Quora Person of the Year: YOU

January 28, 2011 § 3 Comments

By: Shannon Larson

The key to understanding all there is to Quora is right there in the tagline welcoming all new users:  A continually improving collection of questions and answers created, edited, and organized by everyone who uses it.

When I first joined Quora, back when it was in invite-only beta, new users approached the service with a bit of reverance. We had heard about how great it was – a well of insight, knowledge, and first-rate advice – and we had been invited to take part. Before posting, everyone spent a few days lurking – following questions, upvoting outstanding answers, and generally learning how the site works. Questions were thought-provoking or addressed a very specific need. The prevailing attitude of what constituted an acceptable answer can be represented by a question posted in June, “Should you only answer questions on Quora if you happen to be an expert in that subject area?” Back then, practically every answer marked unhelpful was a genuinely funny joke, often thoughtfully composed (see Ludi Rehak’s list of the best non-helpful joke answers).

When Quora opened, the dynamic, of course, changed. Invite-only fosters something like a sense of duty to follow established norms, but when people join because they’re curious about “the next big thing”, they tend to immediately start using the site without taking the time to figure out the dynamics of the Quora community.

Many insightful, well-rounded users with expertise in myriad subject areas came flocking to the site. However, at the same time, the old guard became a bit distressed at an emerging trend of newbies posting without thinking (a sentiment perfectly captured in Lucretia M. Pruitt’s “Welcome to Quora. Do Yourself a Favor & Slow Down.“). As more and more new users joined, they saw a smattering of mediocre answers among the sea of excellence and, naturally, wrote more quick answers off the top of their head to “test Quora out.” As the mediocre answers proliferate, they beget more mediocre answers. To counter this trend, it’s essential that we make high quality content as visible as possible.

To my great delight, I was recently invited to become an admin. I’ve always believed in Quora’s mission and the policies and procedures that keep it excellent. Back when I first joined, I was already defending the actions of admins, and I’ve also always been rather persnickety about the finer points of the English language (perhaps it’s inherited – both of my grandfathers gave me Eats, Shoots and Leaves), so I took to my role as an admin like a duck to water.

Then I quickly realized what a daunting challenge the admins and reviewers face. One of our jobs is to review questions and answers. Even as we race through question after question, we watch the queues expand to incredible lengths – thousands upon thousands of items to review. Quora recently passed the half-million user mark, and we can tell.

The most discouraging part of being an admin is marking answers unhelpful. When a new user is enthusiastic about interacting with the site, it feels awful to reject their contributions. But it’s something that must be done in order to maintain Quora. If someone wants to know an answer to a question, pithy one-liners, stream-of-consciousness ramblings, sales pitches, and unexplained links just don’t help.

What’s even worse for Quora is the proliferation of bad questions. We have twenty-five different tags for questions that need improvement, and we probably need more. There are questions that are incomprehensible, questions that aren’t reusable, questions that seem to have no purpose but to offend, questions with hopelessly flawed premises, duplicate questions, etc.

Many of these are salvageable, but with our backlog, triage is unavoidable.

I love Quora, and I find it rewarding to be an admin, but we do have an uphill battle to maintain the high quality that we’ve all become accustomed to.

To achieve this goal, you all are encouraged to help. Edit questions and question details for clarity (new users will often thank you, especially if English is not their native language). Instead of commenting about flawed wording or, even worse, calling out a misused word in an answer, take the initiative to fix it. When you see a substandard answer, politely ask in a comment if the answerer could add a link summary or give an explanation. Suggest edits for formatting, spelling, and grammar. Do whatever you can to help that person, who has already demonstrated an interest in answering the question, transform a nebulous idea into a condensed nugget of wisdom.

Try to give everyone the benefit of the doubt. Everyone has the potential to add value to Quora. They just need a little help from their new friends in the Quora community.

And above all, always remember that Quora is continually improving collection of questions and answers created, edited, and organized by everyone who uses it. That means that you have the power to help collect all the random, brilliant, crazy, beautiful bits of knowledge hidden in people’s heads. And you are an integral part of offering that collection to all of humanity.

Shannon Larson is a Quora admin. She is currently among the top answerers for the topics Fighting, Beer, China, Quality of Life, Women, Marriage, DivorceEntitlement, Racism, Life Experience, and Don McLean. She was the first female to follow Weight Lifting, and there has been speculation that she is “the nicest person ever on Quora.”

§ 3 Responses to Quora Person of the Year: YOU

  • Quora says:

    Understanding Quora…

    The key to understanding all there is to Quora is right there in the tagline welcoming all new users:  A continually improving collection of questions and answers created, edited, and organized by everyone who uses it. When I first joined Quora, back w…

  • Shannon: it was your support in the face of a lot of backlash for that post (which I still can’t believe took on such a life of its own!) that made it easier to step back and realize that despite the frustrated, snarky tone, I really had expressed some of what the community being invaded was feeling like.
    Apparently, it also touched on what it felt like to be a new community member with little-to-no idea “what to do next.”
    Sometimes, we hurry when we should be slow – others, we don’t panic soon enough. This seemed like a combination of both. The site needed to prepare ahead of time for large influxes of new people. The new people should’ve been prepared to take it a bit slower to get it right.
    I think there’s a bit more working toward that direction. I sure hope so! 🙂

    But throughout it all, every Team Quora member and admin I’ve met has tried very hard to make it a pleasant experience. And that’s the first big step. 🙂

  • Jane Chin says:

    This post was very helpful for me! I went and pruned my topics from 20+ down to 10 and I did unfollow some people whose answers I found intriguing but they were so tech-oriented that I’m unlikely to want to read every single tech answer they write.

    Personally one of my challenges is deciphering the intent of the question – especially the ones I enjoy answering (usually about life, and “the big questions”). I tend to answer with a couple of paragraphs, but I also wonder if the person just needed something short and simple like “there is no meaning of life!” This came after I read a question on Quora asking why some people would write a dissertation length answer to questions that warrant one-liners.

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