Guest author Semil Shah is an entrepreneur interested in digital media, consumer Internet, and social networks. This will be the first in a series of essays on Quora that he will post on TechCrunch. Shah is based in Palo Alto and you can follow him on twitter @semilshah
The incredible growth of Quora has also led to an equally incredible growth in chatter, punditry, and analysis about the future of social networking. The opinions range from thought-provoking (“the knowledge network comes online”) to routine (“the new form of blogging”) to flatly illogical (“this is the next Twitter, Foursquare, or Wikipedia”). In reality, the elements of discovery, serendipity, and search that dovetail seamlessly from the Quora product have captured the imagination of its users (myself included) and have placed the company in a rare, enviable position. During these types of growth periods and transitions, though, some like to sound off, using their blogs, Twitter accounts, and Quora itself to beg for new features, complain about the quality of their experience, and to make predictions that do not take stock of history nor the current context. There is significant hype around Quora, but I believe it’s warranted. As a I result, I’ve attempted to produce a synthesis of the questions swirling around the rise of Quora and to offer answers to them, too. These answers are my own, but of course, you could peruse the Quora topic or specific related questions below on Quora to answer them yourself.
Q: How is Quora different from the other 20+ companies that have attempted Q&A?
A: Only a handful of sites have Q&A features that offer both producers (contributors) and consumers (readers, voters) of content an incentive to craft, establish, and shape an identity. Where others have tried and failed, such as Yahoo! Answers and Ask.com, and where some like Facebook Questions, LinkedIn Questions, Stack Overflow, Kommons, and Namesake, have successfully tied user identity to the act of Q&A, Quora may be positioned to travel slightly further in this race, if it hasn’t done so already. For instance, users on LinkedIn may think twice about posing or answering sensitive questions, given many employers will look at their profiles. Kommons allows users to publicly direct questions at specific Twitter accounts, where answers are not editable. Namesake has a nice threaded conversation feature, though they seem focused on niche networks and talent search. It’s a big opportunity and many of these sites will fill various needs quite well. While these other sites create separate verticals across topics or people, Quora seems less concerned about protected silos and more interested in fostering communities that consist of a blend of broad and deep domain knowledge across an interconnected network of topics and subtopics. If organized correctly, the information contributed to and categorized on Quora could not only result in the best Q&A site ever, but it may also transform into a new type of search engine and destination for information.
Quora question: How is Quora different than X?
Q: Could Facebook Questions render Quora obsolete?
A: Theoretically, yes. Thousands of startups investigate countless opportunities to engage with Facebook users around a variety of activities, and here Quora is no different, though their mission is large, relative to others. While Facebook has its Questions feature, the types of questions posed on Quora, the types of users who answer those questions, and the high level of interaction among users through comments and messaging would be very hard for Facebook to replicate in the short-term because Facebook users are engaging in hundreds of different social networking activities, where the thought of a Q&A dialog may only be of fleeting importance. Additionally, the topic ontology in Facebook is very general compared to the more nuanced set of topics, sub-topics, and cross-referenced topics in Quora. With a new enormous round of funding, Facebook seems poised to go after ideas that will move the needle for them, such as mobile and breaking through in new countries. Finally, Quora users may feel more comfortable interacting around questions and answers away from their personal Facebook accounts, where they can maintain more control over their brand and privacy.
Quora topic: Quora vs. Facebook Questions
Q: As Quora grows, will it be able to maintain its campfire atmosphere?
A: Some serious and casual Quora users worry about how the volume and tone of interaction may change as the service adds more users. This was put to a test in December, as follower accounts increased, along with activity on the site. Some observers believe that the genie is out of the bottle, and that the rush of new users will result in a deterioration in the quality level of questions and answers and that Quora may no longer provide them with the knowledge they seek to consume. This will auto-correct over time. In the long-run, the true, lasting value of Quora is built on two key pillars: (1) authentication of user identity and (2) the interest graph. First, as of right now (and hopefully it stays this way), only real people can follow you on Quora. That is very different than the spammy bots that troll on Twitter. When I signed up, I had to connect through my Facebook account, and this helps me reduce any noise in my Quora stream. Second, by allowing me to follow both individuals and topics, Quora has a very good sense of what my contribution and consumption interests are, much more so than Facebook. By understanding my interests and allowing me to shape my experience through that additional filter, Quora’s architecture creates an environment where I can accumulate relevant knowledge very quickly. The campfire can burn bright so long as users continue to place a premium on positive, thoughtful interaction, where the quality of contributions always outpaces of the quantity of contributions. Of course, there will always be people who try to game the system.
Q: Will Quora users continue to have an incentive to contribute content?
A: There are segments of users on Quora. Some choose to only consume information by following certain people or topics. They may or may not send any signals, such as up-voting or down-voting content. Few will ask questions, and fewer will comment on answers and engage in a dialog. All of this interaction is possible because of the free work of a small subset of users who generously ask and/or answer questions through their contributions. While a rational economist may disagree, I believe this trend will not only continue but actually grow because Quora has tapped into a strong behavioral tendency. Those who contribute content to Quora do so because, in exchange for their contribution, Quora gives them the chance to establish a brand, reputation, and areas of expertise. There are no promises, though, and the crowd can shoot you down, but that opportunity is enough for users with knowledge to risk their time in the hopes of learning something new and making meaningful connections in the future.
Quora question: As Quora usage grows, is contribution quality affected?
Q: Is Quora overvalued, and will it make money?
A: No, and Yes. About a year ago, Quora’s funding from Benchmark Capital turned heads until alpha and beta users witnessed first-hand the quality of the experience the site created for them. That investment was prescient. With the surge of users in December 2010, Quora, on its own and with its strong engineering and design team, could have justified a much, much higher valuation given the current climate. In terms of turning into a business, Quora is in the luxurious position of not having to worry about that issue for some time. The growth of the site, relative to the cost of constructing it, has given its small team a longer runway to tackle those sorts of endeavors. Quora has signaled in the future that some of this may involve advertising, but there are many other ways which the site could be at the center of important online activity, which I’ll touch on within in later posts. In the meantime, keep in mind that Quora has a very good idea of what interests its users have, and that is very, very valuable knowledge.
Quora question: How much is Quora worth and why?
Q: Does Quora deserve all the press it receives, including TechCrunch?
A: The simple answer is “yes.” On the surface, Quora’s user growth itself is newsworthy. Peeling back that layer, the quality of content from those contributing is surprisingly high. It’s one thing for a celebrity business person or technologist to use Twitter. It’s an entirely different atmosphere when one writes a thoughtful, public, detailed answer for a built-in audience to a question that someone else posed. It is in these rare but powerful instances when the site becomes a true quorum. At a deeper level, nearly everyone and every entity— individuals, the press, and eventually, those that work on behalf of brands, companies, and political issues—can inevitably become interconnected in a symbiotic information relationship, where the mutual meeting place is Quora.