Quora answer: Is Quora finally going down the tube?

May 22 2014

Well, this is a very interesting article. It appears that the rush to monazite Quora is gaining steam.

If the user engagement situation stated in the article is true, then the adding of features such as those mentioned in the article I content is not the problem and I don’t believe that this is the real issue with Quora, as I have been saying for some time.

Let me try to state the problem as I see it once again.

Quora has a poor design when it comes to the core mission of Q&A. This is the problem, not the fact that it is not integrated with Facebook and other services.

In my view Quora should stick to the core mission and do it well, and modify the design so that it actually works with respect to Q&A well.

The problem is that the design does not take into account the fundamental history of Q&A in our culture and tradition. As I have said previously many times it is this ignorance with respect to the understanding of the nature of Q&A that causes problems on the site for users and I would bet it is what causes the engagement factor to not grow.

What does this mean?

The first problem is that Questions float freely without having any context. Each question is atomic and just like all other questions. Thus there is no dynamic associated with questions and answers on Quora.

Our whole Western philosophical and scientific tradition is built on the fact that there is a dynamic between questions that leads somewhere. Questions and answers on Quora do not lead anywhere. There is no overall dynamic that comes from asking questions and answering them on Quora.

In our tradition that overall dynamic is called a dialectic. The whole tradition is based on dialectics. But there is not dialectical meta-organization to Quora and thus Quora is static rather than dynamic, and thus it is not very interesting, as I have said repeatedly in my complaints about the design of Quora.

Ok, then how do we fix this?

First there has to be a context for questions, which is called a problematic. Questions without context can have only limited meaning. It is really the problematics that are important and not the questions. Therefore, problematics need to be added which are the context for the questions.

Problematics are areas of research, open problems and the response to them are approaches. Picking an approach puts you into a paradigm.

If you add probelmatics and approaches as a foundation then that would give a departure point for the movement of from question to answer to new questions and new answers.

Thus questions need to be able to be linked to approaches to problematics. Given an approach to a problematic then what are my questions, and then what are the answers to those questions.

I am not suggesting you get rid of free floating questions. but what I am suggesting is that you change the design so that the Q&A can be attached to Problematics and Approaches if the users wish to do so.

It should be possible to have a discussion about what are the problematics worth pursuing and what are the most fertile approaches to those problematics and what questions arise given a certain approach.

Next it is necessary to make it easy to connect or chain questions and Answers. Either a question can spawn other questions, or answers may spawn other questions. This would allow a dialogue to take place between participants.

This dialog needs to be supported as a first class citizen, in some way similar to that which Branch is providing. Discussion needs to be a first class citizen on Quora, not something relegated to comments, which no one looks at.

You need to get rid of collapsed answers based on lowest common denominator opinion. Rather you should institute a reputation system similar to that on StackOverflow, but perhaps less complex and take the reputations into account with respect to a subject in the voting. Questions as well as answers should be open to voting up and down, but voting down should not collapse answers. This is because answers that are not popular may be more correct than answers that are popular. Knowledge does not always follow popular opinion.

Finally, the emphasis should be not on opinion but on knowledge production. In other words science and the rest of the tradition is built on knowledge production mostly happening in academia. But what if knowledge could be produced by crowdsourcing? This would actually be a great leap forward in our tradition. This only will occur if mere opinions can be turned into grounded opinion, and then that turned into knowledge.

How does that happen. Traditionally it happens though the dialectic. What is the dialectic, it is questions and answers, grounded in a problematic and an approach, but where the questions and their answers can be connected and branch where questions can generate further questions and answers can generate further questions, and thus you get a teleonomic (Cf. J. Monod Chance and Necessity) dynamic. Following these branches from question to question or question to answer to further question is a narrative that leads somewhere. People can construct these choose your own adventure type branching narratives together, and the result of that may be knowledge or at least informed opinion.

Allow each user to prune those branches for themselves, and then use the pruning to inform how those narrative branches are ranked by the system and shown to other users who stumble upon the branches in their exploration of the site.

The other problem is how to see the forest for the trees. In other words one needs a global view that allows one to see the overall growth of the fractal structure of the chained Q&As. Where is the activity happening, what narrative bracnhes are more often kept and what is the reputation of those that are keeping certain branches while pruning others.

What I am suggesting is something like what Herman Hesse called the Glass Bead Game.

Things that should be gotten rid of on Quora is the collapsing of answers. Let users decide what answers they would prune and then use that plus their reputations with regard to a subject to determine how the questions and their answers are displayed to users just discovering a question and its answers.

Get rid of the point system as it stands because it is meaningless. If you are going to have a point system make it mean something significant. For instance use the points to enforce the building of narrative fractals. In other words give points if one answers questions at different levels of a narrative chain in sequence.

People like building with Legos. Right now we have legos (Q&A atoms) that cannot be put together into anything. What is necessary is a way to assemble them into structures, i.e. dialectics, and then to see what one has built in an overview once it is fully formed and while it is growing too.

This is my prescription for Quora. Actually knowing something about how Q&A works and informing the design with that knowledge is the answer to the problems with Quora. If you built a system that allowed people to build knowledge structures together then people would become engaged. Just seeing a lot of opinions about a specific question ultimately is not that interesting. People want to build something, and they would like to do it together. And if knowledge was the result then that would be all the better because that would give a context for people to learn.

When you go take a class the teacher builds a narrative with respect to the subject they are teaching. You don’t go into a class and take random facts about the subject and throw them together. Teachers ask questions and students answer them as the testing of their knowledge. But the knowledge itself is delivered in a narrative. If we could build those narratives together then we could teach each other, and that would result in knowledge rather than mere  opinion. We would then have something significant to write to the wikis associated with the questions, we could write what we learned there, the abiding knowledge that we gained together.

Quora has the potential to be something interesting. But as it is its growth is stumped by a poor design given ignorance of the dynamics of Q&A within our philosophical and scientific tradition. Solve that problem and you will get the user engagement that you seek. Don’t solve that problem and Quora will become a ghost town as soon as someone produces a system that actually does understand this dynamic. it is the dynamic that each of us is taught in school though our education. You must leverage off of what people already know about learning, and knowledge acquisition, and knowledge production. Compared to knowledge opinion is of little interest. Knowledge is interesting because it is something stable in our experience. Everything else is in high flux besides our knowledge. Knowledge too is in flux but at a much slower rate and that is why it is possible to use knowledge as a reference point for living our lives within a complex social environment that we all function within. Without knowledge we would all be lost. Without some way to produce knowledge together as part of Quora, Quora is lost. Its design is the sign of this lostness. But it is fairly easy to solve that problem, align the Quroa design with what is known about how Q&A functions in our tradition.

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