The Thin Wedge Of Quora

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Editor’s note: Guest author Semil Shah is an entrepreneur interested in digital media, consumer Internet, and social networks. This is the second 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

In 2010, a handful of mobile photo-sharing applications unleashed armies of handset users to snap pictures and instantly share them across multiple platforms and networks: Instagram growth exploded to become a Twitter for pictures; Picplz received generous funding, Path emerged from stealth mode, Occipital enabled 360-degree panoramic experiences, Foodspotting encouraged users to capture food images, DailyBooth positioned itself to focus on the front-facing camera, and World Lens translated signs from English language to Spanish. Photo-sharing features were also embedded into existing sharing services, such as Foursquare and Posterous. (This entire arc was captured in a discussion on Quora, “What explains the explosion in social photosharing entrepreneurial activity?”)

The act of taking and sharing pictures prompted many to label this a “key wedge” activity which companies could leverage in order to build out new social networks and new products or services, either around location, food, smaller circles of friends and family, and so forth. The wedge being used, in this case, is pictures as the first entry point into building something bigger. Hunch co-founder Chris Dixon laid out the theory and practice in this post.

Wedge activity isn’t just confined to social picture-sharing. What if, in the case of Quora, their “thin edge of the wedge” was interaction around Q&A activity?  What markets can that wedge help open up?

On the surface, the Q&A activity at the heart of Quora appears designed to engage users around interesting people, topics, and questions with strong incentives to contribute content, as well as to participate in voting, messaging, commenting, and sharing. As it turns out, Quora’s “thin wedge” is not so thin and has triggered a new class of content creators and is well on its way to successfully tackle the Q&A problem that has been attempted by nearly 30 different companies in the past.

But I believe this initial activity is just Quora’s thin edge of the wedge. The first arena the site has been successful in altering slightly is the concept of network blogging, all of which has been well documented by others—many times over. As the product matures and as contributors, consumers, and search engines crawl across the site looking for structured content, Quora could be slightly reorganized and positioned in a variety of new ways to challenge existing Internet products and services, many of which today are themselves large, multi-million dollar businesses. In no particular order, here is a list of markets where Quora could offer an alternative, leading all the way to the other edge—the thick edge—search.

  • Brand Management & Customer Service: A powerful yet somewhat under-reported feature of Quora is that while the individual user can follow topics (which include companies), those topics cannot in turn follow and message individuals. Instead, individual users who work for specific companies may act on behalf of their employers or clients on Quora and work with admins to manage the topic. For instance, you can follow the topic “TechCrunch” on Quora and interact with the 20,000+ individuals who follow the same topic. Today, a brand such as TechCrunch could engage parts of its audience through Quora, which currently allows for anonymity for those who pose and answer questions, but not for those who up/down vote or comment. It’s not hard to imagine a world where big brands have links to their Quora topic page on their homepage to interact with others. Quora offers brands a more civil forum to engage with users than Facebook, Twitter or other social networks without having to appear cute. Even if brands resist, enough influential Quora users could engage around a topic, such as customer service at Comcast, and create a situation in which Comcast would have no choice but to respond publicly. A few brands have already started, and this is likely to become more evident to the naked eye in 2011.
  • Social & Professional Networking (including Messaging): Facebook is ubiquitous and tries to capture all activity under one roof. LinkedIn is very structured. Twitter can be a social network, but its asymmetry creates noise if not managed correctly; at its core, it is a communications and distribution channel. Google will introduce something social in nature, but it will be a challenge to create a stir. In this world, Quora straddles an interesting middle line, somewhere between a niche network of users organized around topics and a full-blown social/interest network where a Quora profile becomes a sort of personal homepage or splash page, linking your audience with your other networks. In parallel, messaging norms could change. Email is considered “broken” by many who feel inundated by spam, offers, and long messages. Twitter’s forced character limit and asymmetric network presents a new model to manage inbound messages, where the user controls who has the right to message and where those messages must be less than 140 characters. Quora Messages, while open like Facebook, is clean, light, and loads fast, and is more secure than Twitter Direct Messages today. Facebook’s social inbox message aggregator may end up working for personal accounts, but may not satisfy the professional end, and that is a realm Quora could capture.
  • Endorsements, Reviews & Advice: By organizing people around topics and questions, combined with user identification and the ability for the audience to up/down vote contributions, Quora may also become a mechanism by which individuals and entities are publicly endorsed (or criticized). The identification system that Quora is built on, as well as incentives to contribute content, creates an opportunity for the site to act as a repository for timely consumer reviews of products (such as when the new Apple Macbook Airs were released) and services (“Is it worthwhile to buy Apple Care?”). Topics can be automatically created and collect relevant questions, where the user can search for the latest user reviews of new electronics, automobiles, and a host of other verticals.
  • Content Verticals and Syndication: Quora has been very successful at creating incentives for users to contribute content to its site. According to the site itself, content on Quora can be re-posted across the Internet, subject to a few conditions and controls, and must link back to Quora. One can imagine, over time, that the reviews (as collected above) can be repurposed on larger content verticals such as automotive, health, and finance.  These may come online in new ways through Quora and be redistributed via syndication to other sites.
  • Education: There are many ways Quora could invade the classroom, such as providing a complement to textbooks or periodicals, as well as classroom management software, group projects, tutorials, test prep, online collaboration tools, and so forth. Teachers and administrators could encourage students to ask and answer questions within defined topics and perhaps even within their own school topics, managed by the school itself. Where Google Wave failed as a collaborative solution, Quora may be flexible and simple enough to succeed. (One of the best answers to this type of use case was contributed by a Quora engineer, Tracy Chou: “How can I best use Quora as tool for the classes I teach?”)
  • Digital Media and News Discussion: As mentioned earlier, Quora has already proven itself to be innovative in the world of blogging. This contribution on its own is newsworthy and, as the successes of Tumblr and Posterous demonstrate, quite valuable. But, text blogging is just the tip of Quora’s iceberg. Quora users are already sharing external links and a few photographs, so more picture- and video-sharing could make it a stronger source for news. And, as the site becomes more robust and establishes its place as a hangout for discussions around news topics, it could continue to grow to be a major source for long-form and investigative journalism.
  • Expert Research and Analysis: The design and “feel” of Quora makes it possible to encourage individual experts to share sensitive information and insights. Private research organizations make a good profit conducting their own research and analysis for sale to large companies and governments. Gerson Lehman Group, for instance, is a $400 million per year business. While their reporting is deep and technical, one drawback is that in the process of research and writing, which takes time and focus, elements change within fields at a much faster rate. And, it’s costly. Research authors like Gartner and Forrestor charge premium rates. In certain instances, Quora could provide a novel alternative.

All of these scenarios are theoretical, and surely there are more opportunities I’ve missed. (Please add your own thoughts in comments, or chime in on Quora).  It could take many years for Quora to test these markets, if it ever does, and that will require the long-term commitment of Quora users to contribute content to the site in exchange for the opportunity to socially interact with others based on interests, to build reputations, and to collect endorsements. Over time, the content contributed to Quora will constantly be improved, refined, aggregated, and structured. Like a stone in a tumbler, the edges will get smoother. One effect of the tumbling and fine-tuning is that the site will become better optimized for search.

And, this is where the other edge of the wedge, the thick edge— will come into play. Search has undergone tremendous change and will continue to do so. The opportunities in new search methods are numerous and the future is exciting, but it’s also hazy with low visibility. We simply just don’t know how we’ll search differently, a theme which is at the root of many of the fascinating heavyweight fights going on in Silicon Valley. There may be room for more winners, and those winners will likely have figured out how to effectively segment their users according to a variety of factors and then, according to those segments, to create the proper blend of incentives to encourage the behaviors it needs to survive. For Quora, that formula may look something like this: Small segments of curious users who feed the system good questions; slightly bigger segments who contribute knowledge to the system in response; and hopefully an enormous segment that searches the Internet in a variety of ways and somehow end up on Quora for their answer.

Photo credit: Flickr/mtsofan

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