(expanding on a comment I wrote on Reddit)

Slate waxes elegiac on Quora, which you might remember as “that site you ignore in all your Google results, like an crushed bug in the middle of the screen.”

I did a lot of writing for Quora once. Its demise was sad, and embodied every dystopian theory about the late internet at once—Doctorow’s enshittification, anon’s dead internet theory, Hacker’s botpocalypse, nearcyan’s heavenbanning. Sites sold off and then strip-mined by venture capital. Vibrant communities replaced with bots. Living sites hollowed out and turned into zombified versions of themselves. Quora’s fate bodes ill for the future of the internet.

It always had culture issues. Around 2014-5, it became a de facto social media hangout for young and mostly male Indian tech students. Often their social skills weren’t the best, and the site developed an…intense tone. It’s hard to describe, but here’s an example of what I mean. It was just weird, like interacting with a website of aliens.

(If that sounds racist, a lot of Indians were saying the same thing. There’s tons of posts on Indian subreddits along the lines of “Have Indians made Quora a shithole?”)

That was the beginning of the end. Now, the IITian schizoposters are largely gone, and the site’s packed wall-to-wall with bots and spam and astroturf. Is Quora cynically trying to bolster its declining activity with AI? Are blackhatters gaming the site’s undeservedly high SEO? Both? I don’t know. What I do know is that there’s no reason to write a single word on that site. Why answer shit like “What is the name of the book written by Satan?” and “Is it a ‘shock’ that Joe Biden is on Epstein’s ‘list’?” (to grab two recent questions off my feed). No human will ever read your answer.

At this point, Quora’s just a slow way of talking to ChatGPT. Ask a question and you’ll get a response beginning with “As we delve into the fascinating world of [subject], it is essential to note that…” by some guy with a name like “Prajeet Vishwanath, SEO Expert”, who answers 20,000 questions a month and (of course) has an infoproduct to sell in his profile.

Could an AI build another AI?

As far as I can see, nearly every answer to that is AI-written (and most are filled with ads for products). And the human ones are actually worse than the ChatGPT spam!

Quora is far from the only digital community to face an existential battle for its identity in the age of A.I.—Reddit and Google are facing related, if slightly distinct, concerns. The tragedy of Quora is not just that it crushed the flourishing communities it once built up. It’s that it took all of that goodwill, community, expertise, and curiosity and assumed that it could automate a system that equated it, apparently without much thought to how pale the comparison is.

This is exactly the trap. “ChatGPT-written posts are often better than what the average human writes, so why not allow them?”

The danger is that it deters high-value users from posting. They see a norm of AI-written posts spreading and think “why should I spend an hour writing a thoughtful, intelligent comment? Someone’s going to suck up all the upvotes with a ChatGPT textwall, because they posted it first.” This starts a cycle that ultimately kills the community. Bots stay. Stupid humans stay. Smart humans evaporate out.

Communities aren’t magic: they’re only as good or bad as their userbase. An administrator must be mindful of policies that deter the top 10% of users: it’s very bad when you lose them.

Likewise, the reason every fandom subreddit has a “no AI art” rule posted down the side isn’t because AI-generated art sucks—on the contrary, Midjourney creates images that are more technically accomplished than 90% of human artists will ever aspire to—but because they’re spammable. Skilled human artists see a sub that’s filling up with sludge, get discouraged, and go elsewhere. An evaporative process occurs: eventually the sub is entirely AI art, with no humans.

Even the ChatGPT subreddit seems to be on the verge of culling imagespam. “There has been too much of AI art lately.” Few people there seem to be discussing ChatGPT: they’re mostly just posting DALLE-3 images.

It’s no mystery. Online spaces fill up with whatever content is easiest to produce. Spam is cheap. AI sludge is cheap. Really, it’s not about humans vs AI, it’s about high effort content vs low effort content. You want to encourage the former, and discourage the latter.

It’s sad to see Quora slowly collapse like a necrotic sore. Like Everything2, Livejournal, and Tumblr, it died without ever leaving a proper substitute for itself.

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