Social Networking, tech, Tech Goes Wrong

Quora, Crowdsourcing, and Packet Rat’s Law of Talent Dilution.

The Internet is a place filled with irrational exuberance.  Here’s the strange collector associated with hot new Internet companies, which I call the “Hype/Diss Circle of Life”:

1. The (site/app/service) is “discovered” by a (tastemaker/early adopter/alpha blogger).

2. The (site/app/service) is hailed as the “next big thing” by that (tastemaker/early adopter/alpha blogger). Expectations are inflated, often with the aid of the company that has launched the (site/app/service).

3. Everybody jumps in the pool.

4. The (site/app/service) loses its shiny newness, strains under additional use, changes to accomodate additional use, and/or fails to live up to the inflated expectations, dissapointing the (tastemaker/early adopter/alpha blogger), who then declares the (site/app/service)is (doomed/not good/not as good as the latest thing that came out).

5. Repeat.

This familiar pattern is currently playing out with Quora, a Q&A crowdsourcing site.  I recently introduced it to consumer readers on TechGoesStrong as the first salvo in a series on the whole genre of Q&A sites, which are legion.

Unlike sites like Mahalo and, anybody can answer a question on Quora (much like Yahoo! Answers (which is notorious for its spam) and Facebook Questions). But unlike Yahoo! Answers and Facebook Questions, Quora’s answerers have been, at least initially, pretty high-caliber people who actually know what they’re talking about. Mostly. And Quora accounts are tied to Facebook and Twitter accounts, so there’s an extra social fabric to things. It’s sort of like a cooler, smarter Facebook Questions…started by two guys who left Facebook.

Anyway, Quora got heavy buzz early from Robert Scoble.  Then, recently, Scoble reversed his assessment of Quora:

Turns out I was totally wrong. It’s a horrid service for blogging, where you want to put some personality into answers. It’s just fine for a QA site, but we already have lots of those and, in fact, the competitors in this space are starting to react. Mahalo just released a new version that has been getting lots of praise and at DLD I met the CEO of and he said to expect a major update from his service (which has 1000x more users). Stack Exchange is growing faster than Quora and has many many times more questions and answers, plus I’ve found the answers are broader in reach, and deeper in quality (especially for programmers).

Also, he noted, people were getting “pissed” that moderators were mucking around with their stuff, and that people were lowering the importance of their answers to questions by voting them down or marking them as “not helpful”.  

In this case, however, the usual hype/diss cycle took a different turn. As David Chen details in his post, The Ridiculous Takedown of Robert Scoble, the rabid pack of technorati turned not on Quora, but on Scoble, who was forced to back down from his less glowing assessment.  Another alpha blogger, Michael Arrington, castigated Scoble for “Scobleizing” Quora (in the original meaning of the term “Scobleized,” as anyone who ever attended a conference Scoble worked on in the late ’90s and early 00’s would use it):

“It’s a horrid service for blogging,” says Scoble. Yup. I agree. Quora isn’t a very good place for blogging. Because other people can edit or remove your stuff. It’s the sort of place where you have to behave yourself if you want to be heard. That’s exactly not blogging. The thing is, most of us have always known that. Quora is ostensibly a Q&A site. But that’s like saying a car is a device for burning gasoline.Or, in Robert’s case, he’s mad that his car won’t cook him dinner.

Touché, Mr. Arrington.  Scoble had a specific vision of what he thought Quora was, and then it didn’t work that way, and he lost his enthusiasm.  His misconception of how he could use Quora (primarily to extend his own personal brand) led to his dissatisfaction. Arrington is right.

However, one person’s “crowdsourcing” approach to make “a better Wikipedia”, as Arrington puts it, is another person’s “mob rule”.  A group with an agenda can, acting in concert, manipulate which questions get promoted to the top and which get buried…much like what used to happen on Digg. Remember Digg?

And as with any community,  Packet Rat’s Law of Talent Dilution comes into effect as it draws mass market attention: with each new member added to a community led by bright early adopters, the probability of the introduction of jackasses increases exponentially and the average IQ of the group is reduced logarithmically.  The more stupid jackasses join a community, the more quickly the bright early adopter creatives pack up and flee to the next shiny new place.

So…Scoble is right, too.