As Mark Allen Peterson wrote in his post on “Developing Expertise,” we have been having a discussion about the importance of bringing anthropological knowledge to the social web. For this reason I called upon people who follow me on Twitter (@kerim) to bring their anthropological expertise to the new question-and-answer forum, Quora. While there are a lot of questions which could easily be answered by using Google or Wikipedia, there are a lot of good questions as well; questions which it would be good for anthropologists to answer. But after using the website for a while, trying to help out where I can, I suddenly found myself blocked from asking questions because the computer was assuming I couldn’t speak English based on the fact that I connect to the Internet from Taiwan. I wrote to Quora about this and they quickly fixed the problem, but I wanted to share our e-mail exchange as the use of IP addresses as a proxy for language ability is increasingly common and I would like to see linguistic anthropologists more aware of this issue. But there is also a second issue here which is the attempt to police the use of a forum by non-native English speakers. This too seems highly offensive and questionable. I’d be curious if there aren’t other attempts to control who can access websites in this way?
UPDATE: I wanted to add that I understand one reason why a forum might wish to limit the language used in that forum: the need to moderate the discussion. A shortage of trained moderators in other languages could legitimately require the forum to require that people post in English, at least until they train more moderators. However, I am not questioning this so much as the assumption that the distribution of these speakers can be identified by IP address and the use of a Quiz to try to keep non-native speakers from participating. I’ve posted this on Quora as well, so it will be interesting to see how the discussion evolves there.
Below the fold is my e-mail exchange so far, I will update it when I hear back from Quroa:
My first e-mail
Quora won’t let me post because it says my question must be in English. This is true no matter what I write (all of it in English). My guess is it notices my location is outside the US and presumes I am writing in another language regardless of what I am actually using. It didn’t used to be like this, but now it is so bad I can’t post anything. I am using Google Chrome on Mac OS X.
Thanks for reaching out to us – I’m sorry about the problems.
It appears that there was perhaps a misunderstanding about the user interface.
When someone from a non-English speaking country adds their first question, we have a simple pop-up explaining that questions must be written in English, and a very simple quiz to make sure they understand the explanation. After going through this process once, we stop bugging the person and let them add questions normally. (By the way, there is also an intro quiz for people adding their first question from English speaking countries to make sure people understand that questions should be asked in complete sentences.)
I’m not sure exactly what happened with your account, but we’ve manually set it so you will no longer see this message and should be able to add questions without any problem.
I hope that helps, and sorry again about the hassle.
And my second e-mail:
As a linguistic anthropologist I must object to the phrase “non-English speaking country.” In fact, English is a global language and people all over the world now speak English. I have colleagues here in Taiwan who graduated from the top universities in the US writing their Ph.D. thesis in English. This isn’t even counting the huge number of native English speakers in Taiwan from all over the world. Conversely, when I lived in New York, I couldn’t speak with several of my neighbors because my Spanish wasn’t good enough.
It drives me up the wall when websites assume a direct correlation between IP location and language ability. You are correct that I was confused about the interface. The idea that a website would force a user to go through a quiz to determine their English ability is so insulting to your users that it never occurred to me that this is what you were doing, or that I needed to complete the quiz to proceed. I hope you don’t continue to insult your users by treating them in this condescending manner.