It’s not a temporary rage-quit; I’ve deleted both accounts. I have zero followers, no content, and no username. I’m outta there.
This is going to be more interesting than it sounds, I promise.
When I first joined Quora in 2011, I loved it, with a few small reservations. Then, after some run-ins with what I regarded as unreasonable moderation, I started to dislike it; I even temporarily quit in 2015. Then the events of 2018 gave me a new perspective on social media in general. I re-evaluated Quora again, and found it wanting. So I deleted my account today, for good. All my followers and articles are gone.
I went through a similar process with Medium two weeks ago.
Why? Glad you asked.
Until maybe 2012 or so, if you had asked me, I would have said that I am a confirmed and fairly strict open source/open content/open data guy, and the idea of people happily developing content, without a financial or ownership stake, to benefit a for-profit enterprise had always bothered me. It bothered me in 2000 when Jimmy Wales said the job he hired me for—to start a new encyclopedia—would involve asking volunteers to developed free content hosted by a for-profit company (Bomis). I was happy when, in 2003, the Bomis principals gave Wikipedia to a non-profit.
(Ironically, not to mention stupidly, in 2011 Jimmy Wales tried to blame me for Bomis’ original for-profit, ad-based business model. Unfortunately for his lie, I was able to find evidence that, in fact, it had been his idea.)
In 2006, technology journalist Nicholas Carr coined the phrase “digital sharecropping“, saying that “Web 2.0,”
by putting the means of production into the hands of the masses but withholding from those same masses any ownership over the product of their work, provides an incredibly efficient mechanism to harvest the economic value of the free labor provided by the very many and concentrate it into the hands of the very few.
This bothers me. I’m a libertarian and I support capitalism, but the moral recommendability of building a business on the shoulders of well-meaning volunteers and people merely looking to socialize online struck me, as it did Carr, as very questionable. I even remember writing an old blog post (can’t find it anymore) in which I argued, only half-seriously, that this practice is really indefensible, particularly if users don’t have a governance stake.
The moral recommendability of building a business on the shoulders of well-meaning volunteers and people merely looking to socialize online struck me as very questionable.
The rise of social media, and joining Quora and Medium
By 2010, despite having been an active Internet user for over 15 years, my perspective started changing. I didn’t really begrudge Facebook, Twitter, or YouTube their profits anymore. The old argument that they are providing a useful service that deserves compensation—while still a bit questionable to me—made some sense. As to the rather obvious privacy worries, at that stage they were mainly just worries. Sure, I knew (as we all did) that we were trusting Facebook with relatively sensitive data. I was willing to give them the benefit of the doubt. (That sure changed.)
If you were plugged in back then, you regularly joined new communities that seemed interesting and happening. Quora was one; I joined it in 2011. It struck me as a somewhat modernized version of the old discussion communities we had in the 1990s—Usenet and mailing lists—but, in some ways, even better. There was very lightweight moderation, which actually seemed to work. A few years later I joined Medium, and as with Quora, I don’t think I ever heard from their moderators in the first few years. If I did, I was willing to admit that maybe I had put a toe over the line.
Within a few days, Quora actually posted a question for me to answer: “What does Larry Sanger think about Quora?” Here is my answer in full (which I’ve deleted from Quora along with all my other answers):
Uhh…I didn’t ask this. It’s a bit like fishing for compliments, eh Quora team? But that’s OK, I am happy to compliment Quora on making a very interesting, engaging website.
Quora is pretty interesting. It appeals to me because there are a lot of people here earnestly reflecting–this I think must be partly due to good habits started by the first participants, but also because the question + multiple competing answers that mostly do not respond to each other means there is more opportunity for straightforward reflection and less for the usual bickering that happens in most Internet communities.
A long time ago (I’m sure one could find this online somewhere, if one looked hard enough) I was musing that it’s odd that mailing lists are not used in more ways than they are. It seemed to me that one could use mailing list software to play all sorts of “conversation games,” and I didn’t know why people didn’t set up different sorts of rule systems for different kinds of games.
What impresses me about Quora is that it seems to be a completely new species of conversation game. Perhaps it’s not entirely new, because it’s somewhat similar to Yahoo! Answers, but there aren’t as many yahoos on Quora, for whatever reason, and other differences are important. Quora’s model simply works better. Quora users care about quality, and being deep, and Yahoo! Answerers generally do not. I wonder why that is.
But unlike Yahoo! Answers, Quora doesn’t seem to be used very much for getting factual information. Quora users are more interested in opinionizing about broad, often philosophical questions, which I find charming and refreshing. But for this reason, it’s not really a competitor of Wikipedia or Yahoo! Answers (or Citizendium…). It’s competing with forums.
I think it needs some more organizational tools, tools that make it less likely that good questions and answers aren’t simply forgotten or lost track of. Or maybe there already are such tools and I don’t know about them.
As I re-read this, some points have taken on a new meaning. I chalked up Quora’s failure to provide more robust search tools to it being at a relatively early stage (it was started in two years earlier by a former Facebook CTO), and the ordinary sort of founder stubbornness, in which the founders have a vision of how a web app should work, and as a result don’t give the people what they actually want. I see now that they had already started to execute a new approach to running a website that I just didn’t recognize at the time. It was (and is) very deliberately heavy-handed and top-down, like Facebook. They let you see what they want you to see. They try to “tailor” the user experience. And clearly, they do this not to satisfy explicit user preferences. They don’t care much about user autonomy. Their aim is apparently to keep users on the site, to keep them adding content. If you choose to join, you become a part of their well-oiled, centrally managed machine.
Quora and Medium, like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, make it really hard for you to use their sites on your own terms, with your own preferences. You’re led by the hand and kept inside the rails. Before around 2008, nobody could imagine making a website like that. Well, they existed, but they were for children and corporations.
I could see this, of course. But all the big social media sites were the same way. I guess I tolerated what looked like an inevitable takeover of the once-decentralized Internet by a more corporate mindset. I suppose I hoped that this mindset wouldn’t simply ruin things. By 2012, I was already deeply suspicious of how things were turning out.
But now it’s just blindingly obvious to me that the Silicon Valley elite have ruined the Internet.
Increasingly heavy-handed and ideological “moderation”
Maybe the first or second times I heard from Quora’s moderation team, I was merely annoyed, but I still respected their attempts to keep everything polite. I thought that was probably all it was. That’s what moderation used to be, anyway, back when we did it in the 90s and 00s. But I noticed that Quora’s moderation was done in-house. That struck me as being, well, a little funny. There was something definitely off about it. Why didn’t they set some rules and set up a fair system in which the community effectively self-moderated? They obviously had decent coders and designers who could craft a good community moderation system. But they didn’t…
I see now only too well that the reason was that they wanted moderation to be kept in house, and not just because it was important to get right; it was because they wanted to exert editorial control. At first, it seemed that they had business reasons for this, which I thought was OK, maybe. But as time went on and as I got more moderation notices for perfectly fair questions and polite comments, it became clear that Quora’s moderation practices weren’t guided merely by the desire to keep the community pleasant for a wide cross-section of contributors. They were clearly enforcing ideological conformity. This got steadily worse and worse, in my experience, until I temporarily quit Quora in 2015, and I never did contribute as much after that.
Similarly, Medium’s moderators rarely if ever bothered me, until they took down a rather harsh comment I made to a pedophile who was defending pedophilia. (He was complaining about an article I wrote explaining why pedophilia is wrong. I also wrote an article about why murder is wrong.) I hadn’t been sufficiently polite to the pedophile, it seems. So, with only the slenderest explanations, Medium simply removed my comment. That’s what caused me to delete my Medium account.
They don’t care much about user autonomy. Their aim is apparently to keep users on the site, to keep them adding content. If you choose to join, you become a part of their well-oiled, centrally managed machine.
You don’t have to agree with my politics to agree that there is a problem here. My objection is not just about fairness; it’s about control. It’s about the audacity of a company, which is profiting from my unpaid content, also presuming to control me, and often without explaining their rather stupid decisions. It’s also not about the necessity of moderation. I’ve been a moderator many times in the last 25 years, and frankly, Internet communities suck if they don’t have some sort of moderation mechanism. But when they start moderating in what seems to be an arbitrary and ideological way, when it’s done in-house in a wholly opaque way, that’s just not right. Bad moderation used to kill groups. People would leave badly-moderated groups in droves.
Lack of intellectual diversity in the community
Being on the web and not artificially restricted by nationality, Quora and Medium do, of course, a global user base. But they are single communities. And they’re huge; they’re both in the top 250. So whatever answer most users vote up (as filtered by Quora’s secret and ever-changing sorting algorithm), and whoever is most popular with other Quora voters, tends to be shown higher.
Unsurprisingly—this was plainly evident back in 2011—Quora’s community is left-leaning. Medium is similar. That’s because, on average, intellectual Internet writers are left-leaning. I didn’t really have a problem with that, and I wouldn’t still, if we hadn’t gotten absolutely stunning and clear evidence in 2018 that multiple large Internet corporations openly and unashamedly use their platforms to put their thumbs on the scales. They simply can’t be trusted as fair, unbiased moderators, particularly when their answer ranking algorithms and the moderation policies and practices are so opaque.
In addition, a company like Quora should notice that different cultures have totally different ways of answering life’s big questions. The differences are fascinating, too. By lumping us all together, regardless of nationality, religion, politics, gender, and other features, we actually miss out on the full variety of human experience. If the Quora community’s dominant views aren’t copacetic to you, you’ll mostly find yourself in the cold, badly represented and hard to find.
Silicon Valley, your experiment is over
Look. Quora, like Medium, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and others, have been outed as shamelessly self-dealing corporations. It’s gone way beyond “digital sharecropping.” The problem I and many others have with these companies isn’t just that they are profiting from our unpaid contributions. It’s that they have become ridiculously arrogant and think they can attempt to control and restrict our user experience and our right to speak our minds under fair, reasonable, and transparent moderation systems. And while the privacy issues that Quora or Medium have aren’t as profound as for Facebook, they are there, and they come from the same controlling corporate mindset.
As if to confirm me in my decision, Quora doesn’t supply any tools for exporting all your answers from the site. You have to use third-party tools (I used this). And after I deleted my account (which I did just now), I noticed that my account page and all my answers were still there. The bastards force you to accept a two-week “grace period,” in case you change your mind. What if I don’t want them to show my content anymore, now? Too bad. You have to let them continue to earn money from your content for two more weeks.
Clearly, they aren’t serving you; you’re serving them.
We’ve been in an experiment. Many of us were willing to let Internet communities be centralized in the hands of big Silicon Valley corporations. Maybe it’ll be OK, we thought. Maybe the concentration of money and power will result in some really cool new stuff that the older, more decentralized Internet couldn’t deliver. Maybe they won’t mess it up, and try to exert too much control, and abuse our privacy. Sure! Maybe!
The experiment was a failure. We can’t trust big companies, working for their own profit, to make good decisions for large, online communities. The entire industry has earned and richly deserves our distrust and indignation.
So, back to the drawing board. Maybe we’ll do better with the next, more robustly decentralized and democratic phase of the Internet: blockchain.
We’ll get this right eventually, or die trying. After all, it might take a while.
We’ve been in an experiment. Many of us were willing to let Internet communities be centralized in the hands of big Silicon Valley corporations. Maybe it’ll be OK, we thought. … The experiment was a failure.