Home Internet A.I. came for the best site on the internet.

A.I. came for the best site on the internet.

“Why Do So Many Music Venues Use Ticketmaster?” “What’s It Like to Train to Be a Sushi Chef?” “How Do Martial Artists Break Concrete Blocks?” If you were looking for answers to such questions 10 years ago, your best resource for finding a thorough, expert-informed response likely would have been one of the most interesting and longest-lasting corners of the internet: Quora.

Most people have encountered Quora in some form, whether they know it or not: in Google search results, in writing samples from famous authors, or perhaps in reprints of certain Q&As in digital publications, like Slate. One of those Slate-via-Quora contributors, author and researcher Erica Friedman, joined the site back in 2011, when it was “starting to get a little bit of new traffic” thanks in part to Yahoo Answers’ decline in reliability and activity. This, she said, allowed Quora to stand out as an accuracy-focused, knowledge-centric text platform. That was a unique offering in an age when Facebook and Twitter were coming to dominate the social internet, and YouTube was doing its own thing.

Friedman was so enamored of the quirky Q&A monolith that she—and many, many others—contributed answers for free. “There was a period of time, for a number of years in the mid-2010s, that a lot of us were really dedicated to a particular mission,” she said. “That was: ‘Let’s make Quora the place on the internet that says you can’t be a jerk here. Let’s put those policies into action, and let’s make it impossible for people to come here in bad faith and act in bad faith.’ ” A smart and passionate community dedicated to maintaining a positive and affirmative space where the most curious netizens could gather—what sounded more ideal than that? No wonder Quora had such a growth spurt in the 2010s.

Today’s Quora, however, hardly meshes with those utopian aims. The once-beloved forum is now home to a never-ending avalanche of meaningless, repetitive sludge, filled with bizarre, nonsensical, straight-up hateful, and A.I.–generated entries along with a slurry of all-caps non-questions like “OMG! KING CHARLES SHOCK the WORLD with ROYAL BAN ON PRINCE HARRY AND MEGHAN MARKLE. SAD?” (The answer to this “question,” which garnered about 7 million views, links to a bizarre, barely functional royals-watching website called red-carpett.com.) Whereas once you could Google a question about current events and find links to thoughtful Quora answers near the top of the results, you’re now more likely to come upon, say, a bunch of folks asking in the year of our Lord 2024 whether the consistently racist Donald Trump is, in fact, racist. Or, maybe, the featured Google snippet will tell you that eggs can melt, thanks to a nonsense Quora answer caught in the search crawler.

Quora’s still-strong SEO has only brought more attention to the issue. Commenters across a variety of forums have bemoaned Quora’s downgrade in quality, and the Atlantic recently asked, “If There Are No Stupid Questions, Then How Do You Explain Quora?” Just scroll through the “Insane People Quora” subreddit if you’d like more examples of this pronounced decline in quality.

Quora’s shrinking utility isn’t due entirely to A.I.: Longtime writers cite issues with moderation and functionality that started well before the ChatGPT era. But its decline has been accelerating—much to the chagrin of the uniquely attached and now-fraying community—with the rise of this new knowledge broker. Earlier this month, the A.I.–accelerationist venture capital hub Andreessen Horowitz blessed Quora with a much-needed $75 million investment—but only for the sake of developing its on-site generative-text chatbot, Poe.

The early advantage Quora had over the (many) other Q&A sites in the late 2000s was that it was designed with social networking in mind. Co-founders Adam D’Angelo and Charlie Cheever were both early Facebook employees who quit in 2009 in order to build a website where, as they told TechCrunch at the time, “we’re trying to get information out of people’s heads, so it’s not on sources that are hard to access on the internet, and get it into a really useful format to make a valuable database.” Their plan was to persuade experts in specialized fields to share their insights with knowledge-seekers and, from there, build a vibrant community around this free exchange of authentic information. “There were a lot of high-quality answers from people who wanted to just share their experiences,” said Friedman—a feature that stood in stark contrast with Yahoo Answers, which “never built up that community.”

Ariel Williams, one of Quora’s first 500,000 members, agreed. “You had Yahoo Answers, and the quality was horrible: People would write a question and somebody would just say something disgusting,” she told me. “Quora had a focus on quality, and they were looking for quality answers, they were looking for quality questions, there was active moderation, and the whole site was set up around the people, around the users.”

It didn’t take long for experts like Stan Hanks, best known as a pioneering network engineer who built the first IP virtual private networks, to show up. In late 2012, he told me, he would log on to Quora, and “there would be something where I had personal experience where I knew the people involved, where I had backstories, and it would just light me up, and I would just write.”

To keep the volunteer experts happy, Quora built out its perks. The company established a Top Writer program for Quora’s best and most fervent answer-writers, built a system that incentivized thoughtful discussion, and even invited these happy Quorans the opportunity to hang out at summits held at company headquarters. “The Top Writer program spanned from 2012 to 2018,” said Williams, herself a Top Writer in an elite crew of just a few hundred Quorans. “There was a physicist that had worked with Freeman Dyson. There were people that worked at NASA. There were people with doctorates.”

There was also robust human backup for all these writers. “There was a moderation team, a review team, and a support team,” said Hanks. “Full-time paid moderators were employees of Quora, and part-time moderators had other jobs like writer engagement.” There were paid community managers who enforced a basic standard of BNBR (“Be Nice, Be Respectful”), customer service support staff, and a department for cross-publishing particular Q&As to websites like Forbes and HuffPost.

The social network racked up hundreds of millions of page views, raised millions of dollars from cash-happy investors, and carved out a corner of the internet distinct from Wikipedia, Reddit, or Facebook. It may not have had the ubiquity and fame of those sites, but that was fine—everyone touching Quora knew what it stood for.

But even then, there were issues plaguing Quora that would continue to fester. First, an anonymous former Quoran told me, the site started “shortening the length of questions.” The professed reason was to increase Quora’s visibility on Google, but that brevity came with a cost: It also made it difficult for users to ask the types of complex questions that could be addressed by specialists, including extremely specific business-related queries of the type Hanks would answer. (For example: “How much equity should I get as a co-founder to build a startup from scratch? I’ve been offered 10%, subject to dilution, with a typical CTO salary. The company hasn’t started yet, they don’t have a prototype. 10% for a CTO is very low. What is fair?”)


Screenshot from Quora

Then there was what former Top Writer J. Starr (who has since deleted her account) characterized to me as “optimizing the feed.” At first, when a user signed in to Quora, they saw what they had come there to see: questions to be answered. But soon, the site started “putting ‘content’ articles into everyone’s feed,” flooding the site with articles that were, according to Starr, “just dreck, gossipy-rag articles about Hollywood figures.” A grim precursor, it seems, to the current-day all-caps PSAs around King Charles.

There were early problems with ads and bots too. When Quora started putting ads on the site in 2016, Williams and other Top Writers suggested that there be some sort of creator revenue-sharing program, she told me. As a result, higher-ups created “the Quora partner program, which I joined myself,” Williams said. But that “was all about trying to come up with questions that would draw in more views and more people,” she said—not about incentivizing high-quality answers. It was all about adding webpages of individual questions, for SEO purposes.

And Quora “partners” weren’t the only ones being recruited to this task—the site also attracted bots that would pull questions from Reddit threads onto Quora pages. They weren’t the type of questions the Quora community was looking for. “You would have people creating bots with templates of ‘What are the best places to eat at,’ and then it would put in city names, state, country names,” Williams said. (Redditors on r/Quora began to notice and complain about this practice.)

“The quality of the writing had taken a back seat to a pure volume of traffic,” said Bethann Siviter, another former Top Writer. “With the partner program, it became clear that quantity meant more than quality. You could report people over and over, and nothing happened.” Even though the partner program didn’t earn participants all that much money (maybe a few thousand dollars at most), the people who made bots soon learned that this was the easiest way to cash in quickly.

This was all downstream of the fact that Quora was also slow to monetize, and it didn’t help that the site, popular as it was, was aiming for pieces of the same digital-advertising pie that was rapidly overtaken by Facebook and Amazon (as well as its No. 1 traffic referrer, Google). Investors hesitated to continue pouring cash into Quora in light of its steep expenses. So, the company slashed budgets, shrinking the moderation teams, the customer support apparatus, and the Top Writer initiative. Other originating features—the requirement that Quorans use their real names, “Suggested Edits” that readers could propose for answers that had mistakes or typos—were also cut. All these choices led to more unchecked spam and a deluge of trolls, which volunteer users could not hold off on their own.

Nelson McKeeby, an author who joined Quora in 2013, said that things got worse in a post-Gamergate internet, with alt-right, Trump-loving trolls invading online forums, aided by anonymity and weakened moderation. “When real users tried to take down demonstrably false answers, troll farms with multiple servers were able to overpower users,” he wrote to me in an email. Further, as Quora launched “Spaces”—basically, private user–run community blogs—problems with moderation continued to spiral, with ugly ideologies running rampant. Loyal Quora users attempted to report bigoted, transphobic, and obscene content without adequate support from the company.

And then came A.I. As the spamming bots got even worse, Quora changed the terms of service and did away with BNBR, then automated the moderation process. Needless to say, it did not improve the situation on the site. Nor did the integrated A.I. chatbots offer good questions or answers. Instead, they “made up some really generic, and oftentimes first-grade-level questions,” wrote user Steven P. Robinson in an email. “It is a good example of A.I. not being ready for prime time.” Now Quora is even offering A.I.–generated images to accompany users’ answers, even though the spanwed illustrations make little sense.

A Quora answer to the question "Have smartphones ruined your family, your life, and your world?" The responder has written multiple paragraphs about how smartphones have improved their life. Under the text, is an A.I.-generated image, a man standing inside an old-fashioned phone, that the site editor is suggesting for the answer to "reach more people."
Screenshot from Quora

A nonsensical A.I.–generated image of an old-timey, 1950s-era teal pay phone with an operator inside it. Standing outside the phone is a man dressed in a gray 1950s-style suit. He holds a smartphone.
Screenshot from Quora

To top it all off, after Quora began using A.I. to “generate machine answers on a number of selected question pages,” the site made clear the possibility that human-crafted answers could be used for training A.I. This meant that the detailed writing Quorans provided mostly for free would be ingested into a custom large language model. Updated terms of service and privacy policies went into effect at the site last summer. As angel investor and Quoran David S. Rose paraphrased them: “You grant all other Quora users the unlimited right to reuse and adapt your answers,” “You grant Quora the right to use your answers to train an LLM unless you specifically opt out,” and “You completely give up your right to be any part of any class action suit brought against Quora,” among others. (Quora’s Help Center claims that “As of now, we do not use answers, posts, or comments added to Quora to train LLMs used for generating content on Quora. However, this may change in the future.” The site offers an opt-out setting, although it admits that “opting out does not cover everything.”)

This raised the issue of consent and ownership, as Quorans had to decide whether to consent to the new terms or take their work and flee. High-profile users, like fantasy author Mercedes R. Lackey, are removing their work from their profiles and writing notes explaining why. “The A.I. thing, the terms of service issue, has been a massive drain of top talent on Quora, just based on how many people have said, Downloaded my stuff and I’m out of there,” Lackey told me. It’s not that all Quorans want to leave, but it’s hard for them to choose to remain on a website where they now have to constantly fight off errors, spam, trolls, and even account impersonators.

Quora is far from the only digital community to face an existential battle for its identity in the age of A.I.—Reddit and Google are facing related, if slightly distinct, concerns. The tragedy of Quora is not just that it crushed the flourishing communities it once built up. It’s that it took all of that goodwill, community, expertise, and curiosity and assumed that it could automate a system that equated it, apparently without much thought to how pale the comparison is.

McKeeby has a grim prediction for the future: “Eventually Quora will be robot questions, robot answers, and nothing else.” I wonder how the site will answer the question of why Quora died, if anyone even bothers to ask.


 

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