Facebook’s woes with people sharing original content (e.g. status updates, notes) have put the highlight on the war between the giants for original content. Linkedin’s acquisitions and subsequent integrations of Pulse and Slideshare were some of the first moves made by them, and recently Facebook has been making moves in that direction too — small ones such as larger font on personal status updates as well as large ones like the MSQRD acquisition. They are the giants in this war. Ultimately content producers will accumulate around the platforms with the better products.
However, two relatively younger companies have very unique takes on the content creation and distribution problem. And their products are key to understanding how they are implementing their respective blue ocean strategies.
I am, of course, talking about Medium and Quora. They both have very strong products and, more importantly, very compelling visions.
In this post, I explore their products, how they encourage and support different motivations, and the similarities and differences between them. Facebook and Linkedin are a different beast altogether, and deserve a different post.
I also take some humble, uninformed guesses about where they are headed and where they should be, without having any access to internal data.
To do this, I first analyze my personal experience as a reader and as a writer, and then dream about what they would look like in an ideal world.
The Reader Experience
The following dimensions are ordered in increasing order of investment from the reader.
When Quora was launched, it was one of the most beautifully designed websites in the world (to me). It was minimalistic, and the reading experience was one of the best in the world. But over the years, they have added a lot of features and it has become a bit… bloated. And while it is still a good experience, it is no longer the darling of typography enthusiasts.
That mantel has now been taken over by Medium. Their beautiful large font and distraction free reading experience have become a core part of their brand. I barely know Helvetica from Comic Sans. But when even someone as typographically challenged as I am starts to recognize the Medium article layout and typography (as happened some time ago when I discovered Backchannel), they must be doing something really right! Even in the absence of other branding elements (no logos e.g.), I started to recognize the reading experience on Medium!
Personally, I’d love to see a Quora redesign that re-established its position in the design world.
Upvote vs Recommend
“Upvote” (Quora) and “Recommend” (Medium) are both the same at their core — an endorsement. Functionally, they are both quite literally a binary “Yes / No” button. But that’s where their similarity ends.
“Upvote” feels wonky. It is interpreted by every individual differently. The fact that is is used by many different online community products in subtly different contexts only serves to add to the confusion, even as it makes the word itself more ubiquitous.
“In principle, it means “I believe you have answered the question asked and contributed in a meaningful way to Quora’s repository of knowledge.”
In reality, each person upvotes based upon their own interpretation of what an upvote should represent. “Guidelines” to upvoting have been provided by Quora Administration, but frankly, I think they are largely ignored in favor of one’s own personal upvoting philosophy.”
— Garrick Saito, top answer on “What is an upvote on Quora?”
(who then goes on to list many, many possible reasons why people upvote)
“Upvote” is an action that we perform to let the writer know that this content was appreciated. It articulates a vague, amorphous relationship between the reader and the piece of content. BUT, and this is a huge but, it is ONLY a relationship between the reader and the piece of content. “I upvote some thing”.
“Recommend” on the other hand, feels much more comfortable. It’s much more forceful, and has more emotional weight behind it. It articulates a relationship between the reader and his/ her social network. “I recommend this to my friends / followers.” It is an action that the reader is staking their social reputation on. And hence it is more valuable, for both the reader and the author.
I wish Quora would test the possibility of using Recommend instead of Upvotes. More clarity about my action = better user experience!
Quora’s comments are at the end of the article, and always hidden away. They are tier-2 citizens in an ecosystem where the answers are rightly prioritized over other content. This is, in today’s world, strictly adequate.
In contrast to that, Medium articles have many more affordances of interaction for the reader. Sure, I can respond to the entire article at the end, just like on any other site. But what sets my reading experience apart is the affordance of selecting some text, maybe even as little as a word , and interacting with that specific micro-content. I can add my thoughts about that selection specifically, tweet it, send a private note to the author, highlight it or even see other highlights that people I follow made. All this leads me to a more meaningful, and truly social, reading experience. By allowing me to extract more value that is meaningful to me, Medium hits the ball out of the park!
If there is only one idea that I wish Quora stole from Medium, it would be the ability to define the granularity of the pieces of content that I find the most valuable!
The Writing Experience
Personally, my motivations for writing on both the platforms couldn’t be more different from each other.
Medium is where I go when I know what I want to say, and when I think that what I have to say could be valuable to others. Quora is where someone asks for some information or knowledge that I have, but I did not know was valuable to others.
Medium is push. Quora is pull.
There’s definitely a muddle of motivations happening on both the platforms. Yes, both Quora and Medium serve as platforms for self-promotion. But Quora has a much stronger altruistic feel to it. There are many people who share extremely personal stories, sometimes even anonymously, because they want to help others find the answers they seek.
Quora does have a stronger focus on self-development, goal-orientation and, to a certain extent, even competition than Medium. However, there is a general theme of lack of transparency with the entire Quora product that leads to an erosion of trust in it.
E.g. It is very difficult to figure out why their answers are ordered the way they are, especially when one with 9 upvotes is ranked higher than another with 250 upvotes. Every time I see something like that, Quora is asking me to make a withdrawal from the trust capital that they have built up with me. Instead, just exposing their data behind it would make me trust it more! I probably won’t even look at the data 99.99% of the time. But simply knowing that the system is transparent is good enough!
Similarly, their “top writers” badge is a much coveted goal. But it is such an opaque system! They have given the Quora writers a goal to aspire to, but no directions on how to get there! “How do I go from a novice user to a top writer?” deserves a lot more clarity, and a clear path towards it than “just keep answering more questions”. Most of all, I would love to know exactly how I can improve, especially in the areas that I am passionate about improving on. If I want to be a top writer on Product Management e.g., show me how I could contribute in that topic beyond just presenting me a list of unanswered questions. Do I need to get 1 answer with 1000 upvotes? Do I need to get 1000 answers with 1 upvote each? Both of those paths lead to very different motivations and activities.
Medium’s editor is more than just distraction free — by removing even the borders of the editor, it really feels much more expansive and “unboxy”. It’s beautiful!
Quora’s editor feels… adequate. The Quora user’s needs when writing an answer are very different from the Medium user’s — they need more context — about the question itself, other answers to the question, and maybe even about the person who asked the question. But that does not mean that the experience could not be improved by a huge margin.
Medium beats Quora hands down in this department.
The better qualitative feedback on Medium stems from the increased control over the granularity of the content that the feedback is about. I love to see which words / sentences / paragraphs were highlighted and shared by people, because that tells me exactly what they found valuable. Quora’s comments simply does not have that affordance.
But even on the quantitative front, Medium’s metrics are much more useful for a writer. Medium presents it’s data as a funnel — from “Views” to “Reads” to “Recommends”- which on the surface seems very similar to the way Quora presents its statistics — “Views” — “Upvotes” — “Shares”. But dig just a little deeper, and they start to become very un-useful, and “vanity metric-y”.
Let’s start with the “Views” metric. I don’t know how this is measured on Quora, but for me the number is usually too high to be meaningful, especially when compared to the low number of upvotes or shares! From a writer’s POV, how is an upvote, which sends out my answer to the reader’s network, different from a share, which sends out my answer to the reader’s network? Don’t both of them simply get me more… views? Is it then a funnel or a loop?
Medium on the other hand, shows me “how many people actually read the whole article?” As a writer, this is incredibly valuable for me, because it tells me how engaging and valuable my content really is!
Would you like to guess where would I go to post my next blog post?
And finally, I do miss Quora’s credits. I do understand why using the word “credits” was a problem, as there were not enough ways to effectively “spend” them, but more than the credit economy, they used to serve as a motivator for me. It was a single number that reflected all of the efforts that I had put into the community, and helped to see the progress that I was making, both from old answers and new. While both Quora and Medium’s statistics give you granular data, sometimes you just want a single number.
While all the similarities I’ve mentioned above might give one the impression that Medium and Quora are competitors, I believe both the products can occupy extremely important and, more importantly, complementary positions in the world.
The biggest difference obviously is their core competence — Quora’s is to find the best answers for the users’ questions, while Medium’s is to let people share their ideas and stories. I believe both should double down on their respective strengths.
It might mean, e.g. that Quora shuts down its “Blogs” product. It’s currently very difficult to discover blog content, and to be honest Medium is doing a better job of that. At the very least, Blogs should be moved from belonging solely to the user and instead be attached to a topic. That would solve a big discoverability problem, while still allowing people to share their thoughts without having first been asked a question.
But I believe Quora’s big opportunity lies somewhere else. Quora’s current execution of its mission- “finding the best answer to any question”- makes a fundamental assumption that there is one best answer for everyone. They make an assumption that the best answer for me will only come from an expert in that topic, and not someone who might not be as well known, but shares my values and culture. That the best answer is going to be something that people are comfortable sharing publicly, and not in private.
The best answer to any question depends upon the context in which it was asked. E.g. even a simple question such as “Where do you live?” will have many different best answers based on dimensions such as current location (“In the upstairs apartment”, “Berkeley”, “California”), or who is asking me (“right around the corner”, “I’m calling 911”), or other shared values / knowledge / vocabulary.
Quora’s biggest opportunity lies in allowing people to share what they are comfortable with, and with whom they are comfortable with. This was why I believe the Quora community felt so amazing in the initial days when it was invite-only — they all shared the same values. But once they opened it up to everybody, those shared values got diluted to the extent that it drove many people away to other products. Quora could get that dynamic back, by enabling people to create communities on Quora. By allowing smaller communities to share and grow their knowledge with each other, in a way that respects their wishes and privacy. It would be a small step for the communities, but it would be a huge step towards sharing and growing the world’s knowledge.
Knowledge sharing is a very difficult and important problem, and both Medium and Quora are needed. Their vastly different products could work together towards making the world a better place, especially if they cooperated rather than competed. And that would mean that instead of having to fight for a slice of the same original content pie, they grow the pie, and the bakery.
Originally published at samudranb.com on April 26, 2016.