Politicians at the Gates

March 4, 2011 § 4 Comments

By: Craig Montuori

Quora is slowly becoming popular with political professionals who have fundamentally different incentives than the average early Quora user. The systems built around rewarding subject matter expertise are misaligned for handling the large numbers of politicos looming in Quora’s future. Unlike many other fields, there is no ‘measure of correctness’ in politics; there is only a measure of public support. Quora faces a future in which key political figures or their lieutenants join Quora and treat it as another front in their political struggle, while small groups invested in a specific political ideology game the system, promoting their ideas and hiding and discrediting the opposition’s ideas.

Check the comments on some popular politician’s Facebook fan page. When those politicians arrive on Quora, many of those fans will follow, immediately upvoting the politician’s most banal pieces to ‘show support.’ This level of noise will distort the value of answer upvotes even with People Rank, since most people behave differently with political matters compared to almost everything else. For example, Scoble’s followers almost automatically upvoted his earlier answers, never noticing others, which devalued questions as an ‘exceptional resource’ by distorting the value of the other answers.

A related problem is the difference between Quora ‘tech CEOs’ dealing with public criticism and how equivalent political figures deal with it. Criticism is rarely allowed for long on politicians’ fan pages, as proved by the quick disappearance of comments blasting Sarah Palin. On Quora, some noted that Rick Warren deleted unfavorable comments on his Quora answer. As a public figure relying on his persona and fandom for his standing in the world, even polite criticism is a threat. However understandable the reaction, it violates the founders’ vision of creating quality resources through vigorous debate.

Small, organized groups based on ideology have an incentive to hide answers written from an opposing ideology, similar to Christopher Lin’s proposed quality control mechanism, based on having a group of users agreeing to mass downvote answers that don’t meet the standards expected of Quora. Reverting ideological groups’ work would be a constant drain on the admins and reviewers, and under current systems, they would have to respond to these political groups by making many targeted answers uncollapsible, resulting in lower quality results for all users.

Quora should highlight high-quality contributions not a favored party line. PageRank will help Quora adapt to political activity, but it assumes a certain type of rational behavior that is less common outside of the Silicon Valley type. Instead, Quora needs an ‘ideological’ rating for users beyond their ‘quality’ rating through PageRank. Users that consistently upvote answers in the political space in cliques or whenever a specific user adds an answer are probably voting for ideological reasons. People who quickly upvote or downvote a political answer are more likely to be reacting based on ideology than quality.

People will react according to their incentives, and the incentives for politically motivated individuals are different from groups currently on Quora. There is no easy solution for this systemic problem, but the politicians are coming; Quora should be ready for them.