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The Ridiculous Takedown of Robert Scoble

There’s this new site called Quora. You may have heard of it? It provides high-quality questions to user answers, and it determines the quality of these questions by user-vote. It’s also one of the hottest, most buzzed-about start-ups in Silicon Valley. Here’s a description from Quora’s “About” page:

Quora is a continually improving collection of questions and answers created, edited, and organized by everyone who uses it. The most important thing is to have each question page become the best possible resource for someone who wants to know about the question.

“But Dave,” you might ask. “Don’t a ton of other sites already do the same thing? Doesn’t the quality of questions/answer decline over time? Aren’t they usually plagued with problems, in terms of the quality of their answers as well as infestation by spammers?” Well, yes. All those things are actually true about Quora, or likely will be at some point. But, you see, Quora has been able to attract high-profile personalities and knowledgeable people to its platform, which has led to some pretty awesome and insightful answers on the site receiving quite a bit of attention from a lot of important people. It’s also inexplicably led to a site valuation of about $100 million.

I’ve used Quora, and I don’t find it user-friendly enough to go mainstream, nor do I find it differentiates itself enough from competing services to make it worthy of all this attention. Yet. The Wall Street Journal’s review of the site adeptly captures the opinion of most laypeople on what it’s like to use Quora (if they’ve even heard of it, which most of them haven’t).

All that being said, I was struck with the absolute ridiculousness of an online exchange between several high-profile users, who have recently taken to their blogs to battle it out about the usefulness of Quora. You see, blogging titan Robert Scoble, who was one of Quora’s most popular users, recently declared that “Quora is a horrid service for blogging.” Turns out, Scoble thought that the site would transform the way he blogged and interacted with others. When Scoble brought his considerable fanbase with him to Quora, it allowed all his answers to get upvoted to the top, thus providing the illusion that this was just another platform for him to extend his brand. You could call the influx of Quora followers he brought in something along the lines of “The Robert Scoble Effect,” and in some ways, his became an unwelcome presence.

First of all, as others have already pointed out, it was never really intended to be a service for blogging. But furthermore, when a site such as Quora ostensibly rates answers based on the quality of answers, only to find answer ratings determined by an invasion of Scoble followers, it tends to get pissed off. And that’s exactly what happened. A post addressed to Scoble at the Quora Reviewer retorted:

This morning, after seeing some of your favored Quora answers down-voted into oblivion and experiencing the anonymous sting of an overzealous reviewer, you decided to lash out. Quora, you wrote, was ”a horrid service for blogging.” Sure, you said, “it’s fine for a QA site, but we have lots of those.” As if to administer a finishing move, you added that Quora’s competitors are actually bigger and better and badder – especially Stack Exchange, where “the answers are broader in reach and deeper in quality.” Well, sorry, Scoble, Quora is not your playground.

Arrington from TechCrunch also posted a rebuttal to Scoble. So, Scoble backed down. And I don’t think he should have.

Sure, Scoble might have had the wrong idea about the site’s premise. But whose fault is that really? Scoble for doing what comes naturally to him, which is to evangelize about hot new services and bring a ton of followers with him who are naturally predisposed to upvote his stuff? Or Quora, for not developing a system that will actually do what it says, and surface the highest quality content?

I’ve written before about the limits of crowdsourcing. The take home message of my previous piece is that crowdsourcing is extremely difficult. Writing an algorithm that will result in the best answers receiving the most votes is nigh impossible when your site has a limited number of users. Quora’s buzz is not built on its ability to do this, but rather the high-profile/knowledgeable people who have posted memorable answers to some of its questions. I agree completely with Vivek Wadha, who wrote:

I think that Quora will continue to be an excellent resource if the same people who have been hyping it, and who have invested in it, keep posting their thoughtful answers. But I believe that the excess hype is destined to make Quora a victim of its own press. The quality of answers will decline. The people whose opinion I value, such as Quora’s #1 respondent, Robert Scoble, will simply stop posting on the site when they get drowned out by the noise from the masses. They will turn away after having their posts voted down (so that they look less important than their peers) and being personally subjected to the types of mindless, anonymous attacks that you see in the comments section of TechCrunch.

Not to say that there aren’t many other smart people who will post good answers. But when there are hundreds of answers to a given question, by people you have never heard of (often with fictitious names), how will you separate the wheat from the chaff? And how will you distinguish fact from fiction? You certainly can’t trust the rankings of the respondents when these rankings are themselves generated by Quora users.

Let me draw new lessons from these analyses: In order for a site such as Quora to truly become useful, it must either 1) embrace its niche status and nurture its fledgling community (with the hierarchy that that entails), or 2) it must go mainstream enough that it can fulfill its vision of a truly crowdsourced, useful resource.

Let me expand on each of these. What I mean by embracing its niche is to say that when you have the relatively limited number of users that Quora does, naturally, some users will rise to the top due to their pre-existing influence or the consistent quality of their answers. It is possible to embrace this. Other crowdsourcing sites give special privileges (e.g. adminstrator status, “top user” status) to those who are most active, or who provide the highest-quality material. Likewise, if Quora’s top users begin to constitute an online oligarchy, Quora could channel their abilities to continue to improve its site.

Alternatively, if the site really does get enough mainstream adoption, then it could become something akin to the next Wikipedia, where the final product truly is a reflection of what the majority of people think are the best answers. Based on a variety of factors, I don’t see this happening.

[There is a third alternative that I haven’t listed: PeopleRank. If Quora can make its ranking algorithm better than that of any other site, then it has a chance to differentiate itself and truly succeed at its stated goal. It’s a daunting task. We’ll see how they do.]

The above ecosystems are obviously far more complex than I’m making them out to be here, but my point still stands. It is the apex of absurdity that a power user such as Scoble should be scolded for misunderstanding how to use a site such as Quora, especially when that site does not even come close to living up to its own mission. Scoble himself put it best when he wrote the following:

[Quora is] just fine for a QA site, but we already have lots of those and, in fact, the competitors in this space are starting to react. Mahalo just released a new version that has been getting lots of praise and at DLD I met the CEO of and he said to expect a major update from his service (which has 1000x more users). Stack Exchange is growing faster than Quora and has many many times more questions and answers, plus I’ve found the answers are broader in reach, and deeper in quality (especially for programmers).

In the face of criticism, Scoble backed down. But it’s really Quora that should be criticized, for not creating a system that was be able to withstand the Robert Scoble Effect.