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.