Moderation and the free speech debate

Quora provides a platform for expertise in an era of fake news

Illustration by Francesca Nava

If you haven’t heard of Quora, imagine Wikipedia meets LinkedIn, YahooAnswers all grown up, or Facebook with a brain. Think of a social media site where lawyers ask doctors questions about Christian doctrine, entrepreneurs market the latest products and the hottest ideas, and Mark Zuckerberg hunts for his next investment. Quora is social media at its best: a knowledge market for people with questions that only an expert can answer.

Quora is unusual on the social internet: it puts quality of content over quantity of users. Quora’s moderation strategy packs a serious punch – the administration responds to reports of policy violations within hours, at the latest. Site moderation is so stringent on Quora that the community has discussed whether moderation policies pay sufficient heed to freedom of speech. But what Quora has discovered is simple: if you want to curate high quality content, you need to moderate the conversation – or the people who have the expertise won’t share it.

In 2009, Adam D’Angelo and Charlie Cheever, two senior executives at Facebook, decided to start a website. Their project was founded on high ideals: D’Angelo and Cheever wanted to ‘share and grow the world’s knowledge’. Quora – the plural of ‘quorum’ and the name they eventually settled on – was all about quality: “The site naturally selects for high quality people,” remarked D’Angelo, in a 2010 interview. “A lot of people really like to answer questions, and they re- ally enjoy sharing their knowledge. Especially people who have valuable knowledge.”

Within a year, Quora’s impressive clientele included: Mark Zuckerberg, Mark Andressen, one of the most powerful venture capitalists in Silicon Valley, and Fred Wilson, a Wall Street investor with stakes in Twitter and Tumblr. The user base has continued to expand: now Quora counts Barack Obama, Hilary Clinton, Justin Trudeau, and Jimmy Wales among its number. A list of the most-viewed writers reads more like a roster of academia’s great and good than a series of internet celebrities: Richard Muller, a recipient of a MacArthur ‘Genius’ Fellowship and a physicist at Berkeley, Robert Frost, who works at NASA, and Ernest W Adams, a professor at Uppsala University in Sweden.

Quora’s high minded principles are reflected in the biographies of its founders. After attending Philips Exeter – an elite boarding school in Massachusetts, where his classmates included Zuckerberg, and he won national coding tournaments and Informatics Olympiads – D’Angelo went to Caltech, where he read Computer Science and competed as an international collegiate programmer. Charlie Cheever, his co-founder, worked for Amazon and Facebook before Quora. Before that, he was at Harvard.

In the years since its foundation, Quora has grown quickly: despite Quora’s drive to ‘optimise for quality’, the site now attracts 200 million unique viewers per month. A 2017 fundraising round returned a 1.8 billion USD valuation, double the company’s worth in 2014. And Quora has pushed for globalisation: users can access the platform in Spanish, French, German, and Italian, with Indonesian, Hindi, Japanese and Portuguese versions in the pipeline.

A fundamental of how Quora curates expertise is that it recognises that a free space isn’t necessarily a safe one. In order to foster informed and quality speech, you need to generate an environment which gives the users with real knowledge the confidence to come forward.

I spoke to Jonathan Brill, head of Writer Relations at Quora, about their moderation strategy. “Quora is about making people feel safe enough, so that they can share what they know with someone else who has a question,” he said. “It’s not enough for it to be technically available to everybody to share their knowledge, it also has to feel safe enough, or else only the incredibly thick-skinned, hostile and combative people will feel safe.”

The safety of the social internet is a hot topic. Today, when terrorists hatch plots on WhatsApp, extremists organise rallies on Twitter and elections are won on 4chan, what’s said online can resound much more widely than the confines of the platform. But to what extent should Silicon Valley’s titans decide which sounds resound? What are the guidelines by which Silicon Valley decides what is and isn’t fair? Should governments moderate Silicon Valley’s moderation process? Who watches the Watchmen?

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For years, platform administrators kept their distance from the people who used their platforms, as more users created greater advertising revenues, and lax usage policies meant more users. But with the simultaneous rise of Donald Trump and an uber-politicised social media, administrative structures have started to weigh-in. In 2016, notorious provocateur Milo Yiannopoulous was permanently banned from Twitter after publicising abuse of Ghostbusters’ star Leslie Jones. More recently, in August of 2018, Spotify, Apple, Facebook, Vimeo and Youtube removed videos published by InfoWars’ Alex Jones. Online right-wing factions protested loudly, in both cases. Yiannopolous condemned the situation in Breitbart:“Anyone who cares about free speech has been sent a clear message: you’re not welcome on Twitter,” said Yiannopoulos. Stevan Crowder, a right-wing podcaster and blogger, Tweeted that: “An anti-free speech communication platform will lose its value’, in the wake of Yiannopoulos’ ban.

It would, however, be an exaggeration to describe Quora as opposed to free speech. Quora prioritises real expertise at the expense of totally open discourse: “Most of the brightest people in my life I would not describe as combative or eager to engage in online conflict,” said Jonathan. “They want to avoid conflict. That’s what smart people do. So if you want to provide a space for the smartest of smart people to share what they know, you have to eliminate the shenanigans that are present in most online spaces.” Eliminating shenanigans, for Quora, means putting all the power in the hands of the content creator. I asked Jonathan about Quora’s anti-trolling measures. “It feels like you have a lot of tools at your disposal,” he replied. “You can block the person, you can delete the comment, you could respond to it if you want, and you could go further and delete the whole thread and what they say at any point. It’s your answer; you wrote it, you own it.”

From the outside, Quora might sound like a dull and stuffy place, frequented by people with bigger egos than brains, but there’s a reason public figures with busy schedules and guarded agendas are drawn to the website. Quora curates quality expression in topics as broad as Jose Mourinho’s defensive football, and nuclear physics. Quora’s quality is seriously addictive, both if you’re writing or if you’re just reading. It’s easy to find the social internet vacuous; Quora adds some- thing fundamentally serious and considered.

When Quora had a critical mass of answers, questions, and users, its founders decided to make a change. BNBR (Be Nice, Be Respectful) became one of Quora core moderation principles. BNBR was controversial because the website seriously enforced it, banning a number of prominent users including Brooke Schwartz, due to alleged BNBR violations.

On Medium, a publishing platform and social journal- ism site, Schwartz wrote ‘[their] obsession with BNBR is turning Quora into a cesspool of crap and spam, especially considering they’re systematically banning all of their best users.’

Schwartz’s argument isn’t totally coherent, as a goal of Quora’s assiduous moderation program is to minimise exactly the sort of ‘crap and spam’ Schwartz sees all over Quora. But anything the site loses from BNBR, it certainly makes up for in users who like it.

I spoke to Andrew Weill, a tax lawyer from the San Francisco area, who writes about parenting, atheism, politics, and the law, for an audience of almost 60 thousand followers. When asked how Quora facilitated good quality content, he responded simply: “BNBR. That’s less about the Quora enforcement, which is spotty, and more about the fact that the site attracts people who like BNBR and set it as their normative standard.”

People have argued that both this insistence upon BNBR, and its totally writer-centric approach to moderation, infringe upon freedom of speech: “Quora, instead of allowing free speech, act [sic] like a bunch of censoring Nazis,” wrote Gregory Smith, a banned second amendment-supporter, on his blog. Philip Pillali, a student from New York, described a BNBR decision as “a targeted attempt to silence an answer that disagreed with the views of the moderators of the platform.”

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Yet, Quora’s mission – to curate a virtual space for the dissemination of expertise – is one that attracts people who’ll Be Nice and Be Respectful without being asked. BNBR exists because the kind of user Quora wants to attract likes it, and they won’t post on the site unless a policy of its kind is in place. Again: smart people want to avoid conflict online, they don’t want their expertise challenged or insulted by nameless online trolls. “Without a concerted effort to enforce BNBR policies,” wrote Jim Watkins, a Canadian writer with four and a half million total views, “Quora would not be a forum I would spend any time on.” “Without the rule of BNBR, Quora would devolve into name-calling and nastiness. It would become the home of crackpots and kooks,” said Peter Flom, a statistical consultant with 74 thousand followers.

And support for BNBR isn’t necessarily politically one-sided. I spoke with Matthew Bates, a teacher from Chicago. With 70.5 million views and 63 thousand followers under his belt, Bates is the best known conservative on a site that leans to the left. “The ability to delete comments on your posts and block people helps,” said Bates. “Also the ability of everyone to report people for harassment helps a lot.”

A safe space is good for everyone who is taking the site seriously: it doesn’t infringe upon free speech to enforce rules which ensure the platform’s broader quality. And Quora doesn’t see itself as a website designed to foster the discourse that an open forum encourages. “Discourse is more of a byproduct of a lot of people on Quora feeling safe enough to share their knowledge,” said Jonathan. If you disagree with someone, write your own answer. But a writer’s space is theirs to control, and if they want to delete your comment or block you, they are free to do so.

This moderation style is hardly the online norm. “I’m confident that we spend a lot more time thinking about it and per our overall budget we spend a lot more on trying to solve that problem,” said Brill, when asked about how his competitors moderated. “And the rea- son is very simple. Economically, if we want to be the best place to share your knowledge, again, the kind of people we want to get to do that, on Quora, just aren’t going to do it if they feel threatened.”

Quora isn’t ignorant of historical biases, either: they recognise the groups who’ve been worst treated in the academic and discursive space. Brill observes that: “women and minorities are targeted and harassed on various platforms on the internet by people that are using pseudonyms. We’re more diligent than most about making sure it doesn’t happen and about responding quickly when it does.” The site enforces a real name policy – it’s possible to ask a question anonymously, but to ensure informed and quality content, and to show that the writer knows what they’re talking about, an account has to be in the user’s own name.

When a prominent and popular user admitted that he was writing under a pseudonym, his account was blocked, despite having legions of fans. If writers can hide under the veil of anonymity, they can say what they want, without the risk of reputational damage. Quality communication requires honesty. The trade- off that Quora has made isn’t straightforward. The Internet is funded by advertisers who put the quantity of attention drawn above quality. Nevertheless, Quora has become a place to go if you need to find something out, providing valuable expertise when you need it most. They moderate harshly, because they need to – an informed space demands an amnesty on abuse.

Quora is different from other sites on the internet, but the changes they’ve implemented demonstrate lessons about the nature of communication, both online and not. We’d all do well to remember that.