The Misstep of Quora and The Importance of Trust Amongst Your Community

Posted on Sep 10, 2012 | 87 comments


You know the old saying about trust … “It takes years to build and seconds to destroy.”

And once destroyed it is very difficult if not impossible to repair. You need to be the guardian of your own reputation. You need to constantly ask yourself whether your actions in rapidly scaling an online community are worth the potential downsides of destroying trust amongst your users.

I talk about this often with startups in which I’m involved. For example, I have had rigorous debates about the need to crack down on explicit online content – even in the face of lower growth.

My arguments aren’t from a prudish perspective – I’m an ardent believer in free speech – but from a practical one. There are some communities in which “anything goes” is the norm (think Reddit) and others where a zero tolerance approach is required (Disney).

Another fine line companies are skating is with how much user information they make publicly available. Tred this line carefully. We all remember the brushback Facebook had when they launched Beacon.

For those with shorter memories what Beacon did was publish your actions and purchases into an open stream. And famously one person reportedly bought an engagement ring and his soon-to-be fiancée discovered this inadvertently through an automatic posting. The guy was understandably pissed off. And Facebook quickly withdrew Beacon.

Were Facebook not already on a path to becoming a dominant part of the web, this crossing of the trust barrier might have dealt an existential blow. And luckily Facebook handled this fiasco well. Mark Zuckerberg made a very public mea culpa that was well received (including with this writer).

Facebook is back in the fray on the privacy issue but this time it is more about how user information is displayed by third parties. I’ve often had the debate about Facebook Open Graph and what is appropriate to post in it. If you’re a developer you ought to be asking yourself the question

“If my user discovered that their actions were being auto posted into the FB timeline, would they be embarrassed? Would they be angry? Does it risk disclosing sensitive information that could affect their relationships?”

If you’re on the wrong side of this line you are risking the reputation of your company. My own view is that for most services it is explicit actions (likes, shares, vote ups, etc.) that are always fair play. You know when you’re voting on something online that your vote is likely to be public.

But implicit actions are much more of a gray area. I guess it’s now the norm to allow the music I listen to on Spotify to be published to my friend (I swear it was my kids using my computer to listen to Neil Diamond guys ;-)). But many implicit actions are NOT fair play. What websites one visits, what pictures they look at, whose FB page they checking out – are not fair game in a world where you care about trust.

Which brings me to Quora. I’m a big fan of what they’ve built. And I have been for ages. In fact, I weighed in on the topic more than 2 years ago in this post.

But lately I’m feeling a little burned like they’ve crossed my trust line (and once crossed it’s so hard to trust again).

I read this story on Ivan Kirigin’s blog that shows that Quora was posting which articles you’re reading to other people without your consent. You can turn it off, but they defaulted it to an on setting to drive more adoption of the product.

Kudos to Ivan for speaking up, which is hard to do when you’re dealing with “hot” companies backed by serious investors. I even had some reservations about writing this blog post this because I have no desire to piss off other investors or great entrepreneurs. But this action is so important for startups to understand that it warrants my risking that.

You may already know all this since it occurred a couple of weeks ago and was already in the press.

As Ivan points out, what if somebody was researching “How to come out to my parents” or “how to cope with cancer” or anything similar. None of this would be ok to share with friends without your consent. It’s not a good sign to me that somebody inside Quora didn’t consider this before launching the feature.

I get why posting “what I’m reading” would drive more content consumption. But is that worth it if it means that people no longer trust reading Quora articles for fear of being outed? Would it be okay to publish which companies I’m reading about for homework on an investment? No. Of course not.

It’s funny timing for me personally. I almost never read anything on Quora but tech, startup and funding articles. But I found myself thumbing around articles that were in my feed last week. I actually enjoyed it. I was reading about what to do if you hear gunshots (drop to the ground, apparently, and don’t run), what is it like growing up in a crime family (less glamorous than it seems on TV) and what are the side effects of Rogaine (which – along with Grecian Formula – I obviously don’t use).

To be clear – NOT OKAY to tell other people I read these unless I explicitly allow it by sharing, commenting or voting.

It seems they’ve now realized they went too far with an “opt out” because they have slightly altered their position.

But there is that pesky little thing called trust to deal with. I personally can’t imagine now reading any article on Quora that I am concerned how it would look in public. Even if harmless. They crossed this line once without telling me. I feel I now need “Quora incognito” to feel 100% safe.

My advice to startups – safeguard your users implicit actions religiously and with it you’ll be safeguarding your brand and reputation.

What do you think? Did they cross the line? Was their “mea culpa” strong enough?

What similar decisions have you had to make and how did you decide?

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    And then there’s the case like Twitter where you know the rules of the game when you start – that default is open. It’s really about expectations and not changing them mid-stream

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    FWIW, every fast growing mobile company uploaded address books to the cloud – for some reason only Path was called out for doing so. And to the best of my knowledge they didn’t publish it anywhere.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    I’m not sure that was me that you saw at the concert. There are many other people who look just like me.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    It’s ok as long as you’re explicit with your community up front. You don’t get to change the rules after the fact without people opting in.

  • http://blog.ideatransplant.com Jan Schultink

    All these traffic-generating tricks are traps for the inexperienced internet user. I can see it by what segment of my Facebook friends use social readers (that usually serve up link bait).

    The same is true for tool bar extensions and browser plug ins. I always spent part of my holiday “back home” with cleaning up cluttered IE browser interfaces.

    Lots of clicks for sure, but not very useful ones.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    erm. no. thanks for spotting. It’s such a hard word to type – I ought to be more careful!

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Yeah, I’ve always wrestled with it in LinkedIn. I guess since they’ve been so explicit about it, “see who’s checked out your profile” I always felt like people understood the rules. But I’m sure that’s not totally the case.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    “What happen on Quora, stays on Quora” … or so you thought.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Yeah, I greatly prefer authenticating on Twitter over Facebook for the same reasons.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    does anything render correctly / scale on a Blackberry ;-) I think my site is optimized for iPhone and Android (seriously). But thanks for pointing out.

  • Adam Wynne

    Most of these moves seem to me, to be a veiled attempt at increasing the value of the user-base. I wish some of these companies that have built some real value (like Quora, FB etc) would start to charge for some premium features, so as to align the interests of the users and the company.

    Until they start charging, they are forced to walk the tightrope between pissing users off, and creating more value from their existing user-base.

  • Linda

    Great post, thanks Mark. The constant drive for increased traffic/eyeballs/click-throughs, whatever, grows ever more tiresome (case in point, Pinterest, ugh!) (Reading it on iPad and it isn’t scaling right, just so you know.)

  • Bill Starr

    Brilliant post. When we launched MyLifeList.org we had to make a decision whether to integrate facebook connect and allow open sharing. We decided not to given the information people shared with us. Their goals. We could not imagine what it would feel like for a member with the goal to change jobs have this go public and for a boss or work colleague to see this. Opting out was never an option as we fully believed we had to take care of our users privacy. It may have impacted our growth trajectory. But we will be around a long long time to come.

  • http://arnoldwaldstein.com/ awaldstein

    Momentary digression:
    The core of community is about the individual, not the group. The web is amazing in that respect because the more it empowers the individual and puts them in the center of their world, the more the platform for community develops.

    To your question, the more the platform has actions that don’t benefit the individual directly whose information they disclose the more they cross the line.

    This is the guideline I use.

  • http://www.beingpractical.com/ Pravin J

    Great post. Thanks Mark!

  • http://bombtune.com Wells Baum

    Right, a touch of Vegas.

  • http://giffconstable.com giffc

    Foolish, selfish move by the company. It will be forgotten. I view facebook’s actions as cynical and manipulative, but that company/site is forgiven again and again.

  • http://lucahammer.com/ Luca Hammer

    I occupied a university and streamed it live. People told me that it is stupid and it will influence the rest of my life. Making it impossible for me to get a state job. And the police will keep an eye on me. I told them that it will of course influence my life. But standing up for ones believes is important and if no one talks about what we did and wanted at the occupation it would have been quite senseless. But because we published every move we got broad support and there were occupations all over Europe.

    I am privileged. I founded my own startup and don’t have to fear if someone fires me because of stuff I do outside of work. But it is also true that possible customers won’t use our service because I talk about certain topics in public. I read about serial killers, drugs and sex on Quora. And elsewhere. I find these topics interesting and I am fine with other people knowing that.

    The problem is that people may and will draw wrong conclusions from this information. I got a strong personality. I learned to take many accusations. But I know that it is hard for others. That people lose their jobs and relationships because they don’t know how certain platforms work and because the platforms don’t put enough effort into protecting their users.

    I am on your side that it was a wrong move from Quora and such moves are hard to repair. Once a paper was crumbled you can’t get it straight anymore. Maybe with water.

    I wanted to contradict the bad mood in the comments against the feature in general. The feature is good. But how it was introduced and handled by Quora very wrong.

  • http://www.cheepmonkey.com/ Kyle Van Pelt


    I even had some reservations about writing this blog post this because I have no desire to piss off other investors or great entrepreneurs. But this action is so important for startups to understand that it warrants my risking that.”

    Mark, first time commenter here on Both Sides of The Table, love your blog. I don’t know the exact data, but for every person that you “piss off” you gain a passionate follower. I, for one, being an example. I am a huge fan of transparency, honesty and trust. I will always stand on the same side as someone who fights for those same things.

    Kudos to you and @facebook-758374322:disqus

  • aboer

    Completely agree. Glad you pointed this out. I won’t read Washington Post, and I cancelled a 10+ year old myYahoo! page that had enormous built-in switching costs — because of their experimentation with “social reader” stuff. I believe Quora chose this approach as an “acceptable risk” in the full realization that they would later position it as a “failed experiment”. They would ask for forgiveness rather than permission.

    Not sure if this kind of problem is symptomatic of the rapid experimentation model now prevalent in start-ups (the customer development model).

    In my opinion, Quora’s behavior was knowingly unethical, and I think our memories need to be longer.

  • http://everythinggeraldton.com.au/ Everything Geraldton

    thanks for sharing this info with us

  • Yaniv Tal

    I completely agree with the content of this post and there’s no doubt that Quora crossed the line here but I’d like to point out a bigger issue that’s not so black and white. Large companies have a lot of processes in place that make it difficult for engineers to get things done. If you have to get buy in from upper management and get different people across the organization to sign off on things people on the ground are less likely to innovate. These processes instill a culture of bureaucracy and red tape. I think that organizations that empower engineers to iterate early and often without having to jump through hoops will have the advantage here. This raises the question of what are the minimum number of processes that need to be in place to ensure that situations like these don’t happen while still giving the late night coder gang the power to implement their wacky ideas.

  • Adam Somer

    First..Mark, great post. I love(d) Quora, but this has been bugging me since I first heard about it. Unquestionably they crossed the line, but your other question about whether the mea culpa was enough is worthy of discussion.

    Let’s say my wife made a cake to serve company. The cake is sitting on the counter with a note saying not to touch it. I figure, I’ll cut it up, eat a bunch of pieces and then arrange the remaining pieces for the company. Nicely laid out pieces is just as nice as a full cake, right? It will still look pretty, just different. When my wife gets mad, I’ll just tell her I thought I was helping…no mention of the fact that I ate several pieces. I’ll apologize for trying to help…just do it and ask for forgiveness later. All in the name of making the cake presentation better.

    Was what I did right? no (but the cake was great)Was my apology genuine? no…it was a pre-planned defenseDid my apology change what happened? no…I can’t give back the cake I ateWas my presentation better than my wife’s? Its a toss up.
    So…on to Quora.
    There is no way that such a move could be taken without Quora knowing that they were going to become the centerpiece of what would inevitably be a very public a privacy argument.
    Dhiraj wrote: “The MO is to cross the line first, apologize, pay a fine and repeat” and is dead on about this. There was no mistake.
    The function is still there post mea culpa. Almost every (present and) future user will never consider the bogus setting that allows them to remove it. Quite frankly, most people would never notice the display of other people’s info and connect the idea that their info is being shared…so they won’t think to check the setting to see if it can be stopped. After all, why the hell would I think that what I’m researching would be broadcast to my friends? Seriously…its not Facebook…I don’t do research and share it with random people. It’s not like its a video of my cats doing something funky, which clearly the whole world needs to see.
    And…just because the user doesn’t think to turn it off, it doesn’t make it ok that the function is there.

    So, with all that said, yes. They crossed a line. They ate the cake. No. The mea culpa wasn’t enough because frankly there wasn’t one. There was a well orchestrated plan to get a new distribution tool in place at the expense of user trust. A few more of those and a bogus mea culpa won’t stop their collapse.

  • http://bothsider.com/ Mark Gavagan

    Great points! When in doubt, make broadcasting private personal info/activities “opt in”

  • Brian

    They absolutely crossed the line. This is messed up.

    Thanks for pointing it out. Just changed the Quora setting.

  • Alex Scalisi

    I didn’t follow the mea culpa this time but did we get another “common industry practice” response at all? Those are my fav’s

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    yup. shame

  • http://www.facebook.com/jim.patterson.988 Jim Patterson

    You asked about specific examples where we had to make a decision about the default setting for an application. I started (and subsequently sold) a group communication application that allowed minors and children to register (Mobile Symmetry, how called Hooz-it!). Full parental permission, the works (we patented the entire process). Designed with the regulations (COPPA) in mind.

    One of the key decisions we had to make was how to handle actions by minors (ages 13-18). It’s a huge age range – what I would allow the 18 year old to do/ join/ chat with I would never allow a 13 year-old to do. Our question was “Should we allow 13 year-olds to join a group and/or to be seen in the public directory search?” We anguished over this (several Moms on the development team who had raised teenagers). COPPA is vague on what to do.

    In the end we decided to force the parent to approve the initial profile, and all subsequent group invitations UNTIL they decided the minor was responsible (even then they would receive notifications that their teen was joining the group). Since these groups are totally private (think soccer team, church youth group, scout troop), there’s the opportunity for more personal conversations. While the parent cannot see all of those conversations, they can choose to join the group.

    Our investors supported our decision. We turned parental involvement into a marketing differentiation. Sure, there were more steps, but the stakes go way up when you topic turns to teens and kids.

    Thanks for the article. The default settings are critical – well said, Mark.

  • http://www.pivotpointsearch.com/ Scott Thompson

    I have not used Quora, but now I will not ever, unless they somehow convince me that their mindset on this topic is far in the past. That will require time to pass…no doubt. It’s very disappointing that 3rd and 4th gen social media companies still can make the “opt out” mistake. It goes directly to trust that they have the public’s interest at heart–at all.

  • Sal

    This was a thoughtless idea on their end, and yet can we blame them? All these ideas seem to start with the greatest of intentions and until something bad occurs, it turns into “how could they”. If Google made all of our searches public history I am sure the majority of us could be arrested and thrown in jail or permanently horrified and forced to live our lives with our heads hung in shame. Thank you for writing this and taking a public stance on Quora, shame on them…

  • bernardlunn

    Good point. Too much process kills innovation. Too little process and you get a venture-threatening episode like this. Needs to be some innovation around real time process in context.

  • PaulReid

    Completely agree, real shame that quora chose to set the default to ‘yes’, naive I know but I felt the culture on quora was better than that. Like Mark the random browsing is the thing I like most, its the same reason I find it so hard to walk past good book shops, much more fun in taking the path less trodden.

  • http://www.Launch.it/ Trace Cohen

    With millions in funding and the smartest people behind it, you would think someone would think to ask their users what they thought… Everything is behavioral!

    I thought this post, based on the headline and recent events was going to be about Charlie Cheever leaving and how that post broke the community rules and further truth with users. They need better PR people.

  • Guest

    BREAKING:
    Emerging Social Networks

    The Quora Crisis: How Long Can the Center Hold?
    See also:
    Why Quora Won’t Scale

  • Christie

    BREAKING! The Quora Crisis: How Long Can the Center Hold
    http://socialtimes.com/the-quora-crisis-how-long-can-the-center-hold_b105046

    see also: Why Quora Won’t Scale
    http://socialtimes.com/why-quora-wont-scale_b104711

  • http://mrbmc.com Mr. BMC

    You’re like really old and stuff.

    Everyone under 25 views their digital social footprint as their personal brand. Their sense of “privacy” is totally different from yours.

    100 years ago everyone in your town or neighborhood knew everything about you already. Things haven’t changed that much. Your dry-cleaner probably knows more about you than any of your colleagues or family.

  • Guest