Is it possible to scale civility on the Internet? Quora is trying

Cyber-bullying has been a big issue for years now, but it has become particularly newsworthy in tech in the last few months. There’s the backlash against anonymous apps like Whisper and Secret – Secret was banned in Brazil because of the potential for harassment – and Ask.com’s attempts to stop bullying on its new acquisition Ask.fm. “How to stop trolling online?” is the question of the moment.

Q&A application Quora has managed to stay out of the limelight during this time. From its inception, its efforts have been geared towards “making quality scale,” and for founders Adam D’Angelo and Charlie Cheever that didn’t just mean compelling questions and answers from experts. It also meant keep making the application a safe place for users to write, without fear of judgment. From the beginning, Quora had a policy of “Be nice be respectful.”

On Monday, Quora took that one step further. It has introduced a new anti-harassment feature, where users are prompted to flag any comment or post that they believe is abusive or adversarial. One lightly antagonistic post may not constitute a “personal attack” by itself. But when taken in summation, a bunch of lightly abusive comments start to look more like bullying. Quora moderators will be able to view a summary of a person’s activity and determine whether to block or warn them.

I spoke with Marc Bodnick, Quora’s head of business and community, about the challenges of “scaling civility,” how Wikipedia has served as an inspiration, and why this matters (hint: It’s not about ethics, it’s about business).

The following Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.

Quora isn’t the first place people think of when they worry about cyberbullying. Why are you introducing more features to combat what is essentially a nonexistent problem on the platform?

Marc Bodnick: I believe we are the safest place on the web for writing. So yeah, our quality is high but we want to make sure it keeps staying high as we get three times bigger and three times bigger than that. This change will allow us to see more behavior in a scalable way and identify people who are violating policy more quickly.

Other companies – Secret, Whisper, ask.fm, Reddit, have really struggled with keeping user-generated content civil. What should they be doing differently?

It’s a really hard problem. You have to care a lot about it – if it’s not a priority it’s going to be very hard to achieve it. It’s easier to care about other things that have bigger priorities.

We don’t allow answers on Quora that don’t answer the question or make fun of the question. All of what I’m describing is a damper against growth. It’s a commitment to the long term quality and vitality of the database as opposed to being super near term focused on this or that.

Anonymity is hard to get right… We don’t want to violate people’s privacy but we track anonymous behavior by the user’s profile to make sure they’re not abusing the privilege. (Anonymity) can be moderated but it’s hard.

Does every application need to be civil to do well as a business? Reddit saw a huge amount of traffic with its “fappening” thread, for example.

It depends what your goals are. I can’t speak for any other company.

Opinions are subjective. Will your product changes discourage legitimate debate on Quora?

It’s a tradeoff. Letting people attack other people and attack content discourages those people from writing. This isn’t a moral thing, it’s an empirical thing. Most people don’t like being attacked on the Internet. If a pediatrician in Kansas wants to share what they know, we don’t want them to have to have a thick skin.

Who is “scaling civility” right?

In many ways Wikipedia is the best model for how you mediate interactions among strangers to create a giant database of knowledge. Wikipedia is an inspiration for a lot of what we do… We just hired Steven Walling, a product manager, as our first hire away from Wikipedia. He has experience building products that mediate interactions.

Is Wikipedia Quora’s competitor?

Bodnick: We think they’re complementary.

Steven Walling: What I hear from both Quora and Wikipedia is a lot of mutual admiration. For example, Wikipedia wants to change its design. In August Jan-Bart de Vreede, the chairman of Wikimedia’s Board of Trustrees, cited Quora when saying “Other Internet projects are passing Wikipedia by left and right.”  

[The exact quote was: Other internet projects (not limiting ourselves to websites) are passing us by left and right, and none of them have the non-profit goals that we have. In fact, some of them, with more commercial propositions, are actively undermining us…Some examples I am thinking of are Quora (who are better at both interface and engaging users)…and some of the interface of Facebook and the like (because they simple make it a better experience). And to argue that there is no competition to our encyclopedia is probably making the same mistake that Encyclopedia Britannica made several years ago].