Have you ever been camping during the summer somewhere that happens to be notorious for it's yellow jacket population. You know, those little winged friends of ours that bite and sting? It's noon and you get out some hot dogs, burgers or veggie patties to throw on the grill and cook up for everyone. You then place said finished grilled product onto a plate, ready to enjoy and share with others. You turn around for one second and the buzzing "visitors" start pouring in, ready to devour what you just finishing cooking, swarming all over it, ruining it for everyone else. Sound familiar? (Social, ahem, media.)
While the freedom to say what you want when you want it as quickly as you want is one of the famed beauties of communities built by today's social network environments, it is also its cancerous bane. The line between meaningful engagement/resourceful conversation and everyone's apparent built-in desire to market the living hell out of themselves without evaluating their own value as a contributor, is as blurry as your longest evening at the local pub.
We recently joined the Quora community in hopes that we could FINALLY be part of a new approach to a social community that was less noisy, asking more intriguing questions about social business as well as many other topics (music, hockey, you name it). Quickly, Quora is a question and answer platform that leverages a person's social graph to share information. It also includes a bit of crowdsourcing, as it allows users to vote up and vote down answers. Given all of this, and much to our dismay, and unfortunately lack of surprise, the signal to noise ratio was already out of control. We felt as if we walked into a yellow jacket-infested barbecue, with swirls of noise buzzing around our heads and the obvious chore of having to dig for hidden gems.
The good news about Quora: the gems are there. For example, Lucretia Pruitt has a great topic called "Welcome to Quora: Do Yourself a Favor and Slow Down." This must-read was her attempt to squelch some of the noise, some of the mis-use and some of the craziness. The problem was that we really had to dig to find this little gem. Here are the main problems with Quora:
Redundancy: Several of the same questions asked different ways, making any potential value split
Sarcasm: We're two of the most sarcastic people on the planet, but while looking at answers we want to find value, not snark. Beyond that, people are up-voting answers they think are "funny" versus "valuable"
Spammy: While you can change your email notification settings, the tricky "auto-follow" of folks from other services gets messy
Did we mention noise?
There's one other problem that we see with this approach. As Quora leverages an existing user's social graph, each user is pretty much just porting in its existing contacts. This not only makes it exceedingly hard to find new resources and contacts and experts, but makes it so that the most "popular" users on other platforms are automatically the most "popular" users here. This makes it harder for people looking for fresh answers and ideas to find them. When Twitter really hit the mainstream three years ago, one of the most exciting parts of it was the discovery of new users. Now, has the average overgrown social graph of most users diminished that fun in discovery? It's not just about popularity (and no, we aren't jealous). This goes back to the value conversation. If a person with a larger social graph posts an answer, that is more likely to get voted up out of popularity principle than the answer of a lesser known contributor. And, if social media has taught us anything, it's that the person with the loudest megaphone is rarely the most valuable voice. Quora exacerbates this issue.
The other question we ask is, now that social networks have become such relied-upon personal branding and corporate marketing vehicles, is it possible for a service like Quora to really get off the ground without becoming wholly bastardized? The problem with everyone exploiting new social applications for marketing is that useful conversations became out of whack in minutes. Like the bees to our campground bbq, the social media types with their incessant quest to push their own personal brand swarmed Quora with a vengeance, populating it with questions that were as unique to read as a corporate press release from 1982.
Given that there are so many who cannot for the life of themselves contribute to a conversation without up-selling their own blog, business, or otherwise, will Quora quickly succumb to its own hype? To us, these issues are indicative of chasm that stands between platforms for true thought leadership and platforms for screaming from the mountaintops. We'd like to see Quora be the former, but sadly, it's becoming the latter.
What solves this problem? Well, we will concede that the concept of Quora's crowdsourced Q&A is a good start, but clearly that went awry awfully fast. The great tools and accessibility that social media has brought to the top of the net communication heap demand a whole new level of tending to if we want to be able to keep them useful for anyone. Some elevated type of moderation that seeks out redundancy, blatant self-marketing and other unfiltered noise is a good idea. If this isn't explored, it is a guarantee that the more cautious adopters of social media practices for business, especially those that are still on the fence about its value, may retreat.