SME” was a pejorative label applied to discredit, even jokingly, someone.
    It’d be hypocritical, in my case, to blame someone else for using the SME strawman argument, especially since I’ve been blogging about them. When they reached Twitter (it actually took a while; Twitter was much more like early Quora, in 2007), they caused a stir, as we kept being followed by lots of people who clearly only wanted to promote themselves. There was even a perception that these SMEs were “polluting” Twitter, even when this notion wasn’t voiced that directly. In 2009, there were podcasts dedicated to the use of Twitter in marketing. The advice given was about “engaging in conversation” but, clearly, follower count was perceived as a measure of success. I agree with you that it’s impossible to engage in very meaningful interaction when your Twitter stream contains thousands of active users.
    Where I would disagree with you, though, is in categorizing people based on their Twitter behaviour. Some of us use Twitter in different ways. And Twitter tends to be more efficient for certain things. It really was meant as a broadcast medium and while there are people who manage to have thorough conversations through Twitter, it’s far from the norm. So, using Twitter to expand our horizons and stumble upon things which are outside our usual sphere of activity can be quite effective. And, to the untrained eye, it may look like the actions of some random SME. The difference is in intention, and it’s usually misleading to assign intentions to people’s actions without using any kind of corroborating evidence.

    Quora is now suffering from some of the same problems which affected Twitter in 2009.
    The influx of SME on Twitter in 2009 didn’t make that big of a noise. Part of it is that people were privately annoyed but many were still feeling their way around Twitter. In fact, usage patterns for Twitter were still emerging. So, while there were those who loudly claimed that “Twitter isn’t meant for this,” it rapidly became clear that Twitter was a flexible tool, and that different usage patterns were allowed. Otherwise, we wouldn’t have seen use of Twitter during the Earthquake in Haïti last year or the Tweet to Talk initiative this year. These are clearly within the bounds of what makes sense to do on Twitter but they’re also far from the original mission (and prompt) for Twitter.
    So, Quora’s problem is also very different from the problem Twitter had, two years ago. But there’s a strong similarity: it’s linked to an influx of people with a given agenda. Those pesky “social marketors.” They should be banned! There should be a Scoble-filter!
    Well, there are several sides to this.
    One is that calling out a certain group of people, no matter how negatively they’re perceived by public opinion, is likely to generate tension and be perceived as elitism, even by those who aren’t part of the targeted group. In US politics, it may make a lot of sense for people to eviscerate members of either the Tea Party or the Green Party, but doing so may actually be perceived as a form of intolerance or condescension.
    Another issue, which is more interesting, is that Twitter eventually managed to remain relevant through all of this and now seems quite healthy. There still are vocal critics who say that the service has been spoiled by “social marketors” and celebrities, but it still remained an important part of the social media scene. I must admit that it surprised me. I was quite convinced microblogging would be integrated in another service (my first tweet, back in 2007, was about FriendFeed and Facebook; Facebook did buy FriendFeed but microblogging never became a big part of Facebook).
    The final point I’d mention, and the one which brought me here, is possibly more damaging to Quora. It’s about a very specific approach to outside criticism which relates to what Irving Janis called “groupthink.” In this case, it’s about personalizing the criticism and responding through some version of ad hominem. You’ve personally been very careful to avoid this and, again, your caution is commendable. Mine is an outsider’s perspective: I’m not what somebody else on Quora Review called “the Quora elite” and you’re calling “experienced Quora users”; nor am I a “social media expert.” (I’m a social scientist with a fascination for social networks.) It seems to me that the group of people who see Quora as “elitist” and the category of “social media expert” you’re describing aren’t coextensive. The overlap is significant, of course. But there are social media experts who don’t see Quora as elitist and there are people who see Quora as “elitist” who aren’t “social media experts. And there are many ways to interpretations of Quora which relate to elitism without being exactly it. People may see it as: exclusive, select, sophisticated, smart, meritocratic, condescending, “high-quality,” deep, demeaning, profound, snubbish, or brilliant… There are significant differences between these, of course, but people are describing the same idea from different angles.

    Yes, I do perceive Quora as demeaning and antisocial. But it has exactly nothing to do with my follower count. In fact, my follower list cued me in to another problem with Quora: a discrepancy between the low cost of connection and the high impact of a connection (“friends” can ask us questions directly, with a strong sense of social obligation implied, regardless of what people think). But I couldn’t care less about how many people follow me on Quora. What I find antisocial relates to several factors, including: an overemphasis on alleged “expertise,” a strange form of credentialism, a “following push” reminiscent of early Facebook apps, a patronizing tutorial and quiz on asking question the Quora way, a total disregard for the diverse ways people use questions to establish rapport, lack of true social engagement, a voting system which encourages self-promotion, and the attitude some “experienced Quora users” have of brushing off criticism as coming from people who “just don’t get it.”
    In other words, I see Quora as going exactly in a reverse direction from what makes me love social systems. You may then assign me to the “Social Media Expert” category (“hey, look, he posts Google Reader items to his 2700 Twitter followers”) but you’d miss out a lot on my other social media activities (including with my other Twitter account or through my offline activities).

    Brush me off, if you want. But if people perceive Quora as elitist, there might be more to it than Scoble’s ego or Pogue’s “make this clear to laypeople.”
    Nobody’s severed head will help Quora mature out of its original base of “experienced users.”

  • JC Hewitt says:

    I think Social Media Experts will move onto up-voting already-popular answers rather than mass-following. Mass-upvoting can have a similar effect on follow rates without (at the moment) provoking the ban hammer.

  • jameshritz says:

    Alexander,
    Thoughtful comments. Thank you.
    I don’t necessarily disagree with many of your points, but here a couple reactions:
    • Generally, I have little to no feelings (positive or negative) towards SMEs. Like I said in the article, I think they have a place in the Twitter-verse. Many nodes in the Twitter network are effectively dead ends. Users read, but they don’t share. Sharing is a big part of the value of Twitter or any social media product. SMEs help maintain liquidity in Twitter’s market of ideas. They serve a purpose. In Quora and other higher transaction cost services, they haven’t found their role yet.
    • I agree that Twitter has many use cases. As I’ve said to others, following hundreds, even thousands with the intention of having a serendipity experience with content is a completely valid one. I thought I was careful to fully describe the type of user I was referencing by not only describing their following/follower profile, but being very specific about the types of content they tweet. They load up on retweets from credible sources and generally have less conversation.
    • Being neutral about SMEs, I hope this piece isn’t construed as a Quora should ban all the SMEs. I don’t believe that kind of stuff is productive or in the spirit of where the social web is going. What I think will happen with Quora is either: A) SMEs will find a way to provide value within Quora and execute their agenda at the same time; or, B) SMEs will determine transaction costs and risks are too high and self select out of Quora. Reality is it will probably be a little of both.

  • enkerli says:

    @James: Thanks for your reply.
    I appreciate your functionalist point and I tend to agree. In fact, I might use it as an example in my next class (intro to soci; we keep asking questions about functionalism).
    You have indeed been careful and, again, your cautious approach is very useful. But a) some Quora defenders haven’t been that careful; b) even that description could apply to a behaviour coming from someone who doesn’t consider her-/himself a SME.
    The point about sharing is interesting. As a tool, Twitter is among the most efficient ones for sharing, in my experience. At least, in the one-to-many sense: I share a link or some information, some people may transmit it to their own networks, and items can travel in interesting ways, with or without added comments. In my experience, Facebook has been a surprisingly efficient way to engage with such items, in a many-to-many way. Unlike Twitter, which makes conversation rather convoluted a process, some items I’ve shared to Facebook (through Twitter and/or Tumblr, actually) have started some amazingly (!) thoughtful interactions, some of which continue for long periods of time.

    As for letting SME disappear out of their own cost/benefit analyses, a very fine functionalist point to make (anything which doesn’t have a function will disappear) and your post made it clear that you didn’t want a ban. But a previous QR post also made it clear that there are “experienced Quora users” who take a much less welcoming view of certain SMEs. My guess is that part of the anti-SME sentiment may come from a difficulty with the expansion of Quora into a new phase, which is much less “intimate” and cozy.

    Thanks again. I’m finally finding what I want, out of the Quora community.

  • [...] / The Quora Review: Why Quora & Social Media Experts Don’t Mix  —  As the Quora user base has grown, along with much praise, has come some [...]

  • MJ says:

    The problem with “social media experts” is that they’re more or less just cliquey marketers who love to hear themselves and their friends talk, exert their perceived importance, etc. — the exact OPPOSITE of what helps communities online to grow and thrive. They’re stifling it.

  • Srini Kumar says:

    Quora isn’t just élitist to SME’s. It’s built in.

    Calling people “Not Helpful” when they’re trying to give a good response is as arrogant as it gets. There are nasty little grad students on there who act like cops against anyone daring to write with style. Quora has attracted the wrong early adopter audience, and will never cross the chasm unless these early adopters are fired.

    • enkerli says:

      Wow. I was just asked for a “tl;dr” version of my comments. Apart from the idea of firing early adopters, your comment is a straightforward (and precise) version of what I’d say.

    • Bing! But the algorithm they just put in place is pretty damn interesting, too.

    • Is it arrogance or harshness? You say “trying to” but isn’t the essence of meritocracy that success is rewarded — but ‘trying’ is not?

      Stock prices are brutally meritocratic — no points for trying, just results.

      I think Quora worries that ‘crossing the chasm’ means turning into a Yahoo Answers, full of drivel, and that they need to find a more rigorous way to assign reputation and reward success — while not simply rewarding ‘trying’.

  • Totally agree.

    And I’ll take a little arrogance and elitism it if curbs the social climber SME type of behavior that we see way too often on Twitter.

  • Se7en says:

    Twitter: Who you know, who knows you.
    Quora: What you know, how well you say it.

  • Tim Christin says:

    Thank you for a very enlightening article; completely agree. I am looking forward to a time when the “social media” logically emerges as simply media. It reminds me of “.com” companies 10 years ago versus real companies. Let’s get over “social media” and get on with the real discussions.

  • [...] artículo en The Quora Review: Why Quora & Social Media Experts Don’t Mix que resume porque los autodenominados “expertos” o “gurús” o [...]

  • Dan Weingrod says:

    I tend to agree more with enkerli’s well thought out comments. Seems to me that Quora wants to have it both ways. On the one hand it wants to be an exclusive club of “experts”, on the other it wants mass broad appeal that brings with it countless followers and with them the “arbitrageurs”.

    If you want the crowd you have to be able to put up with it. If you want the exclusivity then you need to make people earn the right to join. So far these are conflicting trends in the Quora experience.

  • Guabtron says:

    “Who in their right mind could possibly follow any more than a few hundred users on Twitter and still have a valuable user experience?”

    Me. Ever heard of Lists, Mentions and Tweetdeck? That’s how, and with multiple accounts. Very doable and quite enjoyable. That and columns with pre-defined searches allow you to filter all the noise in the stream.

    • jameshritz says:

      I probably should have put those sentences in quotes. That wasn’t necessarily my view, I was trying to communicate what other people say about this type of user.

      • enkerli says:

        Given the structure of your post, these quotation marks would have done a lot to change the tone of this discussion, methinks. This passage did sound out of phase with the rest but it was prominent enough to be interpreted as coming from your voice.

  • Leigh says:

    I think the thing that kinda irks me the most now that Quora has become more popular is that the crowd in general seems focused on hearing themselves vs. participating more generally. Maybe I”m wrong but now questions I follow seem to have tones of blithering responses with almost no one voting up answers or liking other pple (unless of course the pple have some form on influence or notoriety in which case their answers get all sorts of nods regardless of how inane the comment is or is not).

    I’m sure it’s all part of the ebb and flow as communities grow but I hope it settles down soon. The quality of content on Quora has been at the heart of why I loved it and I would be sad to see this diminish.

  • [...] If we are defined by our actions and words, essentially the currencies we exchange. The question is, are we investing in our social capital or social arbitrage? [...]

    • enkerli says:

      “Brian Solis is widely recognized as the humblest social media expert. Ever.” ;-)
      (Nothing personal. Just found the bio funny and assume it’s tongue-in-cheek. Firmly.)

  • Basil Farano says:

    Great post. I recently wrote a blog post on a couple of bad Quora experiences Ive had. I use Quora the same way I use Twitter. Its much more important to me to obtain information from the sites than it is to provide. I find them both incredible tools, but Quora does have a bit of an elitist feel to it unfortunately. I also agree with some of the responses to this post that it is impossible to truly gain any value from following thousands of people. You can always tell when people are “selling”.

  • [...] If we are defined by our actions and words, essentially the currencies we exchange. The question is, are we investing in our social capital or social arbitrage? [...]

  • [...] Why Quora & Social Media Experts Don’t Mix « The Quora Review. [...]

  • Mark says:

    I’m not a social media “expert” but I think the Quora folk are snobby, elitist pricks.
    I base this on my first-hand experience, my account was disabled/banned because one of their dictators, I mean moderators, didn’t like one (or more) of the questions that I posted. And they won’t respond on the social media sites so fuck ‘em.

  • [...] Why Quora & Social Media Experts Don’t Mix, The Quora Review [...]

  • [...] Why Quora & Social Media Experts Don’t Mix As the Quora user base has grown, along with much praise, has come some criticism. Specifically, many critics view [...] [...]

  • [...] On the other, it also indicates to those designing participatory sites, that it is prudent to cater for those who can give different amounts of commitment … which might mean chunking information and enabling different levels of participation, on the basis that not everyone, however much they may want to, is able to spend the equivalent of a full-time job asking and answering questions. By: James Hritz As the Quora user base has grown, along with much praise, has come some criticism. Specifically, many critics view Quora as a snobby, clubby, and intellectually elitist place. It seems much of the loudest criticism about Quora and it’s community and moderation policies come from a Twitter ecosystem creature known as the “social media expert/maven.” If you are even a casual user of Twitter, I am sure you have seen the social media … Read More [...]

  • [...] Hritz’s take on ‘Why Quora & Social Media Experts Don’t Mix‘ is all very funny, and interesting – and not without irony on a site boasting [...]

  • I’m new to Quora. It’s seems like it may be a step forward. Here’s why: I’ve been chastised for not using Twitter to promote my personal “thought leadership” enough. Perhaps there’s a more judicious approach to social media — articulated in this piece — where you post when they have something useful to share. That angle has precious little to do with sustaining the social egosystem or glorifying oneself. Sometimes it’s simply the behavior of experienced writers, editors, content marketers and conversationalists who speak when they have something truly interesting to add.

  • Nancy Kinney says:

    OK if I RT this to my 8 Twitter accounts and 120,000 followers a few times? Online interactive media is very democratic. If you want to create something that allows people to participate then be prepared to hear the voices of all of us, even if you don’t agree. It might not be pretty but hey, neither is life. Hearing everyone is very valuable, always. It makes the world a safer place. Letting elites run everything, even if it is just Q&A or social media, is a very big mistake in all instances.

  • webhat says:

    This is such a good article I should tweet it to increase my following and further my reputation. ;)

  • [...] caught a bit of flack yesterday for my social media peeps after tweeting a post on why Quora and social media experts don’t mix. The post (which, admittedly, is more than a bit defensive) proposed one theory as to why Quora has [...]

  • Oliver Starr says:

    One small correction you might make to your piece: it’s Om Malik”.

  • Absolutely agree with the point about transaction cost in my view.

    I like Quora but still not quite sure I have got the hang of it yet :)

    Also, can’t help but be surprised with all the quora-bashing that seems to be going on lately… it’s as if people simply don’t want there to be another popular social network rather than seeing the potentially fascinating place it can be.

  • [...] Why Quora & Social Media Experts Don’t Mix « The Quora Review [...]

  • Michael Lis says:

    James – great post and a really ball-zie one at that. It’s not easy to throw a few stones at SMEs.

    I will say as an owner of a social media firm for the past 4 years everything you have posted is pretty much true.

    As much as I believe that I have a good deal of experience I don’t consider myself an expert in a medium that has only really been around for 5 years (I don’t even think the self proclaimed experts are experts) I have about 700 followers on Twitter and I too have always been taken back by SMEs that pad there numbers with Tweetdeck or Hootsuite. I believe that the conversation and the connections made through social media are important and padding numbers does not belong in social media.

    I also agree with you that some SMEs are in it to hear themselves talk. When I first started my firm I was upset by that and over time I’ve let it go. As long as they are passing the good word about social media I’m ok with it. I always have said – let them talk about culture change and I’ll take the money from the clients that they preach too.

    Good post!

  • I follow selectively on Twitter — and my follow back rate is consistent with the 30% stated in the article. I retweet content from sources that I’ve had business interactions with. True thought leaders whose work and reputations are known by me. As for contributing to Quora: when I have something valuable to share here, I will. Meantime I look at what interests me and expect nothing in return. I’m busy writing journalistic white papers and e-books for executive audiences. I have neither time nor use for reputation arbitrage. That said, this must be the 4th or 5th “in defense of Quora’s snotty attitude” piece I’ve read — on Quora. No disrespect, but it seems to reveal that some contributors have inflated views of their opinions. Oh modesty, where is thy blush?

  • [...] Why Quora & Social Media Experts Don’t Mix « The Quora Review [...]

  • [...] Web, but really infrequently if at all. And I don’t follow Chris Brogan, Brian Solis, CC Chapman, or other people who are widely considered to be social media experts. I’ve got nothing personal against these publications or these people (I’m sure they’re all [...]

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