John Klossner

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Social media and the quest for knowledge (and a good snow shovel)

John Klossner shovels

This isn't exactly breaking news, but we've received a good amount of snow in New England this winter. Key to that sentence is "winter" – it's not unexpected at this time of year, despite local residents statements of astonishment. As one friend put it, "I haven't had a conversation that didn't involve the weather in over a month." My children now think that school consists of two two-day weeks, with Wednesdays being another weekend.

The amount and frequency of the snow has allowed me to get into a shoveling groove. I have shoveled the driveway so many times this winter that I think I can now do it blindfolded. I haven't measured, but I think one of my arms is bigger than the other.

When you receive as much snow as we have this year, you start to understand the old cliche about Eskimos having – what was it, 25? 50? 1,000? – different words for snow. I'm afraid I can't be as eloquent as an Inuit, but we have had wet snow, frozen snow, wind-hardened snow and the dreaded "snowplow-packed-at-the-end-of-the-driveway" snow, among others.

This morning was one of the days I enjoy: a picturesque tableau of large flakes skidding on gravity, accumulating in a soft blanket that you could clear by blowing hard, if you don’t mind being seen on all fours in your driveway. I decided to use a shovel instead. And – this is the important part – I decided to go with the wide shovel. I have now accumulated a veritable golf bag of snow shovels with each tool, like a golf club, serving a special need. For example, when we've received 20 inches of heavy, wet snow I have to go with a narrower, smaller shovel. When I haven't gotten out early enough, allowing the local plow drivers to plug the end of the driveway with a snow-cement mixture, I have to resort to the good old-fashioned spade. But today, with 3 or 4 inches of light powdery snow, I could use the biggest shovel I have, as there would be little resistance to me pushing the piles around.

A recent couple days spent down the rabbit hole with Quora made me think that social networks and information sites are catching up with snow shovels in specialization. Quora – the online social network information questions and answers site du jour of the month – was released in beta at the end of 2009 and went public in June 2010. It is becoming popular in government circles, inspiring admiring posts like this. Quora bills itself as "... a continually improving collection of questions and answers created, edited and organized by everyone who uses it. The most important thing is to have each question page become the best possible resource for someone who wants to know about the question."

As a frequent visitor to the Internet I am always on the lookout for the site or network that is accurate, informative and respectful in user conversation. I don't have to tell you, but a great amount of user content is filled with misinformation and name calling. I want to support any social site's efforts to address and avoid the downward spiral of communication.

One of the first things I noticed about Quora was its attempt to phrase users questions in a style that lends itself to conversation. When I asked, "why is Quora better than ___," a pop-up box appeared that told me questions would not be allowed if they contained spelling, grammar or usage mistakes. (Quora is also trying to avoid survey questions.) After capitalizing the "w" I tried to finished my question – "Why is Quora better than ( I was going to list individual sites: Facebook, Wikipedia, Yahoo Answers, Mahalo, etc.), when another pop-up appeared with a list of already-asked questions. I chose "Why is Quora so much better than the competition?" I figured this would cover me, and the first user-provided answer was illuminating. As the user wrote:

"I think the one reason that Quora is better than competition is that it attracted a core group of smart, well-informed people who write really well right in the beginning. And now others who join are influenced by the culture of thoughtful writing and sharing."

(Just for kicks I went to Yahoo Answers and asked them "Why is Yahoo Answers so much better than the competition?" The first answer was, "I think the reason Yahoo Answers is better is because it attracted a core group of people who wanted to know the history of cheerleading. Just kidding, it didn't have an answer.)

I then asked Quora, "What is the smartest online knowledge market?" It wouldn't allow me to ask that, but it prompted me to "Why is Quora more popular than dozens of other Q&A sites?" There were no answers, but this linked to "How does Quora differ from other Q&A services?" (There were numerous well-informed and well-written answers, but my favorite was, "Geeks use it. It's the new trendy web service.")

From that page I found a link to "How is Quora Different from X?", which is comprised of comparisons of Quora with other social networks, Q&A sites, and sites that may be considered competition. This brings me to what I call "the Wikipedia question."

I was initially curious about the similarities between Quora and Wikipedia – specifically, that both are a knowledge base of user-created content. There is a specific page comparing and contrasting Quora with Wikipedia which deals with everything from page design to site funding, but my main interest was with accuracy. In the small circles of academia that I have access to, Wikipedia is strictly not allowed as an attributable research source. This is mainly because of experiences with users placing unsubstantiated opinions or misinformation on the site, which aspires to be an objective online information source. How will Quora, with its goal to "...have each question page become the best possible resource for someone who wants to know about the question," deal with user misinformation, either erroneously or intentional? The Quora community deals with this by stating that it is not an encyclopedia and doesn't strive for objectivity, and that the cumulative information from a community of answers will give the reader a better understanding for the subject.

And what about concerted efforts by large groups to misinform or editorialize, as Wikipedia has experienced? My understanding is that there will be some monitoring, and that the community of users will be relied on to provide a balance of information to questions. I have not spent enough time with the site to see these in action. Also, as Quora states, it is a "continually improving" collection of questions and answers, and the quality of the community, combined with the site's intent to be an organic conversation and information source, might deal with the issue before I finish this sentence.

But are there gates? As the Quora community advertises its superior designs and talented users, isn't the goal to make it a destination for more users? And won't this flood of questions from the "mainstream" (as one Quora user termed it) bring with it a dumbing down of the discussion? Will Quora merely bat away questions it doesn't want to entertain? Or will the core group just move on to the next site, which they themselves will probably design when not busy answering Quora questions? Interestingly enough, Quora asked itself this very question. Interestingly enough, nobody has answered.

In all of this there is an assumption that we are all looking for the "best" social network or information site. Maybe the "best" won't be the goal in the long run. Maybe we'll all settle for the site that best fits our needs, whether they be for accuracy and consistency, connection to the most people or knowledgeable feedback on where to buy snow shovels. We want to know which source to go to for the best information to fit our particular question. Quora looks like a very good online community, with members interested in creating a respectful, accurate, and reliable conversation.

Time will tell on its consistency, especially as more people become aware of, and involved in, the site. But I still couldn't help but feel a string of insecurity weaving around Quora. Users constantly mentioned how talented and smart and connected the Quora community was, and in my three-afternoon foray into the site I found several statements making a distinction between "us" – the Quora community – and "them" – sites outside the Quora community. If the Quora community could just be satisfied with what it is at this point – a well-designed Q&A site that focuses on the strengths of its users and encourages accurate dialogue – instead of its users being concerned with it being the best and defining it so at the expense of other sites, it will become a very useful tool for online searching and social networking.

While still figuring my way around the site, I asked "Is Quora a better social network than Yahoo?" Inadvertently, it was saved and sent out to the community. I received two answers. The first a calmly stated, yes, much better, and the second, "Questions like this make the reader feel as if he's on YA" (Yahoo Answers) It's good to know that snark will still be allowed. I wouldn't want to think that I had accidently wandered off the Internet.

John Klossner Quora

Posted on Feb 24, 2011 at 12:19 PM


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