Quora's misogyny problem: A cautionary tale

'Quora's misogyny problem' is a tempest out of the teapot, and its current trolls-gone-wild state is a perfect example of why user-based websites need to change the way they think about targeted users.
Written by Violet Blue, Contributor
Quora's Misogyny Problem
Image credit: James Martin, CNET

"Quora's misogyny problem" is a tempest out of the teapot, and it's a perfect example of why user-based websites need to change the way they think about targeted users.

What women have been going through on Quora is harrowing: Harassment and threats, stalking on and off the site, and an atmosphere that enables ongoing targeting with moderators that don't understand, or help.

That's because Quora's baseline of "normal" behavior around gender is all screwed up — and it was made that way.

Quora: In a long line of good sites gone bad

After reading responses to this post addressed to women on Quora asking what issues women face using the service, and what can be done to fix any problems, a male Quora user was moved to write his first post in April titled Dear Men @ Quora:

The revelations made here are absolutely shocking and embarrassing (...) The most shocking was Alia Caldwell's situation, in which her online stalker actually moved near her and coerced her to leave her hard-worked-for home.

In many of the cases I've read here, men continued to make advances even after being explicitly told NO. (...) We all came to Quora to gain knowledge, to know things we never knew existed. We did not come here to harass women and stalk them or be harassed and stalked.

Pretty much all of the women's comments in the post addressed to women have been downvoted to oblivion. In response to it, one female user commented, "There are a lot of misogynists in the world. I didn't know how many until I joined Quora."

Another woman responded to the question asking that users be able to remove certain topics from their feed entirely: She wants the ability to remove the "Rape" topic from her feed.

"There are a lot of misogynists in the world. I didn't know how many until I joined Quora."

As pointed out by SocialTimes, one woman commented she'd found a post with a photo of her described as, "This beautiful bitch is on Quora. I started talking to her and she did not give a shit about it (...)" He goes on to say that he keeps talking to her (mentioning that she asked him to stop) and that "she likes it."

She had reported the user, who had multiple accounts and sent her direct messages, to more than one admin (she said she "had to run around requesting and reminding admins"). Quora admins took two weeks to respond, doing so only after her situation was publicized.

Another woman, tired of questions like "Why do women do X?" and "Is there anything good about women?" decided to ask a similar question about men to see what would happen, as an experiment in community standard enforcement.

Immediately after posting "Why do men X?" she found out that Quora's mods believe the questions about women to be benign, while similar questions about men are considered to be against community standards.

Yet another woman added,

Do not tell me you are not capable of disallowing questions that are ugly to a group. I've seen antisemitic questions deleted in a heartbeat.

Yet sexist, misogynist, abelist, homophobic rants disguised as questions are allowed to stand.

Dehumanizing bullshit with editorializing in the details and nasty responses and downvotes from the OP when people disagree or are offended by an offensive question.

I have unfollowed/muted many topics where this seems to be an issue and yet I still get stuff in my feed.

I hesitate to answer many questions now and sometimes pause mid answer to clear it and move on.

These stories aren't limited to Quora: We can find them in different guises on many popular user-based sites, occasionally popping up in tech news as a PR crisis.

The result is that women are being silenced in a place that was supposed to be for everyone — yet again.

We have come to expect that in addition to the fact that we'll be targeted and harassed on a very personal level, we can also expect the structures of each space we enter to fail us. Most women have become trained to be lone soldiers online, knowing that to send up a signal flare indicating distress is likely to attract more attackers than allies.

The answer doesn't lie in a code of conduct, itself a guide for trolls to exploit attack vectors from both sides of the coin.

The answers aren't in forcing people to use "real names" either, as there are numerous stories of abusers, stalkers and harassers who do what they are going to do to their victims, regardless of who knows (and a good many are proud of their attacks).

And the answer isn't to ban discussions about sex, or sexual expression, which is going to happen — harmfully if it isn't modeled in normalcy and safety.

The main problem is that the creators and moderators of sites like Quora don't understand what we women experience every day: what "target" and "non-target" status is, and what that means in an online environment.

Targets, and non-targets

I explain target status in the context of creating sustainable privacy models in my most recent book, and it applies to Quora's cautionary tale quite well.

The most important thing missing from everything about modern privacy discussions is the fact that there is a critical difference in the way men and women (as well as other targeted populations) perceive privacy — because men don't bear target status.

As women, we're targeted just by showing up. Every time we go on Facebook or leave a comment with a female name attached to it, we're given a snap "hot or not" assessment, judged accordingly, and the aggressive non-targets act on their judgment. Many young women aren't even aware that they bear target status.

Most guys don't think about being sized up for sexual value as the first thing anyone judges about them everywhere they go — and every time they go online, walk in a room, or try to join a conversation. It goes deeper than that, of course, and it's not as simple as he vs. she: it's a matter of perspective. Most men don't have to deal with being a target their whole lives in the same way that women — female gendered, female-bodied people — do.

This means that social media sites, apps, and all their privacy settings have a baseline of "normal" that doesn't take into consideration that half of the users are dealing with being targeted, and all the ugly experiences that can come with it.

Quora's hard, avoidable lessons

A few simple changes in the site's philosophies, technical implementations and understanding of its users could fix this — but we shouldn't get our hopes up just yet.

There are obvious things that could be done to avoid and mitigate Quora's misogyny problem, things that are routinely overlooked by founders and designers who live a non-target existence.

Technical solutions abound when websites and apps provide options that take targeted users into consideration — namely, giving us back our ability to make boundaries. For instance, sites shouldn't let strangers message strangers, and all sites and apps should allow users to block others. When Quora tells people to pick interests or topics they want, it should also tell them to pick interests or topics they don't want.

Sites like Quora need robust blocking and reporting mechanisms: A block should be across all site functions, it should provide report fields for details, screencaps and links, and it should count into an internal karma system, with an internal cross-matching to flag potential sock puppets.

Quora could also avoid additional drama if it gave users clear tutorials about friending and unfriending, so targets know how to mute, block and remove connections.

Sites that want a lasting community need to stop being afraid of having a zero tolerance policy on misogyny, racism, homophobia, personal attacks, threats and harassment. That policy should include attacks on people outside the site, which can encourage the same toxicity as an attack on another user. In 2006, Annalee Newitz wrote an article that went to Slashdot, and in the Slashdot community's hands (sadly, famously) it turned into a vile gender-based attack — making it look like Slashdot was a great place to go to bash women, and a place to avoid if you're female.

A few months ago, an article of mine was Slashdotted. But instead of resulting in a lively debate about technology and social justice, it instead produced a popular thread in the "comments" area about whether I was too fat to be considered attractive.

At that point, I vowed to stop reading Slashdot.

As Reddit knows, bad, weak, uninformed or lazy mods can ruin everything. Sites that care can educate their admins and mods about online harassment, on detecting racist and sexist language, on conflict resolution and conflict diffusion, target and non-target status, and backhanded attacks (aka "poisoning the well").

As for Quora's Misogyny Problem, SocialTimes reached out for comment, but never received a response. They wrote,

The same evening, however, [Quora's head of business and community Marc] Bodnick added a comment to the women's issues question pointing to a post he'd just added called Making Quora More Civil: Responding to Recent Feedback by Marc Bodnick on The Quora Moderation Blog.

Quora plans to deal with its "microaggression" problem in the following ways:

  • Aggressively applying Be Nice, Be Respectful to Messages.
  • Strengthening its policy on bad questions.
  • Moving more quickly to ban people who violate Quora's policies.
  • Question downvoting.

Right, because that's how you fix a cesspool of misogyny, racism and homophobia spun out of control. I'm sure the woman whose photo is being posted with the suggestion that "she wants it" will feel much better now that, rather than changing anything, Quora is just going to do what it was supposed to be doing all along with its half-baked civility policies.

Quora shouldn't have to be yet another cautionary tale for women online. But it is.

Instead, it should be a lesson for user-based websites to change the way they think about their targeted users — unless they want to end up like Quora.

Update Monday, June 23, 6:31pm PST:

Quora has sent ZDNet the following statement in response to this article:

We take civility on Quora very seriously, whether it relates to gender, politics, or religion. Our aim is for Quora to be the most civil open writing environment on the internet. To this end, the guiding principle that we ask all users to adhere to is to 'Be Nice, Be Respectful' which aims to ensure that people treat others on the site with civility, respect and consideration. Based on community feedback, we've implemented a number of features to help foster a civil environment, including the ability to block users and mute topics, and a few weeks ago we announced a number of additional changes focused on civility aimed to strengthen and reinforce the Be Nice, Be Respectful policy and its application. We always appreciate the input of our community and will continue our efforts to make Quora the most open and civil place to share knowledge on the internet.

- Marc Bodnick, Leads Business and Community at Quora.

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