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What’s the Deal with Quora?

Mike Dolan, 05 January, 2011 0 Comments

Besides the bizarro death of Michael Jackson, I have never seen any subject in my Twitter stream become prominent as quickly as Quora. Within the last 48 hours, it has gone from the occasional mention to appearing onscreen every time I look. When something gets this much play from the tech community this fast, an investigation is in order.

Quora is a social media driven question and answer service. Users post questions and receive answers from the community. Quora provides the full range of available social media bells and whistles: sharing, commenting, a ratings system & tagging features. I immediately thought of Ask MetaFilter the venerable and fantastically useful service for querying the “Hive Mind”. Seeing the hype surrounding Quora, and asking around, I was a little bit shocked that many people hadn’t ever used AskMeFi. People are excited about Quora because the concept is fresh to them. It’s a case of an old concept finding a new audience.

Social Media sites live and die by their communities, and what their community members create, contribute and share. This is the biggest factor that will determine the success and failure of Quora, and whether or not you’ll find the service useful.

When I first came across Quora, my reaction was “Meh. Another Q and A site.” I couldn’t equate the amount of hype I’ve been seeing with the concept. It doesn’t look particularly beautiful and it doesn’t have any new whiz-bang tech features. On the surface, it doesn’t look very promising.

Once I got to the heart of the site, the questions and answers themselves, I quickly understood why people were getting excited. The quality of the of the content is truly outstanding.  The questions being asked are specific; they have actual answers, as opposed to more open ended questions which often result in a useless mish-mash of rambley, biased, and often times, just dead wrong replies. Asking a good question is as much of an art as giving a good answer.

Certainly some of the questions being asked fall into the open-ended category, but the questions with the largest volume of answers, and usually the most valuable, are searching for a very definite response. To encourage these solid questions, Quora provides users with the ability to select and vote up the responses that solve the problem. The site is just getting rolling as a community, but you can see that the quality of the answers is top most on the minds of the creators, by the way the voting features are constructed. It is easy to see that Quora is aiming to become a reference source where quality is the defining characteristic.

The answers are why people are running towards Quora in droves. At this stage it’s common for the creators of a website or piece of software to respond to questions involving their product. How’s that for first rate customer service? A similar effect is occurring within industry related questions. Have a question about public relations, how to launch a product at SxSw or what a specific company actually does? There’s a high likelihood that one of the top people in the field or a founder of that company will fill you. The list of participating users is impressive. There are plenty of Internet Famous household names sharing their knowledge. I’ve seen thoughtful answers from internet big guns like Robert Scoble, Dennis Crowley and Scott “Unmarketing” Stratten and many others. It’s also possible to present a question to a specific person. This feature could be fantastic for getting a few brilliant people to discuss an interesting topic. Getting a detailed answer from an expert in the field can sometimes cost you a few hundred dollars in consulting fees, but Quora offers you this opportunity for free.

A feature I particularly like is the ability to provide “Topic Biographies”. Answering that question about marketing at SxSw? There’s a place to give a quick rundown about why you’re specifically qualified to answer. This is a brilliant way to easily decide how valuable an answer is and whether or not you can trust the information provided. A similar feature exists when users disagree on the correct answer. Instead of a long, hard to decipher chain of bickering comments, there is a link to “See the Following Perspectives”.  This avoids online arguments by showing both sides of the coin clearly and letting you evaluate them yourself, preventing flamewars that spell the downfall of passionate community driven sites. Quora is taking an early interest in providing the tools and a gentle nudge to develop a community that is useful, and self-policing and with any luck able to scale up successfully as the site grows over time.

Quora is currently servicing about half a million users, which means it is still in the very early adopter phase. I always think of this as the “Everybody Knows Their Neighbors Here” phase. Remember when you knew all your Twitter followers by heart, or got excited when you checked in somewhere on Foursquare and someone else was checked in there as well? Growing pains could be especially painful for Quora.

The best features I’ve highlighted, like the ability to get a genius, “name brand” web dweller to answer you question personally could easily disappear as the service gets gigantic. At some point, the users will no longer have the time and bandwidth to respond to what is sure to become a deluge of knowledge seeking. The inverse of this problem, will be unqualified people answering questions, which will dilute the quality of the responses. Quora has definitely seen this one coming, as you can tell from the very thorough rating/tagging/voting features they’ve built in. The question is whether these features will be able do their job and keep the best questions and responses rising to the top. Most of this responsibility rests on the shoulders on the user community doing their job, and keeping themselves in check.

At the moment, Quora is very Valley heavy. That’s no surprise, and it’s definitely not a negative either. It’s just good to be aware that a large percentage of the questions, answers and opinions come through the Siliicon Valley filter. The Valley is filled with brilliant people, but it’s just one place and one mindset. This will certainly change and expand as the site grows.

Another potential pitfall is the marketing community wrecking the site. I’ve heard plenty of chatter already, with Ad types wondering “How can we apply Quora to get information and opinions on the products and services we’re pushing?” Ugh. This could get ugly very quickly. For the most part, “What do you think of Product-X/Service-X?” questions are pretty boring to everyone but the people who created those products and services. These survey and marketing questions can quickly overwhelm a site with uninteresting spam. You can see the negative effects of this all over Twitter. Us PR and Marketing types will ruin anything for the sake of “Feedback”.

Quora is currently a very useful, entertaining and worthwhile site with a very above average participatory user community. For many people, it is their first exposure to a quality Q and A site, like MetaFilter, so they are going wild asking and answering away. The potential to get a lot of useful information you can apply to your life and business is wide open. The useful future of the site is also wide open. For the time being, I recommend to fire away and get while the getting is good. In a few months you may not be able to get the important answers you need. Like: Bill Gates: Do you really listen to music on a Zune?

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