Monday, February 14, 2011

This Answer Is Not Helpful

I had the goofiest interaction on Quora this past weekend. For those of you not in the know, Quora is a new site for Q&A. Unlike sites like, questions and answers posted on Quora are highly curated. And as we’ve become increasingly attentive to the crediblity of online information sources, curation has become a vital part of our virtual interactions.

Quora has strict rules about how to craft questions and answers and I bumped up against them over the weekend. I posted an answer to a question and the answer was almost immediately voted down and collapsed by another user and labelled "This answer is not helpful." Call me oversensitive, but being told that I wasn't being helpful made me feel really bad. My censurer pointed me to the rules on how to write a helpful answer, but I did not know which of these rules I had broken. And beyond that, I didn't agree with all of the rules.  

In contrast, something that I kind of liked about Facebook was its "like" icon. Even though several groups formed claiming to want an "unlike" icon, it never materialized. And even though you can have a pretty contentious discussion on Facebook, the architecture of the icons is pretty positive. As are the defaults they afford us.

This experience with Quora got me thinking in a broader sense about online rating systems which are also playing a major role in the quest for creating credible information sources online. 

Why do we vote instead of encourage people to articulate their responses in writing?  Because it's faster and easier. Yet sites like Quora have the potential for a real exchange of knowledge and beliefs that a rating system can never achieve.

If we really want to increase human knowledge, then why don't we create systems that enable us to help each other find the right words? IDEO has a brainstorming principle "Build on the Ideas of Others." That is, when someone says something that you may not agree with, pause for a minute, find a part of the statement that you like, and build on it until you like it. As with any consensus-building exercise, the addition of new ideas to a conversation can almost always be helpful - regardless of the idea’s direct relationship to the project’s goal. Educators don’t shut people down for writing unhelpful answers; rather, we take on the responsibility of integrating those answers into the discussion.

My Quora experience would have been great if only my censurer had provided a thoughtful and constructive response. Now how can I help him do that?

special thanks to E. K. Learnard for feedback and editing

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