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The Russian ‘Quora’ and then some ‘Meduza’ speaks to the co-founder of ‘The Question’

Meduza
Tonia Samsonova. Photo: Alexey Yushenkov

There’s a new website called The Question where Russian speakers around the world can ask anything they like and hope to get an answer from a specialist in that field. How do cartographers demarcate a sea from an ocean? Get an answer from the director of the Ocean River Institute in Massachusetts. What happens to the Earth if the moon explodes? Let a physics major from Moscow State University break it down. Why are human feces brown? Hear from a nutrition student at King’s College London. It’s something like a Russian Quora. But that’s not all.

According to Tonia Samsonova, one of The Question’s founders, the website is also part of a grand social experiment—the latest phase in Russia’s centuries-old civilizing mission.

Grandiose claims about “changing the way people live” are nothing unique in the world of websites and consumer technology. With every new glowing screen it invents, Apple claims to have revolutionized humanity’s understanding of some fundamental concept, whether it’s music, work, or time. The writers of the HBO comedy series Silicon Valley make savaging this industry’s messianic zeal one of the show’s central plot points.

“The mission of The Question is to spread the culture of asking questions,” Samsonova told Meduza. “I believe the ability to ask questions is a product of being thoughtful, and it doesn’t require some prestigious education. How well people are equipped to ask or answer certain questions has nothing to do with how many years they spent in Cambridge or Oxford. The whole idea of The Question is spreading the culture of ‘asking more.’”

Samsonova says the basis for the project is “a subject that’s very dear” to her. “When you think about democracy and Russia,” she says “you can’t help but see the 86 percent of the nation that supports Putin. The other 14 percent sets itself against the majority, thinking itself the elite and assuming the others are all fools. But there is no 86 percent and there’s no 14 percent. Forget about these public opinion polls—they’re a terrible oversimplification. When you think this way about your own country, you can’t really call yourself a democrat or a liberal. If you honestly think 90 percent or 80 percent of your compatriots are stupid people, how can you support the idea of mass elections?”

According to Samsonova, one of The Question’s biggest ambitions is overcoming the disappointing history of Russian class relations. “Russia,” she says, “has a tradition of an upper class of intelligentsia—people who are lucky enough to read more, to be born in Moscow or St. Petersburg, to study at very good universities. And because of their families histories, and their connections (and we never know exactly what these are), these people in the intelligentsia come to think of themselves as special.”

A combination of guilt and arrogance, Samsonova explains, has fueled countless attempts by liberals to “go to the people.” “Educated classes,” she says, “thought it their duty to cultivate their own values in the masses. They felt obligated to bring their ideas, standards, and institutions to the rest of the nation, because they knew what they had was good, they knew they’d enjoyed certain advantages over the poor, and they thought they ought to share.”

Samsonova says she’s alienated by this philosophy. “The problem with this idea,” she told Meduza, “is that it contradicts the concept of ‘grassroots,’ which in many ways is the foundation of democracy—that the process of democratization should be bottom-up. When designing The Question, I thought about this problem very seriously. This approach—this ‘mission’ of Russia’s older generation of liberals—I decided that I don’t like it. It’s too elitist. I was born in a very underprivileged area of Moscow. When I approached this class of intelligentsia, when I was younger, I could only think, ‘I don’t like this. I don't want it.’ I felt that I knew more about ordinary life than they did. What makes me different from these elites is that I really believe in people.”

The Question is supposed to succeed where past appeals to the masses have failed because it promotes a kind of trust that’s been absent in Russia. “One of the obstacles for democracy in Russia is the [low] level of trust, of horizontal trust, in society,” Samsonova says. “We don’t trust each other. And a project like this—encouraging people to ask more—actually undermines propaganda. If you want to fight propaganda, you can’t just launch a competitor to Russia’s [state-controlled] Channel One.

“So you can’t undermine such propaganda by countering with liberal propaganda. It doesn’t work. The only thing we can do is ask people to think and ask more. Because, as soon as you’re asking questions about what propaganda is saying, and getting into the details and growing curious about these issues… When you’re just saying ‘I know Obama is to blame,’ or ‘I know,’ as liberal propaganda works, ‘Putin is to blame for everything—even what’s happening in my own backyard,’ you’re not asking questions. You [already] know everything. You know the Freemasons are running things. You know Putin is sleeping with Kabayeva. You know it all. And you can find people like this at any level of education, anywhere in society.

"Why do people crave tomato juice on airplanes?"
"Why do people crave tomato juice on airplanes?"
Screengrab: The Question

“But there are also people at every level of society who ask questions. Maybe they’re educated, maybe not—it doesn’t matter. This capacity for critical thinking doesn’t depend on your education or your wealth. Sometimes the more successful people are also quite locked into their views. They stop asking questions, thinking [instead] they now understand everything.”

Samsonova is also convinced that The Question has the potential to become a “whistleblowing service” in Russia, though she says the act of asking questions here could be more vital than supplying the answers. “Whistleblowing doesn’t work in Russia. You can try now, but you’ll be whistling until you’re blue in the face. I believe in whistleblowing in the form of questions. It’s one thing to give away information, but it’s something else just to ask questions, which can lead people to new information. When you [already] know about certain things, you can ask about them [publicly]. Instead of crowdsourcing answers, you should crowdsource questions.”

By crowdsourcing all this curiosity and knowledge, Samsonova hopes to reform what she says is Russia’s dysfunctional “system of expertise.” “Projects like Dissernet [an anti-plagiarism website] show that even our academic degrees don’t prove you’re an actual expert,” she complains. The Question is supposed to cut through this corruption and uncertainty. “Open your mouth and start talking [on The Question], and it’s obvious immediately if you know your stuff or not. You might be a Nobel laureate, for all we know. Somebody starts talking and it all becomes clear quickly. On our site, we can ask a top expert—somebody well respected—about anything. If their answer doesn’t attract ‘upvotes’ and it doesn’t interest people, well then, sorry buddy, but you’re no expert. I don’t care how many degrees you have.”

When she’s not taking a sledgehammer to the Ivory Tower, Samsonova says The Question could be the face of tomorrow’s news media, too, comparing the collective judgment of The Question’s users to the erudition and sound judgment of a great editor.

“As a rule,” Samsonova explains, “media are built in such a way that the editors are the ones who put questions to reporters, and reporters go and find out the answers. So it’s assumed that the editors should be well versed in various subjects. The main qualification of good editors is that they know how to ask good questions. The news happens the same for everybody, but its the newspaper that refines its questions better that wins more readers. Now let’s imagine that it’s not an editor asking everyone questions, but an insider—someone with personal knowledge of the subject. The quality of the questions someone on the inside can ask [is much higher].”

“Why hire a bunch of editors,” Samsonova asks, “when you can crowdsource your questions and introduce a voting system to rate the best answers?”

Kevin Rothrock