The Descent into Stupidity of Quora’s Evolving Business Model

Screenshot from the Quora Partner Program

First, to obviate objections: there’s still a lot of useful content on Quora, the product of sincere people asking questions and knowledgeable people answering them. But that content is getting harder to find, beneath the numbing froth of desultory questions and pointless answers that is the product of Quora’s latest attempt to find a worthy place in the online knowledge world: the Quora Partner Program.

Are you a Quora Partner? I’m not sure you would admit it if you are because it’s not a very lofty aspiration and what you do to earn a trickle (or perhaps a torrent) of cash is to drag down the quality of information on Quora, not by answering questions but by asking them. It’s reasonable to think that a web platform ostensibly devoted to providing helpful information would put a premium on answers. But it turns out that Quora is actually a website devoted to earning ad revenue through clicks, so the experiment now in progress pays people not to answer questions but to ask questions that will draw readers who will click on ads. Can you think of a question that will entice someone to squander a few (more) minutes of their time and put off doing the thing they should be doing? If so, the Quora Partner Program may have a place you.

This arrangement turns on its head the core reason that people engage in question and answer. Q&A is the heart of conversation, and in conversation at its best, natural state it operates on the principle of cooperation: that’s how we achieve communication. No one explored this idea more thoroughly than philosopher and linguist Paul Grice, who formulated his four maxims of conversation:

When you ask a sincerely motivated question of someone there’s a reasonable expectation that you are abiding by these maxims, and when you answer a question in a helpful way, it’s likely that you’re doing the same. But when your motivation for asking a question is not to obtain information, but rather to earn income, you are not a participant in a conversation. Rather, you are a shill, in this case a shill for Quora and the income stream that it hopes to generate on the basis of your misdirected cleverness.

Quora is pretty straightforward about what they are up to here: they say in their Partner Program literature, “questions are compensated based on the user engagement and advertising revenue they generate.” But at the same time, they go out of their way to promote the idea that they are looking for “questions that many people in the world may have,” and this is where they depart significantly from reality. The questions that earn the biggest income streams are probably not questions that you have. On the contrary, the questions they are looking for contribute little or nothing to the store of human knowledge. Instead they titillate voyeuristic curiosity and invite time-wasting, in the same way that tabloid magazines do.The graphic at the top shows a couple of examples of big-earner questions that the Partner Program gives its participants as examples. This is apparently the kind of thing that mind-numbed netizens are eager to click on.

I have answered a number of questions on Quora — more than a hundred, I would say, without counting them. I am also the recipient of numerous requests to answer questions on Quora, probably three or four a day (it turns out that Quora Partners can earn money not only for asking questions, but for requesting answers). It used to be that I got good questions on subjects about which I had some expertise that was of genuine use to the questioner. Lately, however, I get the sort of questions that you would imagine arising among people who are bored to distraction, or who are desperately in need of a life: “What’s the most jaw-dropping thing you saw on your last visit to New Mexico?” “What don’t you like about Colorado?” “Is the nickname M. J. a cliché at this point?” “What are the ten most shocking things about traveling to Morocco?” These are all recent examples.

You can see from the foregoing scenario that it’s not the answers that count on Quora; it’s the questions. It’s not in Quora’s interest for the answers to be compelling; indeed, they should not engage your limited attention span and distract you from looking at other much shorter questions and clicking on ads that accompany them. The questions (which “should be concise” — that’s from the guidelines) are to be short (“no more than two sentences”), easily digestible, and ideally, a bit click-baity, in order to draw the user to the pages that lodge the clickable ads.

I predict that given the track that they’re on, Quora won’t have much need for its partners before long. It’s not a complicated undertaking to feed the most “successful” user-generated questions into a machine-learning scenario and let it develop an algorithm to come up with similarly engaging questions. These could easily made to appear to come from “users” with bot-generated names, credentials, and other identifiers. Indeed, I already get answer requests from the likes of Lyra Minute, Kosmic Dude, and a number of common-as-dirt given name-surname combinations.

I don’t overlook the reality that Quora is a business with investors, and those investors are looking for a way to make a buck. But is Quora a forum that people need, that adds enduring value to our knowledge or experience? On the road they are going down now, I would say no. Nothing would be lost if Quora disappeared tomorrow. The best content has been absorbed by those who asked for it, and perhaps shared by them as well. People who want answers to questions would do better to visit Reddit or Stack Exchange.

Quora is well on its way to constructing a Potemkin village of shabby little information huts that rest on a solid foundation of click-generated ad revenue. Users of Quora, especially those who answer questions in good faith, are the hapless peasants who inhabit this village; I expect that many of them will simply move on.

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