Why Quora Won’t Scale

Quora is buzzing with speculation regarding the sudden departure of one of its founders, Charlie Cheever, only four months after the company received an infusion of $50 million. The Silicon Valley startup has been hailed as the next big thing in social media, but growth is sluggish and users are in revolt.

Quora is buzzing with speculation regarding the sudden departure of one of its founders, Charlie Cheever, only four months after the company received an infusion of $50 million.  In an answer to the question entitled, Charlie Cheever: What is Charlie Cheever’s status at Quora as of September 11th, 2012?, Adam D’Angelo, Cheever’s ex-partner and Quora cofounder, said, “We decided it was best for Charlie to step away from his day-to-day role at the company.” Users immediately called out D’Angelo for his use of PR speak and, specifically, his “we decided” language.  The use of such an impersonal, bland cliché naturally causes the reader to wonder whether Charlie was simply fired.

In fact, the first commenter’s post received more upvotes than D’Angelo’s answer itself, having stated that: “If you can’t give a transparent, honest answer, please just say so – it’s totally understandable. But there’s a weird hypocrisy about encouraging Quora to be a place where this type of response is frowned upon and then giving one yourself.”

Nor has Quora offered any response to the plethora of posts asking for clarification. For example, one of them asks that Quora team members confirm that Charlie Cheever’s departure does not mean that Quora is about to be acquired.   No authoritative answer has been forthcoming.  However, an anonymous source posted that Charlie was forced out because of his resistance to more additions of aggressive new features implemented by D’Angelo to push growth, and perhaps to sell Quora. His post was swiftly deleted by an administrator who called it a ‘hoax.’

While this news might be surprising to some, many others could have predicted it. For many months now, many have expressed concerns that Quora’s admins and reviewers have been running amok, with little or no oversight.

Why Quora Won’t Scale
Quora is a hybrid between a Q&A and social networking site, which “aims to be the easiest place to write new content and share content from the web.” The Silicon Valley startup has been hailed as the next big thing in social media, but growth is sluggish and users are in revolt.

The Spiral of Silence
According to the Spiral of Silence media theory, people tend to remain silent when they feel that their views are in the minority. The model is based on three premises: 1) people have a “quasi-statistical organ,” which allows them to know the prevailing public opinion, even without access to polls; 2) people have a fear of isolation and know what behaviors will increase their likelihood of being socially isolated; and 3) people are reticent to express their minority views, primarily due to fear of being isolated.

The closer a person believes that his or her opinion is similar to the prevailing public opinion, the more they are willing to disclose that opinion publicly. As the perceived distance between public opinion and a person’s personal opinion grows, the more unlikely the person is to express their opinion.

Quora Encourages the Spiral
Quora still exists primarily in its Silicon Valley echo chamber. The users who wield the most power seem intent on keeping it that way. Too often, once users outside that inner circle begin to make a mark — such as garnering deserved up votes too easily, or by questioning methodology and moderation — a backlash quickly ensues.  The less powerful users find themselves down voted to the point of having their answers collapsed into oblivion.  Then, they are aggressively pursued and forced to defend their subsequent contributions.

Once a user is pegged by the core, adding even the most innocuous of answers invites, at least, a mass of down votes.  At worst, such innocent behavior yields a comment stream of accusations and insults or causes the user to be blocked or banned without explanation. Even when valid research is cited, the insiders will dispute it, accusing the user of spreading misinformation.  Of course, such behavior undermines the stated goal of spreading knowledge. For example, one user with a broad fan base has described the New York Times as “sensationalist.” Self-interest trumps objective analysis on Quora.