The Weird, Magical World of Modern Day Quora

In the late 2010s, people began to see the question-answering website Quora as a beacon of knowledge on the internet. Venture capitalists, startup founders, content marketers, and thought leaders alike drove towards the website to answer thought-provoking questions and at the same time drive traffic towards their website. Now, in 2021, almost all that interest has faded away. What happened?

For those unfamiliar, Quora is sort of like the luxury, superpremium-ice-cream version of Ask Jeeves. That might seem silly to a lot of people, but for a while this looked like a really good idea! It provided a place to discuss genuinely important topics from business, technology, etc., etc. Yet what we ended up getting was… Ask Jeeves for people who wanted to look smart. Quora in almost every sense is now a failed experiment, but I think it’s important to first discuss what Quora was meant to be, then going into the bizarre mess it is now. And, finally, discussing what a future iteration of Quora might be, and how it can fix the problems that the original Quora manifested. Let’s get started!

What Quora was meant to be

Imagine a place where you could ask an open-ended question – say, “What is some of the best machine learning research happening right now?” – and get detailed, verified answers from experts in the field. These answers could then generate further discussion, which could lead to a plethora of high-quality content. At the same time, these experts could use their posts to crosslink their own websites or content, thus serving as a viable platform for generating up-and-coming creators.

This was the original vision for Quora. As I mentioned before, it is relatively reasonable and quite valuable. It’s easy to discuss stuff on the internet, it’s just not easy to discuss stuff well. The internet is filled with junk content and trolls, and so it requires some heavy moderation to keep the quality high.

The problem with well-moderated pages is that they are hard to monetize, and therefore make a profit. For websites that aren’t made for profit, such as LessWrong, or those who get their funding elsewhere, like HackerNews, this isn’t a problem. But Quora was a startup, and its main goal was growth. They couldn’t afford to pay gate or kick the majority of users out. So… what happened?

What Quora is

And now we get to my favorite part of this article: the part where I get to shit on Quora with no remorse. Okay, that’s not exactly true. I’ll start with the good things about modern Quora. The first is that, mechanically speaking, the website is perfectly fine. There are no notable bugs, and on the outside looking in you’d think by their marketing and design that they perfectly achieved their end goal, thank you very much.

The second good thing about Quora is that they really did achieve one of their goals: it’s quite easy to get a lot of views on your answers! The image above is my profile, displaying my all-time view count as of December 2021. Now, take in mind that while I joined in 2013, I only started posting at the tail end of 2018, and even then only for a few months. 40k+ views is a lot for a handful of questions answered! It is worth noting, however, that the way Quora counts these views is ambiguous. Is it just the number of views on a question? If so, then that means your answer was actually likely not read, assuming it was not the top answer. There are indeed pages on Quora that link to specific answers, but I am skeptical of this being the page tags that are used to calculate these analytics, just because I have never received a top answer except for once or twice, and therefore should not have this many views. Or perhaps I am just lucky, and the system is working perfectly as intended. Either way, this is mostly a digression – it’s time to get into the “weird, magical world” that the title of this article suggests.

The modern Quora is less akin to a meeting of academic and industrial minds and more of a secondary website for Facebook boomers to post their memes and stories. This outcome is very strange to me, and is where the intrigue in this case really picks up. If you were to tell me Quora failed, I would assume it just turned into another Ask Jeeves or Yahoo Answers. But that is not the case – while you do see literal questions being asked from time to time (as we will later see), these are actually quite rare. Instead, Quora failed and became some sort of modern EbaumsWorld, a sort of time-traveling vortex into the Reddit front page of 2008. Really, the best way for me to describe this is to just show you. 

I have taken screenshots of the first 4 posts I have seen on the homepage of Quora. This is not some sort of weird anomaly – I have been on the homepage of Quora many times, and invariably these top 4 posts look pretty much the same every time. If you do not believe me, I implore you – go to Quora right now and look at the first 4 posts on the front page. Unless something has drastically changed since I wrote this article, it will be this same level of quality.

This first exhibit is quite funny. I could honestly see the headline of the Facebook article reshare on this: Daniel Craig OUTRAGED about James Bond being PLAYED BY A WOMAN. You would see that it was shared by your Trump-voting uncle, and when you click on the link it turns out to be some heavy “Anti-SJW” blog run by one guy in Indiana.

Okay, politics aside, you can see why this is a bad quality post. The question is far too specific to ever generate real discussion, almost to the point where it appears to be leading. I have a running theory that the way these Quora posts come into existence is that some guy uses one account to post the question, and the other to immediately post the answer, then goes back to the old account in order to star it. Regardless of whether that’s true, this isn’t really a true “film” discussion. This is moreso nonsense tabloid talk. And you’ll notice that the so-called expert’s credential is simply “Hollywood fanatic”. How does one become a Hollywood fanatic? Just read a lot of issues of People Magazine and TMZ? My point here isn’t to put down our good friend Lander – he’s simply using the system to his advantage. The more important issue is that the system has been designed to reward this sort of content. Onto the next exhibit. 

This is the second post on the front page, and in many ways is similar to the first – so I won’t spend too much time on it. This one is obvious clickbait. Really, the worst picture ever photographed of a celebrity is them making fun of an old lady? I mean, yeah, that’s a dick move. But I have a hard time believing that the most inappropriate celebrity photo of all time is some no-name Playb*y (Allah curse its name) model making fun of someone at the gym. I’m pretty sure this happens like, every other week. More proof that Quora is incentivizing lower-quality content. 

Okay, yes, this is an ad and therefore not entirely Quora’s fault. But it is technically the third post, and it is so ridiculous that I felt the need to post it. This feels like a parody – like something out of Scarfolk Council or Alan Wagner’s work – but no, it is a real Motley Fool ad. I don’t want to blame the site too much for this, but I suppose if I had to make some sort of critique I’d recommend some filtering for advertisers as well. 

And, alas, we reach the fourth and final post. This is another piece of clickbait, and I honestly think this is the worst question of the three. This is more of a subreddit prompt than an actual discussion topic. To the “expert”’s credit, she does cite a real story on this – originally I assumed she had been making the whole thing up, but after reading her source I think this is actually just greatly exaggerated with a few pieces removed. Either way, this is absolutely the sort of story you would see on Ebaumsworld back in the day. Once again, I see the headline: MOST SHOCKING THING YOU’LL READ TODAY: You won’t believe what turned THIS MAN into a PSYCHOTIC PEDOPHILE. Not the least bit of a hint of enlightening content.

The reason I choose these four posts is because this is likely what you’d see if you first opened up the timeline. And, like I said, I’m not cherry-picking here. These are actually the first four pieces of content that show on this feed. What happened?

The lack of content moderation is obvious here. But I want to focus more on hitting this problem at its source. While the answers are poor, they do follow their prompt – which means that the issue therein lies with the question moderation specifically. 

Let us now begin the Quora Question Lightning Round.

As before, these have not been cherry-picked. I took a couple of topics that I follow (standard Hivemind stuff – business, technology, entrepreneurship, podcasts, etc.) and grabbed a few of the most recent questions. By delving into this mess, we get some insight on how the top-of-the-pile questions end up being so atrocious in the first place. Let’s take a look.

To start us off, I’d like to give an example of a question that I think does match the original “rational discussion” pitch of Quora. I think if you got a few historical or literary experts to answer this question, the results would be rather lively and interesting. And I think a website that had questions like these all the time, on a variety of different topics, would be really nice. Alas, it was only one of two questions that I found which fit the bill. As for the others, well… let’s get to those. 

You’re an incel, I think. I mean, this isn’t WebMD. What topic is this even under, anyway?

Alright, out with it – who fucked you over? I mean, if the guy already sold it for $11 billion and didn’t give you a piece, something tells me you just aren’t getting that money. No need to post a Quora question about it in desperation. Especially not one that speaks to the issue in vague terms. 

Scouting for clients, I see. Don’t think Quora is the best place for this. Well, maybe it is if you’re a question answerer. Other than that, you’re better off just looking for some resources on Google.

You know whenever someone ends with “Not complaining; I’m genuinely curious”, then they’re absolutely livid. This question is bad in general for its 3 sentence set-up, but I think even if you were to distill it down (“Why is art more valuable than literature?”) it’s a leading question that doesn’t go anywhere if you don’t let people say “Well, actually, it isn’t”.

Yes son, it’s very cool. Now don’t forget to do your math homework. Also, it’s your turn to wash the dishes after dinner. 

No god, no GOD! Listen, I’ll let you do whatever you want. I’ll let you advertise your Fiverr page, I’ll let you ask if you have a tumor, I’ll let you talk about your cool superhero OC, but for the love of Christ Almighty please DON’T post IT BUZZWORDS in the QUESTIONS TAB!

…No? I mean, don’t they teach you how to phrase questions in fourth grade? 

To this guy’s credit, I do think the question “What are some creativity constraints that artists can utilize?” does pass the sniff test in terms of high quality questions that would be appropriate for the site.

Really? Really? You can literally, actually Google this. In fact, I just did. The answer is “BackRub”. You’re welcome.

Ahh, this guy’s clever. While I can’t deny that using Quora to source content writing prompts is a good idea, I do have to say that it once again doesn’t align with the vision. Remember what I said earlier about incentivizing the wrong behavior. 

I package these last two together because I, yet again, have a theory. I think this is the same person asking both questions because they are both poorly written and confusing in the same way. Call it a hunch.

I think I spent 5 minutes reading each of these, and I still don’t think I 100% understand them. This guy is like the James Joyce of asking questions on Quora. If my intuition is correct I believe the top one is asking about how to best invest your money with a small capital base (not a terrible question to ask vetted investing experts) while the other one is… asking if it’s okay to feel smarter than stupid people? Or feeling stupid because you feel smart when the other people are stupid, which isn’t very smart because… nevermind. I’m not going to bother with that one.

Alright, I’m finished with bullying anonymous question askers. I think I’ve gotten my point across: one of the reasons why Quora answers are so low quality is because the questions aren’t moderated enough. Imagine being some big-shot investor or founder who is invited to answer questions on the platform, and the choices you get are these ones. You would chuckle softly then close out of the window, never to return again.

This is the state of Quora, something that is less akin to a discussion platform for experts and more akin to people-watching. To be fair, I could spend hours on Quora looking at the dumb things people say – yet that’s not the point of the platform. But was Quora doomed from the start, or is there still a way to fix it?

Could Quora still happen?

Despite what looks may portray, this isn’t a Quora hit piece, nor is it a hit piece on any of the people I might have mentioned. It’s the reason why I didn’t name this article “Quora Sucks, Here’s Why” and instead described this as a weird, magical world. Because it is! It just isn’t exactly how the developers intended, nor does it likely provide any value to society beyond entertainment. 

The big problem I think with Quora is how it was built from the ground up. My argument for stricter quality control doesn’t work for two reasons: 1) it would cause less people to post on the platform, and 2) it would require higher personnel costs in moderation. And the reason these points don’t work is because Quora is built as a startup, which focuses on revenue growth over all else. Traditional “intellectual” communities like LessWrong and HackerNews don’t have this problem because of reasons I’ve previously explained. 

So, if we could rebuild Quora, what would we do? Well, we first change the model. Say that Quora was a closed community with a subscription price attached – sure this would cause some gatekeeping, but for a good cause. The problem with this approach comes in when people pay the toll and they still post bad content, in which case you can A) ignore them and have a 2021 Quora all over again, or B) kick them off and deal with the headaches of those people then trying to appeal or get a refund. Not a great result.

Perhaps, then, we could try something else. Say we have a free service that is strictly moderated, so that questions and answers are still thoroughly checked but no one becomes too much of a hassle since obtaining the privilege was free in the first place. Where we instead get the profits from is through a premium membership, that gives some sort of bonus content. We can look towards other knowledge platforms for examples: perhaps a community-driven knowledge database (like Golden Wiki), a discussion board (like LessWrong), or some sort of ability to AMA with more prestigious individuals (Quora already does this for free but it provides some hardcore whiplash going between those AMAs and the base site). In this case, we can see our nu-Quora as a sort of aggregator service, one which combines many ideas in this sort of luxury knowledge enterprise and combines them into a singular service. Would it work? Who knows – nobody’s tried it yet. 

Anyway, I’m done talking to you now. This is already my longest blog post (even without the pictures), and to be honest I don’t really know why. Apologies to the Quora team in advance. 

If you like this post, feel free to subscribe to my newsletter down below. Have a knowledge-based website you’ve made, or found on your own? I want to hear about it – post it in the comments below or @ me on Twitter (@astukari). Bye for now!

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