Jonathan Brill: Quora Writer Relations

“We are capturing the world’s knowledge in a way that is different than anywhere else.”

Jonathan Brill

Jonathan Brill is the Writer Relations lead at Quora. He came on The Quoracast to talk about his background and his role in the Quora community.

Throughout much of his origin story Jonathan worked in Sales and Marketing.

“I took a retail clerk job in high school, and the person who ran the chain of stores was an old salesperson at Xerox. He was able to teach me the communication style to maximize opportunities.”

“Early on I was pretty interested in what made the business world work.”

He has studied the entire history of business, from the robber barons and the seedy beginnings of IBM, to the modern, unique models of Facebook and Quora.

The more things have changed, the more they have stayed the same.

“In traditional business, there were three parts of the business. You either made stuff, sold stuff, or were administrative. I pegged myself early on that I would be in the sell-side.”

“You have to go out and meet with people and explain [the product] in a way that people can understand. I gravitated towards the idea that I wanted to work with people directly and only on groundbeaking new technology that would have to be explained, where the benefit wasn’t necessarily intuitive.”

Quora upended his conventional understanding of businesses.

“In businesses like Quora, there isn’t necessarily a sell-side, or a distribution arm. Facebook is a good model. Salespeople for the advertising product were there from the start, but it would be weird to call them core to the business. There were lots of companies that sold advertising, but Facebook is different because of the level of engagement.”

“Overwhelmingly, the value of Facebook’s business is on the make-stuff side of the house.”

While I was delving into his background, I found a surprising lack of material about Jonathan online. He told me this was in accordance with his past desire to keep a light digital footprint.

“Prior to joining Quora, I was a business-to-business salesperson. One of the things you have to be careful of when you are representing a company is allowing people to be biased against the company because of something you wrote. I felt like putting too much of myself out there might have been a liability.”

“I kind of grew out of that over the past couple of years. But even then I had to be very careful about what I said.”

I proposed that maybe the world is moving in a direction where users benefit from disclosing more about themselves online. Specifically, I was thinking of James Altucher, who rose from the ashes of his embarrassing failures by writing about them candidly.

“I think it’s completely the opposite,” said Jonathan. “Everyone should worry a lot more about what they are putting online. Having a digital footprint is like having a credit history. Having a bad one is better than having none at all, but you don’t want to have a bad one.”

The purpose of Jonathan’s role at Quora is to act as an intermediary between the users and the engineering team.

“The principal mission for me is to positively impact the writing experience at Quora by providing feedback from the writers into the product team, and working in a closer way with people who are doing a lot of writing.”

“There are things that I can impact that the product team cannot exactly do.”

Jonathan contrasted the experiences of Top Writers with the rest of Quora’s user base.

“The experience of writing on Quora may be the same, but the Top Writers are writing more, and spending more time on the site. Even before I joined the company, I was probably on Quora upwards of 20 or 30 hours per week, just having the app open. I don’t use Facebook or LinkedIn the same way. My experience [on Quora] is unique. If I’m spending 10 hours a day in my feed, I need something different than someone who is checking it for 15 or 20 minutes per day while they look for something to write about.”

In a discussion about how Quora is growing into the mainstream, he pointed to LinkedIn as an analog.

“There are some places where knowledge of Quora is assumed. And in some places not as many people know about it. Facebook has achieved critical mass globally and is in every language. Quora is in English only, and we are still in a phase of early growth.”

“From the time Adam started the company, he has been consistent that the mission of Quora is to build a place where we are capturing the world’s knowledge in a way that is different than anywhere else.”

“The hardest thing for most people is finding out what to write about.” When blogging, Jonathan argued, 80% of the time is not spent writing. Much of it is spent on formatting, distribution, and other ancillary activities.

“Writing on Quora is fundamentally different. If you are looking to write in volume and you want to get a lot of people reading what you write, it’s difficult to find a better place than Quora.”

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Laura Hale: Social Media Methodologies

Laura Hale

Laura Hale is a PhD student at the University of Canberra. She is currently working on a thesis about social media methodologies. She came on the Quoracast to talk about her pursuit of an effective strategy to studying social media.

“It helps explain my world.”

“For me, playing with the data is very relevant to what I do. At some level, it’s easier to do stuff on a short-term basis. I can just grab a set of data and work on it.”

From an early age, Laura actively studied the social world around her.

“My dad said that teachers tend to call on boys more than girls, and I started tracking that. I showed the data to the teachers and they were not amused.”

“The higher-level point of my thesis is to develop a methodology for looking at social media data. Many times you can use smaller data sets to make decisions about data. They don’t need to have huge patterns with all sorts of math. You can do things like mean, median, mode.”

Laura has applied this in her research into correlations on Quora.

“The problem with Quora data is that there is no public API. And you also cannot scrape data. But if you keep repeating little experiments you can begin to get an idea about what variables matter. I went through posts with pictures and counted them manually. Once I have the data, I look for patterns. Graphs are helpful.”

“At this point, because I have done so many of these things, I have developed a sense. If something doesn’t fit, I have a pretty good idea of it. When you are getting the same consistent results time after time after time, there is enough truth in it that things can be reliable.”

“The results are nice, but the methodology is more important to me.”

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Cyndi Perlman Fink: Cyberdiet

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Cyndi Perlman Fink is a writer and entrepreneur. During the first Internet boom, she sold her company Cyberdiet for $22 million.

“I was working 24 hours a day on this website. It was my passion. My partner was a registered dietician. We were always putting up new articles and thinking. My husband would walk in and say ‘I don’t understand what you are doing, you aren’t making any money.'”

Cyndi taught herself programming when she was 50 years old. Then she built her business with the skills she acquired.

“I am a firm believer that any problem can be solved. I believed I could teach myself programming and I went out and bought books. I would sit there with the books open for hours. And if I couldn’t get it, I would just do it over and over again until I got it.”

“Eventually I knew I could do everything myself when a problem came up and I knew how to fix it without looking at the books.”

“When we started, we knew the site was going to be diet and health related. We knew we would never sell vitamins and potions and lotions. We wanted to give people menus, and support, and information. We had a community, and it was so vibrant and people loved it so much, that we finally had to start splitting it into groups and subgroups.”

“One of the fellows on the site was over 300 pounds and couldn’t even walk out of his door. He was housebound. We started working with him, and he went from not being able to walk half a block to hiking the Pacific Crest Trail. Cyberdiet changed his life.”

“The first month we had 426 visitors. By the end of the first year we had over two million. That was with no advertising.”

“Then we were in Newsweek, Time, and Playboy. Forbes Magazine picked us as its best website of the year. That was a milestone. As the years went by we got more attention.”

She showed me the award she got from Forbes. It was a golden computer mouse.

“The site was crashing under its own weight. We had to keep ramping up with more servers. We didn’t mind putting in the money and the time.”

Cyndi regrets going to work for the company that ended up buying Cyberdiet.

“I went to work for the company that bought Cyberdiet. What I took away from that experience was that when you sell your company, you should walk away. ¬†They changed it so much. There were ads everywhere, and they blinked. Remember the blinking ads?”

“That was the wild west. Nobody knew anything.”

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