Friday, 4 February 2011

Quora, Norms, and Motivation

"I have managed to find a few interesting discussions on Quora lately, but WOW some people sure know how to spew business bullshit and buzzwords. The ego stroking, ‘look how smart I can write’ is one of the things that ends up turning me off to the network."
Jonathan More's 1/10/11 comment on the post "The Answer to this Quora? No." by Saneel Radia.
For a while now, from afar, I've been watching Quora, the much-discussed, newish Q&A platform. In addition to a mountain of press and glowing endorsements from some fancy people, it has also garnered some strikingly negative reviews. That's to be expected. The hype and bile cycle cranks up every time the next "next big thing" rounds the corner. Many gripes are of the "Google does it better" or "What am I supposed to do with this?" stripe. But seemingly petty reactions like the comment above point to a trickier issue, one about product framing, user motivations, and norms. In a nutshell, Quora is shackled to a norm-embedding "frame", i.e. it's a "Q&A platform". But it's also a social product, so it must provide an implicit dual value proposition – one creator facing and one consumer facing – to generate content consumers may want. Yet, because of the norms embedded in the Q&A frame proscribing self-promotion or overt display, the only legitimate, communicable value proposition is the consumer facing one. Confusing? Let me elaborate. Throughout, I'll use reader comments associated with Saneel Radia's critical post as discussion fodder.

Frames as Norm-embedding Structures
"I keep trying to find some utility but it seems like a place where people either just post questions that are utterly ridiculous or they post questions to demonstrate their “expertise” (i.e. they answer them)… It doesn’t seem to be supporting collaboration or interaction…"
Sara' 1/11/11 comment on Saneel's post
"You hit the nail on the head, Sara. Quora is for the creator, not the consumer."
Saneel's response to Sara's comment
Quora self-describes as "A continually improving collection of questions and answers created, edited, and organized by everyone who uses it." Basically, it's billed as an evolving, ever improving Q&A platform in which the best and brightest – initially, but now including the worst and dullest, like me – can ask questions, follow questions, answer questions, and then endorse or promote the answers. Of course, there are also a bunch o' "community" features integrated (and integral) throughout, but that's it in a nutshell.

Sounds simple and it's actually pretty nicely designed, quickly getting you up to speed as regards "official" interactions, functions, and entities. Of course, part of what makes the site's structures, functions and interactions so easy to grasp is the familiarity of the product's framing concept, Questions and Answers. You say "it's a Q&A site, created edited and organized by users" and, as the primary frame is a very conventional interaction structure, we know more or less what to expect.

Framing, in this dumbed down sense of the big, abstract interaction type that structures the product, is an incredibly useful tool that can do a lot of work for you. If properly deployed frames can guide expectations and define roles entering into interactions; constrain or lead actions through processes and flows; and often determine the bounds of appropriate and inappropriate behavior. Relying on familiar, conventional, relatively unambiguous frames offloads a lot of the high level, strategic discovery and design work to the frame itself.

But relying on a frame can lead to problems if you don't understand how they do what they do. Often, frames embed norms, the informal, behavior-guiding rules and simple conventions that we rely on to coordinate and smooth our daily activities and interactions. Norms – mostly social norms but sometimes conventions as well – can be not only descriptive, indicate what most people happen to do, but also prescriptive, indicate what people should do. We humans slip easily, almost inevitably, from the descriptive to the prescriptive – from the fact-based to the evaluative – often feeling that how something happens to be done is how it should be done. Furthermore, norms aren't prescriptive at just the behavioral level, indicating what you should do. They're also often prescriptive at the procedural or motivational level. It's not just what you do that's prescribed and judged, it's also how or why you do it.

Display and the Problem of Motivation

Motivation is a hot topic in our circles, particularly now that everyone is high on that most pernicious and faddish of sub-fields "persuasive design". How do you get folks, for example, to invest time and effort asking and answering questions on your site? How do you softly enforce quality/behavior standards yet open the gates to the largest number of users? How do you trick somebody into signing up for your damn newsletter? Etc….

There are two much discussed types of motivation.

Internal Motivation
Motivation arising out of inherent or intrinsic desires, values, drives, etc.

External Motivation
Motivation arising out of extrinsic considerations or inducements.

Research on these issues is pretty muddled, but seems to indicate that the internal sort is best for, say, learning and maintaining desired behaviors and habits, while the external becomes self-defeating and can crowd out internal motivation in the long run. Other research, however, seems to suggest that, in the real world, the truth is actually a lot more complicated and a motivational cocktail of both types is actually the most effective.

Whatever the case regarding actual motivational efficacy, moralizing the distinction is almost inescapable. We're all pretty biased in our evaluations of perceived motivation, just assuming internal motivation to be somehow better or nobler than external motivation. Consider the case of social interaction. Folks apparently acting from internal dispositions are lauded as "genuine" or "authentic", while those clearly interested in appearances and the esteem of others are branded "fake" or "inauthentic". Maybe this is a normative corollary of social psychology's well documented Fundamental Attribution Bias, the finding that our perceptions of the causes of peoples behavior are significantly biased toward assuming internal as opposed to external (structural or situational) causes.

Anyway, we designers realize (or at least we should if we want to be successful) that a significant real world motivator and quality-driver is Display. We can acquire and accrue social goods – esteem, reputation, and status – from estimable acts (judged by some norm-determined standard) performed in a public context. Display considerations fundamentally impact the quantity and quality of our contributions to social products. And Display is far less about internal than external motivational factors, like how the content, quantity, and quality of your input changes depending on who's likely consuming it and the possible esteem or reputational benefit their consumption might provide. If you were purely internally motivated, it wouldn't matter who was watching, how you'd like them to react/judge you, or what standard they were applying. Your input would always be the same.

Because of our normative bias for the internal, on those rare occasions we do talk about Display it's in passing and with embarrassment. In my opinion, we should drop our proudly naive, exclusive public preference for internal, "authentic" motivations (which is probably an artifact of biases, heuristics, and norms rather than a reflection of true motivational schedules) and embrace the external as a vital tool in our designer's toolbox. But, I certainly don't think that Display is the only motivator here. Rather, as I've written before, there are at least three big, abstract reasons people use social functionality: Connection, Knowledge, and Display.

Explicit Position vs. Afforded Position vs. Enforced Position
"…as much as i dislike it, i can’t fault the strategy: let SV folks self-adulate through display of knowledge, whether real or fake…"
adam on 1/11/11
"The thing that turns me off about Quora is that there seems to be no personality allowed. I answered with a few tongue-in-cheek responses, and found a few of that ilk that I liked, and they were all voted down."
Tinu on 1/11/11
You can think of our three big reasons for engaging with social functionality – Connection, Knowledge, and Display – as the poles of a three-dimensional continuum. Then, if you're really geeky, you can plot (very unscientifically) where items of social functionality fall on the continuum – both functional elements and whole products. Considering the norms embedded in Quora's Q&A frame along with their more or less explicit positioning and teaser line, I'd plot them as below.

Basically, this is the mix of motivators and reasons for engaging with the platform that Quora "explicitly" or officially appeals to. The big circle around the plot indicates that the official message and frame-embedded norms determine more of a range than a coordinate; there's leeway, particularly since product-specific norms are just now arising. They're very skewed toward the Knowledge pole, but with a significant Connection (in this case the explicitly "community" elements) leaning. Their official position is very light on the Display component, although it's implicit in the social aspect. Still, a little bit of Display is allowable so long as the clear point of the activity is Knowledge.

But as some of the quoted comments suggest, perusing Quora you definitely get the sense that a lot of activity is driven either solely or largely by Display. Many people are using Quora as a means of advertising their expertise, interests, sense of humor, and abilities. That's no surprise. The platform clearly "affords" that, and a lot of activity probably depends on it. But, this afforded use case is proscribed by the "official" position and norms. It's clearly the case that a lot of people wouldn't answer at all, except that they can flash their smarts. However, when we think of a Q&A platform, we feel that it should be about Knowledge first and foremost. Display should fall naturally out of quality performance or at least not appear to drive the performance. In this strongly Knowledge-first context, performances perceived to be selfishly Display-focused can make us really uncomfortable or mad (a typical reaction to broken prescriptive norms), even if the content is high quality.

To counter this natural and predictable issue, Quora provides voting up and voting down functionality as well as monitors to actually remove "self-serving" content. This is a good way to guide content quality and pro-sociality, particularly if you're designing within a strong frame. But, it looks like the discomfort of the transgressed no-Display norm associated with the frame is generating a powerful backlash against those perceived to be too Display motivated. Several comments mentioned the strictness and harshness with which some humorous or snarky answers were squashed. The enforcement norms that seem to be emerging appear to be even more anti-Display than the official Quora positioning warrants. Plotting the "afforded" position and the "enforced" position on our continuum gives us something like this.

Clearly, there's a problem here. The product affords activities that the framing and position explicitly proscribe. This happens with every social product, but in this case, the frame is so normatively well defined and understood that transgressions against its accepted norms are glaring and galling. Also, the platform is relatively new and, though there are robust means of sanctioning (vote up and down) and clear identification of high performance, the content is just now reaching the volume where product-specific norms of appropriate presentation form and solidify. The users have yet to coordinate on acceptable means and practices of Display within the normative bounds of the platform. Until these norms become widespread and a "generation" of users have accumulated the norms as product-specific "Cultural Capital" there will still be a largish proportion of brazen self-promoters ticking everyone else off. But, as the norms solidify and spread, they will most likely learn them and cooperate.