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Question: Does Quora Do Politics? Answer:...

BY Nancy Scola | Thursday, March 17 2011

Photo by Jason Tester


Questions and answers, is there anything simpler in life? Perhaps not, but a humble Q&A platform called Quora is capturing the attention of technologists in a way that makes worth asking, what happens when their political counterparts start working with it?

Part of Quora's appeal comes from its pedigree. Behind it are Adam D'Angelo, the former CTO of Facebook, and Charlie Cheever, a Facebook and Amazon alum. But starting with its launch in just June of last year, the "magic to Quora that has captured Silicon Valley's imagination," to borrow a line from TechCrunch's Mike Arrington, is that it's something somehow fully human, fully social, and fully intellectual.

Questions-and-answers has been tried online many times; Yahoo! Answers and Answers.com spring to mind. But Quora's DNA is such that the experience is designed to be extremely engaging. You follow fellow users whether friends or strangers, write questions, write answers, track topics, tag content, vote it all up or down—and even offer edits to other people’s questions and answers in the hopes of making them better.

Out of private beta for less than a year, Quora has become the place where Netflix CEO Reed Hastings goes to answer how much the company spends on postage each year ("between $500m and $600m) and where a former Flickr architect explains why that company has fallen behind on mobile. Quora's user base is still very much tilted to the tech world. (Quora hasn’t released user statistics; Compete.com recorded 283,000 unique visitors last month -- a tiny sliver of Facebook-like numbers, though a tripling since the summer.) But where the political world lagged behind in getting on Facebook, and to a lesser extent, Twitter, it's dabbling in Quora in the early going.

House Republican Leader Eric Cantor's office last month asked on the site how social media can be used in the legislative process. More recently a San Francisco mayoral candidate went on there to ask how tech can improve citizen services. That said, politics pops in more organic forms. ("What will happen to Bit.ly links if Gaddafi shuts down the Internet?" draws answers from the CEOs of Bit.ly, and the founders of Things.ly and Page.ly.) Unlike other idea platforms like the House Republicans' America Speaking Out, the Obama Administration's proposed ExpertNet, PopVox, or Chicago Mayor-elect Rahm Emanuel's "Talk About the Issues" site, Quora isn't built for politics—but because it’s gathering users from a much wider arena as they go about their normal routine, it might have the potential to make a bigger impact in the political world.

Defining Questions, and Answers

Matt Lira, new media director to House Minority Leader Eric Cantor, recently posted a question to Quora on using social media to better the legislative process. He got 19 answers in response, many of them quite substantive.

Marc Bodnick created a stir in January when he left the private equity firm where he'd help drive early investments to Facebook and Yelp, and joined Quora in a leadership role. (Question: Why did Marc Bodnick join Quora?) We talked by phone. Bodnick was intrigued, he says, by the chance to help aggregate the world's smarts, bit by bit; Quora's founders have talked about the idea that 90% of what humans know is still trapped in our heads. The trick is getting all that intelligence out onto the web, in presumably search-engine-friendly fashion, in a way our fellow humans find useful.

"If the question is about first principles, and it comes down to 'I think we should do this,' and 'I think we should do this, then I don't know that Quora is helpful," says Bodnick, who once studied political science and government at Stanford and Harvard. "But so often, questions are narrowable. Reasonable people should be able to narrow disagreements and say, 'we can agree on these facts, and then here's how we frame the cost of the arguments.'" Some political questions are simple; who was the 22nd U.S. president? Others require more judgment; was Buchanan the first gay president? And on others, there's no one right answer, but some are better than others; which will come first: the first openly gay, Muslim, or atheist president? Unlike with Wikipedia, consensus around the “neutral point of view” isn't the holy grail. Bodnick sees a sort of Quora-as-National-Security-Advisor model.

"What you don't want is one answer telling you what to do," he says. "What you want is five or six perspectives that are really helpful."

Matt Lira is House Majority Leader Cantor's new media director. Lira loves to experiment, particularly with social platforms, "but as soon as you put them into the governing space," he says on a phone call, "they break down." Lira was really pleased with how his first official Quora foray panned out. Nineteen answers came in and were voted on, and on the main, they were substantive and constructive. On the one hand, Lira's question about opening up the legislative process tapped into Quora's natural strength, a geek's affinity for processes and re-engineering systems. (Question: Why do drug deals so often happen on corners?) Then again, online politics can so often turn ugly. "The question is," says Lira, "will the magic of Quora continue in the government space?"

Part of the answer will come from how Quora's own system is engineered, an obsession of Bodnick's. Sure, human nature is what it is. But can you create an online space that rewards positivity, and constructive discussion? Team Quora wants to try. Part of the meta discussion on Quora includes simple things aimed at optimizing the experience, like the company asking people not to sign their answers "hope this helps." More critically, identity is enormously important on Quora, offering a twist on the debate between Mark Zuckerberg's vision for everyone online to be the same person all the time and Christopher Poole's 4chan model that defaults towards anonymity. On Quora, identity is central. But in a strange way, it's also secondary.

Identity Politics
On Quora, you're expected to use your real name. (Bodnick says "we enforce that pretty seriously," but doesn't want to say how, other than to describe a sort of two-strikes policy for people who try aliases.) But, as in the rest of life, who we are at any moment depends on the situation. I'm a writer, yes, and a political geek. But I'm also a beer aficionado. I'm obsessed with creative non-fiction writing. I have a seasonal interest in professional football. As I engage on the site, Quora lets me tag myself with a short bio that depends on the topic at hand. ("Progressive," "home brewer," "Giants fan.")

Together, my name and multiple self-identifications let me self-actualize in some minor way. The system adds to the considerable serendipity on the site, letting me bump into friends and strangers I follow from more than just a single angle. But it also lets other people on the site know where I'm coming from, giving them a little more to work with when deciding how to assess my contributions on everything on from net neutrality to the best Long Island beers.

That said, Quora is also anonymous. Let me explain. For one thing, with a single click you can answer a question simply as "Anon User," though Bodnick says people generally opt to be public. (That said, anonymous answers can be especially revealing ones.) The deal with questions is more confusing, but more interesting, in a way. Simply look at the site, and questions appear anonymous. There's no easy way of knowing, for example, that a question about using tech to do citizen services in San Francisco was posted by Tony Hall, a candidate for mayor. Says Bodnick, “We want the questions to stand alone, so that they can become canonical," as much a contribution to the community as an answer is. But the name of the question asker is there, if you dig a bit. Click "Latest Activity" and scroll to the start. It's a model of accountable semi-anonymity, and Cantor aide Matt Lira is a fan.

It becomes advantageous in a strange way, says the Hill staffer, because the focus stays on questions and answers, rather than on personalities. Still, you can imagine that there might just be one or two egocentric politicians who might having an interest in seeing their names attached in a obvious way to the questions they post. I put this to Bodnick. "That's an interesting point," he says, and hesitates. "No...yeah, that's true."

Authority Figures
"We're providing a place for people to answer a question with authority," says Bodnick, but authority here means something different than it does on either Wikipedia or the halls of Congress. Lira was interested in hearing from the outside how the U.S. House of Representatives could revamp. But Bodnick sees a future where, too, those inside government, at every level, use the question and answer model to reach out, in a personal and direct way. When it comes to engaging government at, say, the Department of Motor Vehicles, says Bodnick, "I don't really understand any of the rules and how things work, and I kind of show up and muddle through." The possibility? The head of the DMV might respond to questions.

There, the authority is explicit. But there's more than one path to standing on Quora. "Everyday people who just go there a lot could write great answers, too," he says. On Quora, a major meta topic of conversation is, for example, how Quora works. Staffers like Bodnick regularly jump into the discussion. But so do users, and often not with a great deal of deference. Bodnick cites the contributions of one of his fellow Quora users, Danielle Maurer, ("Anthropology Major & SciFi Fan.") "She's just a really good writer."

Over time, authority accrues to those who are thought to be making good contributions to the site. Why can't you buy raw milk in parts of the U.S.? That question might prompt an answer from the milk lobby, a citizen-led food safety group, and a dairy farmer. But it'd be up to Quora users to shape who's given biggest megaphone. "A vote from a user who has written good answers in the past carries more weight (both upvotes and downvotes)," reads an answer posted by founder D'Angelo. "Answers written by users who have written good answers in the past will be ranked higher."

Civility Reigns, So Far
"It's really important that Quora's environment be polite and be nice," says Bodnick. "It's one of the reasons that a CEO like Steve Case is comfortable hanging out there and writing answers about AOL." Or, perhaps, why an NPR official is willing to jump in to answer a question on what the pluses and minuses are were the organization to rely exclusively on private donations instead of government funding. Lira cites the culture of civility as one reason he was willing to inject his boss into the space. If the political blogosphere can resemble as heated public town hall, Quora can read more like a civil, of lively, dinner table conversation.

How did it get there? There is moderation, and the rules of the road are posted on the site. "If we make a decision," says Bodnick, "then it's important that we root that in a policy." Unless you're a public figure, if there's a question about you that you don't like, you can ask Quora's moderators for it to be taken down. Decisions are left up to the, 27 admins and 82 reviewers whose names are listed on the site. So far, it looks like they haven’t had to deal with many hard cases, -- such as what do with an answer that is truthful by also possibly hurtful to a public figure – but as their user base grows, that will likely happen.

What Happens Next
Does Quora work for politics? Quora, of course, might be a flash in the pan. It might never grow beyond Silicon Valley, and in two years, the question might be asked on some other Q&A platform is, "Quora who?" Or it could be the next Facebook or Twitter, a utility that insinuates itself into every aspect of many of our daily lives. Either way, how Quora handles the dynamics of an online space pushes our understanding of what digital political engagement looks like.

Bodnick sees a future where legislative staffers might break down the nuances of a bill, citizens help one another untangle what the propositions on the California ballot do, and complex governmental organizations get explained in comprehensible ways. Lira plans to be back, perhaps with a question on technology policy pending before Congress. Maybe, he suggests, we might see Hill staffers making use of the platform sort of as their own personal Congressional Research Service. Political advocates on any topic might well find it worth their while to find out who's asking questions about their issues, and offer up some answers. As 2012 ramps up, campaigns, naturally, will probably want to keep tabs on who is talking about their candidate.

On Tuesday, I posted to Quora the question: "How might Quora be used for political advocacy?" Only one response so far, but it's a doozy. Adam Mordecai ("Internets Strategist, Political Junkie") lists out, in 21 steps, what happens [could happen] to Quora once it really gets discovered by the political class. The telling starts with the Washington Post's Howard Kurtz writing about how Quora will upend the political world even more than Twitter has, and works in a fake Sarah Palin Quora account and Charlie Sheen punching a dolphin. It's funny, a little random, and thought provoking. It's Quora. Lira tells me he worries about whether Quora can scale. Mordecai does too. "The political season is gonna stress the user base out a bit," he says, "but it's gonna be fun, can't wait to watch."

As for Lira, he says that Quora's worth dipping into, at least once, especially for his colleagues on the Hill. "Congress spends so much time trying to communicate with people," he says, "when there are so many people who want to communicate with us. We just need to learn how to listen."

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