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WTF Quora: how a platform eats itself

๐ŸŒˆ Abstract

The article discusses the rise and decline of the question-and-answer platform Quora, and how its reliance on AI-driven algorithms led to the erosion of the platform's original vision of being a hub for substantive, human-generated content and expertise.

๐Ÿ™‹ Q&A

[01] The Rise and Promise of Quora

1. What was Quora's original premise and vision?

  • Quora was envisioned as a platform where curious minds could ask questions on any topic and receive thoughtful, well-informed answers from an erudite community, similar to Yahoo Answers but catering to tech employees and intellectuals.
  • Quora's stated intention was to create a sophisticated ideal of the internet, where people would altruistically gather and engage in stimulating discourse and knowledge sharing.

2. How did Quora initially achieve success?

  • Quora quickly took off, featuring answers from an impressive roster of Silicon Valley luminaries, Ivy League academics, industry insiders, and enthusiastic hobbyists.
  • Quora's success was built on the idea that platforms should connect people to the experts who hold the information in their heads, allowing users to learn from bona fide experts.

[02] The Decline of Quora

1. How did Quora's use of algorithms start to reshape the platform's culture and dynamics?

  • As Quora's community grew, the company installed algorithmic systems to help sort and rank the increasing number of questions and answers.
  • The algorithms began to exhibit quirks, such as giving outsize attention to answers with more extreme views, even if the underlying substance was lacking.
  • Unscrupulous users discovered they could game the system by writing with more sentiment and zeal, even if the content was of poor quality.
  • The algorithms struggled to discern between human-crafted text and machine-generated content, leading to a proliferation of spammy, incoherent, AI-generated text on the platform.

2. How did the platform's reliance on AI affect its expert contributors?

  • Many of Quora's most beloved contributors, the academics and experts, began to drift away from the platform.
  • They were put off by the AI's preference for answers written with confident declarative statements, as they had always understood their role as context-adding, not decree-issuing.
  • Wary of being misrepresented by the algorithms or unwilling to pander to them, the quality contributors logged off, leaving their thoughtful, nuanced responses buried beneath a rising tide of low-quality content.

3. How did Quora's leadership respond to the platform's decline?

  • Quora launched its chatbot platform, Poe, which integrated AI models from various providers, allowing users to engage in back-and-forth dialogue with the chatbots.
  • This move was seen by many as the final nail in the coffin of Quora's original vision, as the platform that once prided itself on human-generated content had now become a farm for AI-powered responses.
  • The monetization features of Poe, which allow bot creators to earn money, further incentivized the proliferation of AI-generated content at the expense of authentic human interaction.

[03] Lessons and Cautionary Tales

1. What are the key limitations of AI systems that Quora failed to appreciate?

  • While powerful at identifying textual patterns and predicting the next word in a sequence, AI systems are rather poor at discerning the hallmarks of human expertise, such as reasoning, sound argumentation, and substantive knowledge.
  • This deficit has proved to be Quora's undoing, as the platform's reliance on AI-powered recommendation and moderation systems failed to make essential distinctions that humans intuit naturally.

2. What are the broader implications of Quora's decline for the role of AI in online platforms?

  • Platforms like YouTube and Facebook are also grappling with how to balance the promise of AI-powered systems with the reality that these systems struggle to differentiate between authoritative information, compelling misinformation, shitposting, incisive commentary, and attention-capturing outrage bait.
  • At their worst, these algorithms can create perverse incentives and reward the wrong things, polluting a platform's culture and eroding trust in its community.

3. What is the key lesson for tech founders and platform builders from Quora's demise?

  • The article suggests that tech founders should remember the difficulty and importance of building online communities that elevate substance over shallow engagement, and the very human wisdom that is at risk of being lost when platforms throw it all away in pursuit of AI-driven "solutions."
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