Let me start with a disclaimer: I am not writing this in my capacity as a university professor or researcher; I don’t claim to be an expert on social networking; and I will be happy to be proven wrong—I have no vested interest in the success or failure of Quora. And, given the fire I’ve already taken for tweeting an opinion that defies the Valley’s infinite wisdom, I know that this post will offend many in Silicon Valley—as did my piece on why I Craigslisted my iPads. But I just don’t believe that Quora will “rule” or become anything like Facebook or Twitter. It has been a very nice private club; but it’s not for the general public.
Quora is a new question-and-answer site on which a few notable members of Silicon Valley’s tech elite have expressed their opinions. Some of the discussions have been very informative; some, completely misinformed. Some questions are of general interest, such as: Will there be a tech sector crash in the near future?; some are obscure: Who are the most successful entrepreneurs with Iranian roots?; some are just plain silly: How much does Netflix spend on postage each year? Quora’s membership is growing largely because of the attention that TechCrunch has given it (including the Best Startup award). Over the last month, I have received dozens of messages from TechCrunch readers asking what I think about Quora and why I am not using it.
The answer is simple: I think that Quora will continue to be an excellent resource if the same people who have been hyping it, and who have invested in it, keep posting their thoughtful answers. But I believe that the excess hype is destined to make Quora a victim of its own press. The quality of answers will decline. The people whose opinion I value, such as Quora’s #1 respondent, Robert Scoble, will simply stop posting on the site when they get drowned out by the noise from the masses. They will turn away after having their posts voted down (so that they look less important than their peers) and being personally subjected to the types of mindless, anonymous attacks that you see in the comments section of TechCrunch.
Not to say that there aren’t many other smart people who will post good answers. But when there are hundreds of answers to a given question, by people you have never heard of (often with fictitious names), how will you separate the wheat from the chaff? And how will you distinguish fact from fiction? You certainly can’t trust the rankings of the respondents when these rankings are themselves generated by Quora users.
Quora says it will educate users on its policies, guidelines, and conventions and that it will moderate answers more effectively. It claims that the site does not allow anonymity. But you can easily sign up for a Quora account with any of your Twitter accounts (you can create as many of these as you want—with fictitious names). You can then vote down answers from people you don’t like, edit questions asked by others, and post your own views. You can talk about your own products and services, and disparage others’; in other words, it is a spammers’ paradise. How is Quora going to manage hundreds of thousands—or millions—of unruly users, when even the mighty Google seems to be losing the battle for spam?
Right now, Quora is tech focused. Its fans proudly proclaim that its usage will spread, just as usage of Twitter did; that it will become a platform for everything from product research to customer service to education. Robert Scoble expects it to create a “great community and way for people to communicate about what’s interesting in their lives in a new way”.
Silicon Valley is again drinking its own Kool-Aid; it is looking at the world through its own prism. This is a common problem here, where we jump from one fad to another; where venture capitalists start investing in similar technologies and drive company valuations through the roof; where TechCrunch hypes the technology du jour and causes entrepreneurs all over the world to drop what they are doing in favor of building copycat technologies.
Quora isn’t going to be a Facebook or a Twitter. It is not likely to even catch up with the current market leaders in the Q&A space—Answers.com and Yahoo! Answers (which both get more than 40 million unique visitors a month, compared with Quora’s meager 150,000). Unlike Facebook, where everyone socializes, and Twitter, where ordinary people tell their friends what they are thinking, a Quora-like tool is only for those who want to learn what their intellectual peers are saying on, or to research, a particular topic. This is for the tech types—who dabble in technology and dream about things like startups and funding.
What is more likely to happen and makes far more sense is that a new generation of private, gated communities will grow and evolve. This is where people with common interests will gather and exchange ideas. For example, for people seeking legal advice, there is LawPivot, and for businesses looking for experts, there is Focus. For techies, there are sites like StackOverflow, Slashdot, Hacker News; for children, there is Togetherville; for business students, there is PoetsandQuants; for entrepreneurs in India, there is StartupQnA; for Indian accountants, there is CAClubIndia; and China has its own groups, and so do many other countries. Why do the Silicon Valley elite believe that everyone will flock to a U.S.-based tech site like Quora?
I am not delusional enough to believe that I can predict the future or guess what the technology landscape will look like a couple of years from now. But I can make one educated guess. My guess is that TechCrunch will stop talking about Quora within a few months and that we’ll be discussing the next big fad.
**Photo Credit: Andrew Fair
Editor’s note: Vivek Wadhwa is an entrepreneur turned academic. He is a Visiting Scholar at UC-Berkeley, Senior Research Associate at Harvard Law School and Director of Research at the Center for Entrepreneurship and Research Commercialization at Duke University. You can follow him on Twitter at @vwadhwa and find his research at www.wadhwa.com.