Hey Quora, Censorship Sucks, Anonymous Censorship Sucks Even More

Ladybug Ladybug

A few weeks ago I blogged about using Quora for photographers. I’ve been on the site pretty much daily since then and have enjoyed both participating and contributing to the service. I mostly spend time in the photography and Flickr subjects and have found lots of interesting questions and answers. I’ve answered a few questions and asked a few more myself.

But after reading this article by my friend Robert Scoble, I’m beginning to reconsider whether or not investing time in Quora makes sense. Best that I can tell Quora seems to be enabling anonymous “editors” with special powers to sanitize the site as they see fit.

From Scoble: “Turns out the question could have been collapsed by a reviewer (who isn’t paid by Quora, but given “special powers”). To fix this problem the reviewer’s name should be included on the collapsed answer, along with the reason why it was collapsed. There also should be a way to contest/appeal the downvote. Either way, whenever a question gets collapsed it should be very clear why, who did it, and what process the answerer can go through to change the answer to respond to the criticism, and get it upvoted again.”

So I guess Quora is giving some users special anonymous powers to edit the site as they see fit.

Those of you that know me know that I hate censorship. But even worse than censorship is anonymous censorship. In Scoble’s case apparently he had some very popular answers on the site that were collapsed (hidden) without any sort of explanation or accountability or anything.

I remember one of my first experiences with wikipedia. I had just come back from seeing the most amazing massive ladybug swarm. There were thousands of them, all over a tree. They turned the tree red there were so many of them. Apparently this is something that ladybugs do. I wanted to learn more about ladybugs so when I went home I looked up the ladybug entry on wikipedia. It was a good entry but the photos sucked. It had a really lame couple of bad photos of ladybugs — so I posted some of my ladybug swarming photos to the entry. They were much better photos. A couple of days later I got an email from a wikipedia editor telling me that she’d removed my photos because wikipedia wasn’t a place for my “self promotion.”

Ironically, the photo in question (above) is good enough for Getty to sell as a stock photograph, but not good enough to give away to wikipedia for free.

“Whatever,” I told myself, if they want crappier photos of ladybugs that’s their business. But that was the last time I contributed to wikipedia and even though I have thousands of photos that could improve dozens of wikipedia pages, I’ve never uploaded another one. I’ve had people specifically come to me where I’ve had unique photos asking me to contribute them to wikipedia and I usually just say no and remind them of my ladybug story. If I have a unique photo for a wikipedia page that they are missing an image for and I upload it, what good is it if some dumb ass editor is just going to delete the photo a few weeks later for some lame reason.

At least with wikipedia though the censorship was done by someone with a name. Allowing anonymous people, as seems to be happening now on Quora, the ability to delete entries is even worse.

I’m not sure what the answer is, but I know that I really don’t want to be involved with any social network where they give “special” users secret anonymous powers to censor. The best communities are run transparently. Allowing anonymous censorship is anything but transparency.

I hope Quora reconsiders this sort of censorship and at a minimum requires editors to disclose their name when they decide to censor a user. This might not be convenient for censors, who frequently like to hide in the shadows, but it’s certainly better for community.

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13 comments on “Hey Quora, Censorship Sucks, Anonymous Censorship Sucks Even More
  1. direwolff says:

    Have you been edited by one of these anonymous editors on Quora? While I’ve been edited, it wasn’t hard to find out who the editor was. Not only did I find who they were on Quora but then went to Linkedin and found out more about them. I objected more to them saying that a response I had provided didn’t add enough to the conversation (in one case) and a grammatical lesson (in another). That’s kept me from spending too much time on their site and only go in once in a while if something peaks my curiosity or someone provides a link to a question or answer that I’d like to see. Oh yeah, they also gave me shit about my name and I had to insist on what I was using before they stopped pestering that I change it.

  2. Thomas Hawk says:

    direwolff, I haven’t been edited by an anonymous editor yet. But it sounds like Scoble has and I’m not sure I want to invest a lot of time in a network that very well may edit me anonymously in the future.

  3. I can’t speak for Scoble, but whenever my edits have been reversed I’ve been able to see the person who is doing it. This doesn’t make the censorship OK, but at least you have someone to blame. Quora may have changed their system after their “editors” started getting negative emails. My experience though has more or less been the same as your wikipedia experience. I tried to upload a photo of San Francisco’s “banker’s heart” statue to the M&A group and it was deleted in less than a day and replaced with a blank image. I tried to upload a cool DivX graphic that I made a few years back to the DivX group and within 24 hours it was taken down and replaced with nothing. It doesn’t really hurt my feelings that they didn’t like my photo, but when their editors are replacing your photos with absolutely nothing, it does make you wonder how the site can survive. Since there’s no way for me to appeal, my approach has been to stop using the site. Not a big deal for them, but if enough people have similar experiences, it will make it hard for them to keep getting high quality submissions to their questions.

  4. Rob-L says:

    The Quora issue described isn’t censorship and either was the Wikipedia example. That’s editing. Sometimes editing comes with the territory and you can’t take it personally. There are obviously some standards and it would be good to understand them. Of course, editing anonymously is shady because you can’t ask any questions and if the standards aren’t described anywhere, users will become frustrated. Using the word “censorship” in this case just makes for good (albeit inaccurate) headlines.

  5. Eric in SF says:

    Agreed – this is editing and you shouldn’t take it personally.

    Part of the reason editors go anonymous is blog posts like this. You are certainly NOT advocating confrontations but the lurker viewers to your blog don’t have the maturity and self-control to keep from sending a nastygram to an editor.

    The Banker’s Heart photo was removed because wikipedia only allows imagery that’s completely unencumbered of any rights issues. Modern art that is still under copyright or moral rights cannot be used on wikipedia. I know reading is so very passe these days, but I spent a good evening reading the wikimedia commons image submission guidelines before uploading anything to the wikipedia universe.

  6. John Dowdell says:

    Hi Thomas, like others here I agree with your right to not engage with a service whose terms you don’t find agreeable, but the term “censorship” should not be used here. Like you, others can engage or not as they see fit.

    “Censorship” is used when a relationship is mandated and backed up by the threat of force, which is pretty much the exclusive province of government or other mobs.

    Key question: is there mutual consent, or is there unilateral coercion?

  7. I think that even censorship has its time and place. I think that the issue with Wiki was extreme, to say the least – I feel you were offered the short end of the stick there, but I can’t say much about Quora, as, I’ve not had the opportunity to be the victim of their apparent aggressive censorship tactics.

    Having said that, I do think that censorship is sometimes needed. I’m the community manager for FunAdvice.com, and while we employ censorship, we also try to make sure that we give people as much rights and freedoms as possible. Our censorship is based on abuse, harassment, mature content, and, well, spamming…it may not be for everyone, but it’s important that everyone has a place they can go to either be shielded from certain behaviours or to be free to rant and rave as they choose.

    In the end, we stay where we are comfortable, but it really is up to the founders of each site to make sure their moderators haven’t gone on some sort of a power trip and started censoring people for no good reason.

  8. Thomas Hawk says:

    “Censorship” is used when a relationship is mandated and backed up by the threat of force, which is pretty much the exclusive province of government or other mobs.

    John, I disagree. Although that would be a fine definition of Govt. sponsored censorship.

    If a private university decides that a book in their collection should be removed because it contains language that they disagree with, this would in fact be an act of censorship. Even without any threat of force and no mandated relationship between me and the library, this doesn’t change what that act is.

    Similarly, if NBC television bleeps out the f-word on Saturday Night Live, it is done by a censor and is an act of censorship. There is no mandate that I must watch SNL, but again, it doesn’t change the definition of the act.

    Certainly Govt or Mob censorship is the worst kind, but censorship is not limited to that domain.

  9. Doesn’t this get back to the same old issue with flickr account deletions?

    I was deleted, so now I am on WordPress and have about one tenth of the traffic I used to have, but at least I can publish according to more reasonable rules.

  10. Larissa says:

    It is some thing I need to do more research into, thank you for the publish.

  11. Dan Grier says:

    I think Quora has gotten even worse since this article was published. What amazes me is that when some over-the-top self-promoter like a John Greathouse posts one of his typically self-serving answers, the Quora hivemind upvotes it through the roof. Yet if a lesser known member posts a really good answer they are lucky to see 3 or 4 upvotes.

    Quora is just a glorified Yahoo Answers being ruined by kids asking the same dumb questions over and over.

  12. christie says:

    Hi Thomas,
    Thanks for sharing, have you posted this to Quora so I can upvote it? The Quora elites, as they call themselves, have turned their to attention to me now, after I wrote something that was inspired by how how horribly they treated Robert Scoble (fortunately for me, Robert came to my rescue :) The editor of The Quora Review made slanderous ‘public’ statements about us both–It’s like high school only worse!

    http://www.quora.com/Christie-Ann-Barakat/Confessions-of-a-Quora-Newbie

    Cheers!