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Colonising Force

An influx of Indian users ruffles an online community

By Ajay Mehta | 1 October 2015

Last March, an anonymous user of Quora, a website that lets its members ask and answer queries on any topic they wish, posted a question: “How do I customize Quora to exclude all Indian content, and Indian authors?” By this September, the post, and its thread of answers, had been viewed over 215,000 times. Many users denounced the question as racist; others agreed that the website had an “Indian problem.” One user with an Indian name described his attempts to filter out most content by Indians, even as a non-Indian user denounced the idea.

Intense debate is standard on Quora. The company was founded, in 2009, by two Silicon Valley veterans aiming to provide the world with “the best answer to every question.” The website quickly attracted a dedicated core of users sharing insightful answers on everything from black holes to working under Steve Jobs, the former Apple CEO. Readers vote in favour of content they find valuable, and the website ranks answers accordingly. Quora started as a private community, and its userbase remained largely centred on Silicon Valley even after it opened up to the public, in mid 2010. Press reports often described it as being overly preoccupied with start-ups and San Francisco.

That critique no longer holds. Quora today is a juggernaut, with millions of users, an expansive range of topics, and over $140 million in venture capital funding. Marc Bodnick, Quora’s head of business and community, told me in August that the website saw “particularly strong growth in India” after it introduced an Android application in late 2012, due in part to the popularity of Android-powered smartphones in the country (and perhaps also because a large number of Indians are fluent in English—currently Quora’s only language). Lengthy discussions on Bollywood actors, the Bharatiya Janata Party, and the Indian Institutes of Technology flooded the website. According to the traffic-measurement tool Alexa, 40 percent of Quora’s current visitors access the website from India—although Bodnick told me the figure stands at about 15 percent. Many Quora users now complain that this influx has degraded the quality of the website’s content and community.

In August, I spoke over email with Karl Muth, a lecturer in the social sciences at Northwestern University in Illinois and a long-time Quora contributor. “Particularly in the last 18 months,” he told me, the website has become “more heavily frequented by Indians.” As a result, Muth wrote, answers today can be “culturally, financially, or otherwise focused on India and not useful generally to the rest of the Quora population.”

The questions might not always be either. One post, from 2013, asked, “What are some interesting ways to annoy Sardars?” Another, from February of this year, demanded to know, “Why are Pakistani girls more beautiful than Indian girls?”

Muth told me several people he knows in academia have become frustrated with Quora because the “quality of answers has declined vastly,” and “people now proclaim ‘expertise’ in areas they know little about”—problems he views as “not wholly unrelated to the rise in Indian Quora users.” Other Quora users have been less diplomatic. Responding to the question “What turns people off about Quora?,” the user David Stewart wrote, in 2013, “The large, and steadily increasing, Indian presence.” The answer has earned him over 3,400 upvotes.

Some threads have asked whether Quora is experiencing a “white flight”—an exodus of its Caucasian users— and if Indians have “killed Quora.” Indian users have been called, among other things, “unbelievably pretentious” and “narcissistic.” Muth saw these reactions as evidence of what he calls the “Baywatchnormativism” of the internet—the misconception that online communities should conform to American cultural norms even as the internet becomes increasingly international.

Quora takes civility very seriously, and actively moderates the website. Under its “Be Nice, Be Respectful” policy, those who use “insulting or disrespectful language” are supposed to be punished and censored. This makes the continued presence of racially-charged comments against Indians—many of them several years old—perplexing.

Some Quora users have posed questions about the rush of Indian users directly to Adam D’Angelo, the company’s CEO. D’Angelo has answered over 900 questions from users—including on the merits of a particular toothbrush—but on this issue he, like the rest of Quora’s administrators, has remained silent. Bodnick, breaking the silence, told me that Indian users have had a “significantly positive influence” on the site. Quora is taking its burgeoning Indian population seriously, he said, and is looking to fill an “India Country Manager” position to help “drive regional growth.” The site’s success in the subcontinent, he told me, was indicative of its “potential opportunity in other countries and languages.”

In August, I spoke about Quora’s changes with Raghu Venkataraman, a Bengaluru-based technology professional who has earned the coveted title of a “Top Writer” on the site. A few years ago, he told me, most of Quora’s users saw it as a serious source of knowledge, and demanded the same professionalism and attention to grammatical detail here as, say, on Wikipedia. Many Indian users, Venkataraman said, view Quora as more of a social network, where slang, exaggeration and internet memes are all appropriate.

Venkataraman admitted that he is quite tired of such content, but also that he owes his popularity on the website to the newcomers. He attracted a flock of followers after one of his answers—a humorous take on being a “6-pointer” (almost failing) at an IIT—went viral among Indian readers, and he told me most of his list of followers consists of them. But he does feel an extra “ego boost,” he said, when he sees a “Japanese or American person” following him rather than just “another Indian student.” His advice to others who, like him, bemoan the questions from Indian users that “infest” his feed, was to just “grin and bear it.”

Ajay Mehta is an intern at The Caravan.

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READER'S COMMENTS

5 thoughts on “Colonising Force”

So Raghu Venkataraman is just another brown-sahib, a closet racist who hates his own people. Well done, you absolute piece of excrement.

” Has brought down the quality of discussion” Aren’t you guys Indian? If someone had said that about Americans or Chinese or British – it would be considered highly racist – but the author seems to promote this racist view.

Great Story Ajay. Just wanted your opinion on whether you see this as a larger trend – beyond Quora. Does any of your research indicate that the strong presence of Indian users online is having ( or would have ) an impact on the social media / internet dynamics.

Any other such articles or research you can quote would be really interesting to read.

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