Quora: Social epistemology, credibility & the QA interface

Quora is a newish social question answering site which is gaining popularity. Common reaction from new users seems to be : “what’s this?” “do we need another answers site?“, and “how can I stop these e-mail notifications?“. Despite fears that Quora may become populated with lame questions and lamer answers, not to mention spammers, there may also be grounds for optimism, as Quora implements a number of interface features with the potential to encourage the aggregation of good social knowledge, perhaps to a greater extent than other sites including Wikipedia and Yahoo Answers.


Alvin Goldman’s 1999 book Knowledge in a Social World1 provides a framework for the evaluation of social knowledge practices2. My interpretation of his model toward the QA context is that it comprises:

1. Allowance for personal interest in the topic : “sensitivity to relative amounts of interest should play a modest role in assessing .. epistemic credentials”;
2. Need to know: Not everybody in a community needs to know everything, instead knowledge should be available to those who need it most;
3. The mechanics of the knowledge exchange practice itself, which involves: the inference practice of the “credal agent” (user in this case); the speech practices of the speaker (answerer) and the communication-control practice (the interface and its affordances + community moderation)
4. Accomodation of different types of question. For questions where no agreed “true” answer exists, it might be treated in a Popperian manner – you cannot know what is true but you can reject specific hypotheses. For this to work, however, a full range of hypotheses need to be represented.

How does Quora look against this framework and other related thinking in credibility and the epistemology of testimony? In terms of interest and need-to-know, the site limits your view of the community to just those parts you have shown an interest in. While this may lead to a confusing experience for those coming new to the homepage, it is perhaps a deliberate social design decision to create specialist areas and multiple entry points, as venkat argues in this post.

As far as practices are concerned, some of this will be down to norms that evolve and change with the expansion of the community of users. User inference practices need to be further studied, though it is likely that personal epistemologies – a personally held understanding of what knowledge is – and a desire for quick answers or “epistemic closure” will continue to be significant, though competing factors. That is, the need for closure may hinder the development of a richer understanding of knowledge as contested and nuanced. In providing responses, the motivation of answerers may be altruistic, competitive or toward self-promotion, though the relative effect of these are perhaps less significant when the community as a whole can vote answers up or down. And this collaborative filtering, while flawed, is at the heart of the consensus model that the site hopes to implement. Notably, Quora does not use the “Accepted answer” feature that other sites use which places emphasis on a particular answer.

Other interface features seem to be geared toward enhancing the user’s ability to evaluate answers. In terms of your qualification to answer on a topic, Quora allows you to provide your experience per topic rather than overall for your profile. This could provide important – though of course manipulable – cues to credibility. Evidence has shown that the closer testimony is to first-hand experience, the more important it is to us.

Criticism of Wikipedia in terms of credible testimony3 has been that the masking of author identity makes it very difficult to assess. As this question reveals, Quora insists on you providing your real name, although you may also opt to answer particular questions anonymously.

It has been noted that the discussion pages in Wikipedia provide the real story behind the knowledge presented on the page itself, and that the user should use these to help understand the debate and range (or lack) of views presented. By having both edited summary and discussion together in the page, Quora potentially provides more transparency in this. The edited summary should serve as a useful overview when woven together from a number of answers – providing the opportunity for “braided learning”4.

A further spur to credibility which Quora is trying to encourage is for users to expose their reasoning and argument rather than simply providing pithy answers, thereby avoiding a “black box effect” which leaves important gaps in the explanation and requires a leap of faith on the part of the information consumer5.

Dawn and Pete

None of this is to underplay quality issues and potential for abuse and manipulation, which exists as much in Quora as other QA systems. The question is whether Quora can develop a large and loyal enough community to enable the ongoing accretion, filtering and refinement of good quality knowledge. It’s potential positive impact is significant – as a species we are predisposed to trust others on topics that we are not well equipped or primed to understand. Friendly, tailored advice caters to this. But this credibility is not without risk: while working on this I saw Gavin and Stacey, the one where Pete asked a social QA site “Should Pete divorce Dawn?” – the answer persuades them to give their marriage another shot. The complete lack of context and detail given in the question and their blind faith in the answer was the joke, but it also makes a point about how we may rate a stranger’s advice to a life-changing extent!

1. Goldman, A.I. 1999, Knowledge in a Social World, Oxford.
2. More recently, Goldman has recognised several shades of social epistemology, and suggests that the internet should be approached with a systems-oriented social epistemology, where the individual components should be understood but their interactions and the emergent effect of their aggregation are also significant.
3. Magnus, P.D. 2009, “On Trusting WIKIPEDIA”, Episteme, vol. 6, no. 1, pp. 74-90.
4. Preston, C.J. 2008, “Braided learning: an emerging process observed in e-communities of practice”, International Journal of Web Based Communities, vol. 4, pp. 220-243(24).
5. Rieh, S.Y. & Danielson, D.R. 2007, “Credibility: A multidisciplinary framework”, Annual Review of Information Science and Technology, vol. 41, no. 1, pp. 307-364.

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