Monday, March 28, 2011

Quora: Thank or Vote? And Why it's important

This may seem like a really simple question, but I'm very interested in your answer - when you use Quora, do you use the "Send Thanks" option, vote things up, or both? I was struck by this today when reviewing one of the questions on everyones-favorite-topicColor. Love them or Hate them, we can't seem to get enough of them.

I wanted to see how much they spent getting such a great domain name, to try to get an idea of what assets they were capturing with their $41 million dollar investment. There were two answers on the site, one of which was from the President and Co-Founder, Peter Pham. Peter validated the exact amount. You can see it here:

In my opinion, it's amazing to see it validated, but not vote-worthy. I don't think I'm overstating, either, that it's amazing, and the value of Quora to the community. It has become a forum for informed disclosure. Color is getting hammered for their gigantic raise, with many people wanting to call it proof we are in a new bubble. If you are outside Silicon Valley, you may not appreciate what a dirty, dirty word "bubble" is to throw at a company. That said, Peter validated the expense, which at $350,000 is  about the the total sum of 10 or 12 popular angel-backed startups.

If you are in the middle of a PR fire-storm about money, it would have been easy for Peter to simply avoid the question, and yet, there it is, confirmed. This represents a brilliant change of pace; 10 years ago, most companies would have asked to for an NDA before even admitting what their domain was going to be. Back then, stealth was the new black, and thankfully those times are slowly going away. So I applaud Peter and Color for answering it on Quora. For that, I clicked the "send thanks" link. But I didn't vote it up.

See, I didn't consider his answer "vote-worthy". It's a fact, so in what context does that vote have any meeting. The question was very clear, very direct ("How Much?") and was answered specifically, with a number. It's not an opinion, or really even a choice. Voting is usually about choosing one thing over others, independent of if you are picking the next president president or deciding where to go for lunch. I think this metaphor is well established, and comes through us in our expectations as users. I think it's a little broken, or at least confused, in Quora.

The case against using voting might be even more clear in the case of a person - like this example on @sacca - do we vote for that? Or Thank that? I don't see how anyone else could be "more right" to explain what Chris Sacca thought than Chris Sacca.

I can't find anything on Quora on when to vote and when to thank - I checked the FAQ for New Users,  the official policies and guidelines, and the Getting Started Guide. I probably missed it, but seems like it should be more transparent.

A number of people have already talked about the problems with voting from such angles as Celebrity Up voting, the Paretro distribution problem (my favorite of the design implications), and others. Semil Shah wrote an excellent summary on TechCrunch, so there is no reason to repeat those points.

I think voting is fundamentally a bad design metaphor that leads to problems when Quora wants to start mining this data. Today, the Vote button is not really voting, in the way we experience it in the physical world; it acts much more like a Facebook "Like" button. Voting is a choice, selecting among a fixed set possible answers. This is our "real world" experience, but on Quora, new answers may be coming in at all times.  However, the very idea that I can change my vote when presented with new options breaks the voting metaphor again, as voting usually has a fixed set of choices. As you can tell, I'm really struggling with voting as a design principal. It's easy on the surface, but very hard in the implementation, which I think will lead to bad, or interpreted data, getting into the system. I'm not the first to talk about the issues of Quora voting.

That said, I think the "killer concept" in Quora might be the Thanks concept. I wish it was more clear in the UX and had some basic guidelines. I think Thanks could be the foundation for creating an authenticity rating, or other scoring subsystem, which doesn't yet exist on the web. Wikipedia only has in some very basic, nearly secretive, awards for super-contributors. If the Facebook "like" becomes the currency of my interests, is there a currency for something more human? How do we encourage people like Sacca and Peter Pham to continue to be transparent on the the most anonymous communications system ever built?

Now, I have no knowledge of Quora's design or inner working. I hope it's possible in Quora's back end data to see, what the possible choices were at the time when someone voted.  It may be possible that they know how they want to used Thank and Vote data, but it's far to opaque to the user right now to be actionable.  I'm a Quora fan and a data purist, so I keep toying with the idea in my head - nothing more.

What do you think? How do you use Thanks and Voting in Quora? Can Thanks be a new currency that promotes transparency?

I'd really like to hear what you think, please drop an idea in the comments or hit me up on twitter.