Imagine that you are transported by a time machine to somewhen in the depths of prehistory, like maybe 2005 or something. Imagine further that you subsequently must try to convince people there/then that one day in the future, an online service which codifies, organizes, and ranks excellent answers to very nearly any imaginable question–for free!–will be wildly less successful than one that lets people post messages of 140 characters or less.
I think you would have a hard time. From the early days of Quora, when it was the Biggest Thing In The Valley, people have been saying “Quora will be bigger than Twitter.” But–sorry. No. Not even close.
There are various theories as to why. Some claim “Quora power-users, the self-proclaimed elite who dominate the site, prevent Quora from growing its community.” I am skeptical: it’s possible that the existing community is a little off-putting, but even if people are dissuaded from answering, the number of readers and lurkers should be far higher than it is, given the many spotlights of publicity that Quora has received over the years. Right? Or–whisper it–is Quora actually not as awesome as its supporters say?
That would be the logical conclusion. But here’s the thing: It actually is that awesome. Sometimes. Recently my wife and I happily killed 20 minutes spent waiting for a train reading “What are the most surreal places one can visit?“, which I challenge anyone to read without developing a vicious case of wanderlust. Believe me, that’s unusual: I have a short attention span. Heck, I’ve even contributed to Quora on a whim, which is also unusual (I generally prefer to be paid to write.) I’m a big Quora fan. I really am.
And yet I’m not a regular. I’ll check in once a week, scan for questions that look interesting…and then move on. Whereas I check Twitter many times a day. I’m always deeply skeptical of generalizing from personal anecdotes, but I think for once this one might be meaningful.
The beauty of Twitter, at least as I use it, is that it’s a conversation – a vast unfocused fog of conversation, true, but that’s much of its appeal. It’s like a gargantuan party full of fascinating people1 whose chatter you can drift by whenever you like, and chime in if you feel like it. There is no end to Twitter. It is not transactional.
Whereas Quora is, by its very nature, in its DNA. A question; some answers; we’re done. The answerers may seem fascinating, but their context is always dictated by the questioner, so you cannot really converse with them — and so you are less engaged. There are links to other questions, but I at least find that I’m rarely moved to follow them. I can disappear into a Wikipedia hole for hours. But a Quora hole? No such animal.
In its early days, Robert Scoble was much mocked for complaining that Quora was “a horrid service for blogging.” And rightly so: that is not and never has been its point. But I can kind of see where he was coming from. The fundamental difference between Quora and Twitter is also the difference between didactic and dialectic–and most people prefer the latter.
Quora is a fantastic resource. But it will never have growth or usage rates comparable to Facebook, Twitter, Instagram et al, because it’s sheer human nature to prefer conversation to answers; and it will never be quite as absorbing as Wikipedia, because other people’s questions are never as interesting as our own. It’s a fascinating mélange of encyclopedia and social network, but alas, I fear that in terms of widespread success and adoption, it combines the worst, not the best, of those two worlds.
Image Credit: Kevin Dooley, Flickr.
1If and only if you choose carefully, of course.
(Postscript: Last week I wrote, “I’m going to post a brief overview of some security tools out there now.” I’ve postponed that for the moment, not least because I’m waiting for a particular startup to launch.)