Quora and the Merits of Shark Jumping

Matt Harris —  December 28, 2010 — 6 Comments

All ur commentz are belong to uz

Like most professionals who give some thought to their online profile, I’ve spent some time on Quora in my fields of interest. I’m not a ninja at it, like Suster and increasingly Ehrenberg, but a man’s got to sleep sometime. In response to a question I thought was hilarious [Would it be terrible to pitch a VC with a preso done in all lolcats?], I posted a facetious but well-meaning and not totally ridiculous answer ["just make sure you bring a pen to sign the term sheet. done."].

If there was any point to my response, and I’d like to think there was, it was a form of applause for a question that gently exposed the ridiculousness of the form of the “pitch”, and encouraged entrepreneurs to laugh at VCs and themselves a little bit. My response got voted up and received a couple of positive comments, but was then deemed “not helpful” and thrown into the oubliette. With some mild chagrin (the stakes here are very, very low), I looked into this and found that it was a Quora staffer who stuffed my answer in the memory hole.

It was with some self-righteous pleasure then that I found the following piece, criticizing Quora for this very practice. It was with much greater pleasure that I noted the killer quote from Molly Ivans, which goes into my bag for later: “The strongest human emotion is neither love nor hate. It is one person’s desire to f#ck with another person’s copy”.

Now, on the merits of this question, I think Quora is wrong, or at least a little off, and will probably tack back to letting the community judge the strength of answers, and letting a little humor creep into things. But that’s actually not the point of this tempest in a teapot. The point is this: if I’m sitting at Benchmark, wondering how my Quora investment is performing, I’m now thinking “Finally, we have some controversy over there! Maybe now the normals will start paying attention.”

We’ve all seen this movie before. It happened with Zynga and Scamville, with Groupon and that retailer who went out of business from an over-abundance of customers (I swear they actually planted that story), with Twitter and their downtime (and more recently Tumblr), and so on. Each of these minor crises, at the time, is touted as the moment each company “jumped the shark”. (The reference, of course, is from an infamous Happy Days episode.) And after each stumble, these companies emerged stronger and kept growing. Arguably, the press and buzz that resulted from each incident actually improved each company’s trajectory.

Here is a chart that helps to illustrate my point:

This is the Google Trends data showing the incidence of search and news relevance of: “Facebook”, “Jump” and “Shark”. During the period which this company has gone from zero to global domination, at an increasing pace, vocal segments of our society and the media have been clamoring for our attention with news of its demise. Whether it’s transmission of personal data, or a failure to penetrate China, or failure to crush Foursquare, or whatever the shank du jour happens to be, there is always someone there to claim that it signals Facebook’s downfall. Of course, there are valid critiques of Facebook and its business model, but the company is not going away, and all of the hysterical predictions to the contrary merely point to its ongoing prominence.

What does this mean for entrepreneurs? As a noted hip hop artist cum super angel once said, “those who have a propensity to hate [for any reason, or no reason], are going to exercise that propensity [regardless of what you do to either draw or defuse their wrath].” (NB: I paraphrase slightly). It seems trite, but it is no less true, to say that it is your success that draws these critiques and therefore it is truly a good sign. Nonetheless, it is sometimes disconcerting to your investors, board members, employees, partners and customers, and you will have to react … just don’t over-react. Make sure what you are doing is 100% clean as a whistle and makes good business sense. If it isn’t, or doesn’t, fix it quickly and with no embarrassment. If you’re confident, just keep keeping on. Your growth will continue, your critics will find more and more casus belli, and your customers will be as happy as ever.

6 responses to Quora and the Merits of Shark Jumping

  1. Matt, a very insightful and important post. What you’ve outlined is a shift in the perception that “any PR is good PR” to “any PR (when you have a fast-growing product living at the edge) is good PR.” There is more than a fine distinction between the two, and you’ve nailed it. Notwithstanding how pissed off I was at Tumblr’s 24-hour hiatus, it shined a bright light on how passionately so many feel about the service and stood ready to defend its honor against my vituperative barbs. Put this outage in the “good PR” column. Am I a hater? Of course not. Did I serve as a lighting rod for Tumblr fanboys (and fangirls) to whip out their wands and utter “Expelliarmus” at me? For sure. Good for Tumblr.

    • I’d love to see counter-examples, ie, where bad PR of the type we’re talking about has sunk someone. In this “attention economy”, it seems like the worst fate is being ignored. Thanks for your comment.

  2. Back to the non-point of the tempest in the teapot: I think the attention-getting activity through your Quora experience differs a bit from the examples your brought up. Unlike the outages, down-times, and planted stories, Quora seems to have allowed the Quora-core to manually squash/censor at will. This has more ominous undertones than say, a Digg-style “algorithmic change” or a server brown-out.

    This is humans editing humans; the Quora-nostra laying down the law one post at a time. Unlike the other examples where the organizations said uncle due to bandwidth, or ill-advised programming, Quora is playing comment czar. Suddenly things become eerily quiet and a lot less social.

    Mole hill? Probably at this point. But what about when it comes to a Quora question regarding which program to buy: a or b? What if Quora starts massaging the thread then?

    Seems to me, Quora should have a much more strict hands-off policy when moderating. Whether is inner minions or algorithmic changes, Molly Ivans has it right.

    • you know, i totally agree with you. the point of my piece was that the flap around this issue will likely be nothing but good for quora, and that the fact that it is flap-worthy means it’s already an important company. but the substance of the issue is really troubling to me. not only is it smug and humorless, but it is a slippery slope to thought control. if they don’t trust the community to edit the answers towards the optimal outcome, they haven’t successfully built the community.

  3. Quora has seen an increased level of interest in the last few days, how interesting:)

    Excellent post!

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