Quora

Ousting Robert Scoble and the Death of the Twitterati

It’s been a tough few hours for Robert Scoble, the internet’s preeminent friend collector.

Not only have his answers on the emerging Q&A site, Quora, been voted down religiously, but the stars of the tech echochamber are now ganging up on him and labeling him the poster child for everything that is wrong with social Web services.

Before getting too deep into it, it’s important to understand why people hate Robert Scoble.  The answer may be simple jealousy.

Scoble has a tendency to jump on social services early and try to collect as many friends, followers or contacts that he possibly can, often rendering the core social functionality of those services useless and turning them into a broadcasting platform for himself.  On Twitter, his initial policy of auto-following anyone who would follow him resulted in a follower count in excess of 160,000 users (since actually listening to this many people is impossible, he’s since scaled back who he follows to a mere 30,000).

This pisses off a lot of people but the people that are the most pissed off are the ones that are doing the exact same thing.  The attention starved.  The people that worry more about their personal brand than the brand they work for or their clients. Essentially, the Twitterati.

Friend counts and other false metrics are largely responsible for the rise of the Twitterati.  In the early days of blogging, just getting comments was a badge of honor but that quickly gave way to Technorati rankings, the Power 150 and making your Twitter and Facebook follower counts as high as humanly possible.  Suddenly people who were basically unemployable could tout a false status metric, which would soon give birth to the “social media expert/ninja/guru” phenomenon.  Of course, this so-called status can now be bought on eLance by outsourcing a couple hundred dollars of work to someone in Mumbai who can build those numbers for you in a matter of weeks, regardless of whether or not you contribute anything.

Enter Quora.

Quora is often touted as a better version of Wikipedia since the user base is made up of accountable “experts.”  Unlike Wikipedia, which buries the editors a layer deep and requires a bit of actual expertise to find out what editors actually have status in the community, Quora is built on the same vanity that fuels the Twitterati to participate in other services.  You have a follower count, like Twitter, and your answers can be voted up and down, which is a great motivation to leverage your other social channels for increased status.  Eventually, Quora should build it’s search ranking and create high ranking search entries for the people that provide the best answers.

As Scoble willingly admitted and half-heartedly apologized for, he was guilty of bad judgement on Quora.  He flooded the service with answers, was guilty of over-the-top self-promotion to get votes and even was using photos and videos to get his answers greater visibility, taking an almost SEO-like approach to optimizing Quora content.  He even said that he mistakenly saw it a blogging platform as much as Q&A service.  First a Quora blog stated that the platform isn’t his “playground” and then Michael Arrington tried to refute the vanity incentive a little in his criticism of Scoble.  This is largely what is leading people to go to Scoble’s answers page and vote down each one of his contributions.

Maybe that’s a good thing.

If you are able to eliminate the Twitterati element from emerging social channels you can eliminate a lot of the noise as well and provide an overall better user experience.  Just think how much superfluous content is created for reasons of vanity or increasing false status metric.  If you look at social services that don’t reward that sort of behavior, like Aardvark and Path, you find that removing the vanity incentive results in a much leaner service.  And if you think this kind of incentive is crucial to the long term sustainability of a social service, look no further than Wikipedia to be proven wrong.

Most social platforms are so new that the ethics of how to use them are still being sorted out.  Even if the heaviest users are the biggest offenders, their behavior is reinforced by the legions that are using the services in the exact same way.  Quora is a great example of a service that is leveraging vanity to launch quickly and, looking at the early adopters, it’s working very well.  Whether or not the shortcomings that have led to the Scoble backlash will lead to an increase in more intimate social services remains to be seen.

It will most likely take a lot more time but, for those people that are annoyed by friend requests from strangers with 50,000 followers or what their social feeds clean of Foursquare location updates, the end may be coming sooner than you think.  The trick to killing the Twitterati beast is cutting off it’s head.

Quora vs Aardvark: Social Search Death Match

In the not so illustrious history of this blog, for reasons I can’t explain, posts on social search have always been the most popular.  I’ve contended for a long time that I think increasingly sophisticated SEO technology could prove to be the downfall of Google.  When brands with deep pockets effectively control organic search, I think most of the utility of Google will become quickly eroded.

For this reason, I’ve always been optimistic about social search engines like Mahalo.  Wikipedia has proven that a large highly-engaged user base can efficiently curate an unfathomable amount of content, possibly just as much as a legion of spiders powered by a siberian server farm.

I was even more optimistic when I began playing with Aardvark last year.  It had a great user base where I was living at the time (Portland, OR) and it worked equally well through IM, it’s iPhone app and the Web.  I was continually blown away by the quality of answers and recommendations I received and often tried to stump the system.  In many cases, getting user generated answers to questions was faster than sifting through Google, Wikipedia and the IMDB, especially from the mobile app.

For the past couple months I’ve been playing with another social search service called Quora.  While Aardvark is somewhat anonymous and streamlined, Quora is big on reputation and its content structure is more of a repository than an on-demand social tool.

I consider both these technologies to be social search engines, even though they’re positioned more as Q&A services.  They’re both different in many ways yet I consider them to direct competitors since the core functionality and brand promise is the same.  So which answers your questions better?

As an experiment to find out, I posed the following question to both services: “Which service is better at delivering quality timely answers to the widest range of your questions, Quora or Aardvark?”  On Aardvark, I posted it through the Web and allowed it to be auto-tagged as “aardvark” and on Quora I posted it through the Web and manually tagged it “aardvark,” “social search” and “quora.”  I also tweeted the question on Quora since the feature is so simple and easy to use.  I’m going to give both services three hours to answer.

Before we get to the results, let’s profile the pros and cons of both services.

Aardvark Pros

  • Aardvark’s greatest strength is in it’s simplicity.  To use the service all you need to do it create an account and enter a question in any format
  • Helping your questions find answers is easy through automated tagging based on a word scan
  • There are multiple platforms to choose from that mimic the simplicity of the service
  • Depending on your preferences, Aardvark will send you questions that are related to areas you’re interested in with a fair amount of success
  • The user base is fairly broad in terms of interests

Aardvark Cons

  • This may be just my experience over the past year but the user base seems to be less active than it was a few months ago
  • You can’t really tell if the people answering your questions are qualified
  • The platform isn’t designed to allow you build relationships with people that provide the best answers

Quora Pros

  • Incredibly active tech-savvy user base
  • Questions/answers are cataloged so you can find many answers without having to query your network
  • People answering questions can often be confidently identified as experts
  • You can follow topics that are of particular interest to you
  • Quora answers will probably gain search relevance and be indexable on Google (eventually)
  • Users can organize redundant questions to streamline the content (see my results below)

Quora Cons

  • It generally take longer to get an answer
  • There is a legitimate learning curve to the interface and architecture that could keep many non-techie but otherwise knowledgeable people away
  • Many users leverage the platform for self-promotion and “friend collecting”
  • The overall user experience is considerably colder and less welcoming than Aardvark

Conclusion

While both services are extremely compelling applications of user generated content, I find Aardvark, in it’s current form, to be a more promising technology.  If we’re really moving toward a “semantic Web” then I don’t think a social search service should rely so heavily on users to tag and organize their own content.  While building a large database of answers is a noble task, the end user benefits much more from on-demand answers.  Aardvark is also moving towards becoming a platform that is accessible anywhere and requires no real Internet or boolean skills to master.

Of course, the community will ultimately decide the winner.  In many ways, Quora is a feature-rich version of Yahoo Answers that provides more vanity tools for its users.  While it may not be directly incentivizing participation, allowing users to build status, authority and – the single worst metric of influence – their friend count will push many aspiring social media mavens to pour hours into the service where their contributions to Aardvark would go largely unnoticed.

…and the results of my experiment

Now that three hours have passed since asking both platforms “Which service is better at delivering quality timely answers to the widest range of your questions, Quora or Aardvark?” I have to say that the results were a little disappointing.

On Aardvark, the best answer I got was “Quora has answers for broad topics and Aardvark has answers to specific questions,” from a man in Bangladesh.  Other answers were along the lines of “it depends on the topic but I prefer Aardvark,” which is to be expected when you ask the question on Aardvark.  The result can be summed up as a series of quick opinions generally favoring Aardvark but it should be noted that I got my best answer within an hour.

The experience with Quora was quite different.  When I posed the question, it gave me a list of questions to see if the question was redundant but nothing on the list matched my question.  A couple hours later, before getting any helpful answers, a user scolded me for asking a redundant question and redirected my question to a simpler phrased version.  The number one answer within that stream actually praised the Quora UI and included “feedback loop around vanity” as a benefit of the platform.  The best answer, in my opinion, stated that Aardvark is “aiming to be a more real time service by focusing on algorithms to keep a rapid chain of possible sources for answers in place” while Quora ensures quality by offering “reputation rewards.”

Perhaps the biggest question here is whether or not people need to be incentivized to share knowledge freely online.  As a closer look at the Twitterati or any friend collector on any social network will show, “reputation rewards” are often an empty promise.  While Robert Scoble may have achieved some notoriety for his high friend counts on every social service he participates on, most real industry leaders exist completely outside this bubble.

If this kind of rewards system is necessary to ensure the success of the platform, Aardvark will have a tough time surviving.  However, if usability and overall user experience is really the mark of a successful technology then Quora probably has a little work to do before it becomes a clearly dominant platform.

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