The Noisy Channel

 

Quo Vadis, Quora?

January 9th, 2011 · 12 Comments · General

I know, everyone is sick about hearing about Quora, the community question answering site that is the darling of the blogosphere, and perhaps you fled here from TechCrunch hoping for something different. If so, I apologize. And if you want to read something else, I encourage you to use either the random post widget I recently added to the right-hand sidebar  or the exploration widget at the bottom of this post.

But I have personal reasons to be interested in Quora. One of their lead engineers, Albert Sheu, was a star intern of mine at Endeca. And Quora raises lots of interesting questions about search, user experience, knowledge management, and online reputation. How could I resist?

I see three potential reasons to use Quora:

  1. Objective question answering.
  2. Subjective question answering.
  3. Community participation.

Let’s consider how Quora fares today on each of these, and where it might go.

1. Objective question answering.

When I blogged about Quora early last year, I said that “I don’t see Quora as a knowledge base of first resort–except possibly to learn more about software startups.” Despite Quora’s recently growth surge, I am not ready to change my answer significantly — I find that Quora’s topics are pretty sparse when I stray from its Silicon Valley focus.

Within that focus, Quora is nailing it. For example, I was curious to learn whether someone who signed a non-compete agreement outside of California was still subject to it if he or she moved to California, where such contracts are legally unenforceable. Not surprisingly, non-compete agreements are a topic on Quora, and I quickly found a useful answer from a lawyer.

But for most objective questions, I’m still turning to Google and Wikipedia — or to Twitter if both of those fail and I am willing to ask a favor of my followers (who kick ass!). Sometimes Google will take me to Quora, but I can’t imagine Quora will succeed through this flow in the long term.

2. Subjective question answering.

I see subjective question answering as Quora’s strongest suit. A good subjective question on Quora — often a “why” question — generates a diverse collection of interesting and informed perspectives. A couple of good example are “Why did Google Wave fail to get significant user adoption?” and “What is lacking in social networking now?“.

Again, these questions are well within the Silicon Valley focus, but I could see Quora extending this value proposition to other verticals if it can grow the communities successfully. And I certainly don’t see myself going to Google or even Twitter to get useful answers to subjective questions. The closest is Topsy, and Quora has the advantage of being explicitly organized around questions and topics.

3. Community participation.

Is Quora a question answering site or a social network? Quora users and employees have tried to answer that question (on Quora, natch), but I’m not sure Quora’s converged enough for anyone to know. What is clear is that Quora emphasizes conversation, making it more like a blog or wiki than an answers site.

Conversation certainly engages its participants. But it also raises the cost of participation. One of the things I love about Google is that it gives me information without unnecessary overhead. When I want conversation, I go to social venues like Twitter.

Perhaps Quora can be both a question answering site and a social network. But I suspect it will need to choose. Most people don’t have the time or patience to participate in additional communities, so question answering is the easier sell to a mass audience. But the participation is what makes Quora especially distinctive today. Perhaps it’s a question of quality vs. quantity.

So, quo vadis, Quora? I suppose I’ll have to check Quora (or Cwora) to find the answers.

12 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Adam Bossy // Jan 9, 2011 at 10:47 pm

    Daniel,

    What’s your definition of a social network?

    In my eyes, Quora will succeed because it play the part of both social network and question answering site. I’ve been a part of the community for about a year now, and it’s incredibly strong on-line as well as off-. I’ve met friends through the site and have had friends that have even met romantic partners through the site.

    The reason I stay involved is because it not only answers my questions, it answers questions I wouldn’t haven’t thought about myself. It certainly provides a high level of utility. Along with that utility comes a deeper connection that 140 characters or a Facebook profile page simply doesn’t offer, whether it is in shared interests, a personal story, or simply an interesting conversation point.

    I believe Quora’s model is to be an “incentive engine for Google-able content.” The incentive is to be a part of a dynamic community that shares your interests and exhibits your knowledge. For everybody else, only the top answer or two matters.

  • 2 Daniel Tunkelang // Jan 9, 2011 at 11:06 pm

    I’m not sure how to tightly define a social network. I was only try to question whether effectively answering users’ informational questions is well aligned with providing a space for community and conversation.

    Some people want both — you are a case in point, as am I. But my interest in the Quora community is contingent on the tight-knit nature of that community. I don’t see that tight-knit community surviving if Quora continues to experience explosive growth.

    But perhaps you’re right that Quora can serve both needs by effectively cultivating a active user base that contributes and a passive user base that primarily finds Quora entries through Google and then just reads answer summaries.

    I’d love to see them succeed. They are already doing better than I’d expected.

  • 3 Mark Watkins // Jan 10, 2011 at 10:24 am

    From a search/information architecture perspective, the biggest challenge I see with Quora (and other Q&A or discussion oriented sites) is the normalization of the content. How to prevent 10 different threads (with 10 different answers) from answering the same question? Similarly, how do you give the user a sense for which questions have answers? I think Hunch (in a somewhat similar vein) had/has challenges with this as well.

    If you type “find a book to read” into Hunch you’ll get a long list of potential “Hunchs” (“New Books”, “Classic Books”, “Summer Reads”, …) all of which overlap. As an information consumer, how do I wade through all of that? As Quora scales I fear it will have the same issue.

  • 4 Daniel Tunkelang // Jan 10, 2011 at 10:46 am

    Today Quora relies heavily on type-ahead and an aggressively fuzzy search algorithm to help users discover that a question has been asked. And the site seems to be exploring ways to introduce friction into the process of creating a new question. Finally, I believe that users / admins can merge duplicate questions.

    Will those mechanisms be enough? They work well for Wikipedia, where the entries are mostly named entities, but the entries on Hunch and Quora aren’t so well defined. It will be interesting to see how both companies tackle this challenge.

  • 5 Mark Watkins // Jan 10, 2011 at 11:50 am

    I think the challenge is most interesting for those “subjective” areas that you mention, where the natural structuring of the information isn’t as clear. I also agree with you that that is where Quora has the most interesting opportunity…

  • 6 Dinesh Vadhia // Jan 10, 2011 at 12:01 pm

    Tend to agree with Mark Watkins. Q&A services reach a certain level of use and volume – usually driven by the technology crowd – and then its off to another Q&A site because it gets difficult to find stuff. I think vertical Q&A sites like StackOverflow work much better rather than general sites.

  • 7 Gary Andrews // Jan 10, 2011 at 12:31 pm

    Quora rorah ray…

    I found your entry interesting do I’ve added a Trackback to it on my weblog :)…

  • 8 Jonha | iJustDid.org // Jan 11, 2011 at 11:53 am

    The challenge of Quora becoming an effective platform for users who are not primarily involved in coding, programming, etc is something that the site would be facing, I guess.

  • 9 Ricardo // Mar 6, 2011 at 7:09 pm

    Daniel, I feel segregated if I’m not invited to Quora. I feel intimidated if once I get in I may ask something that makes Quora staff and advisers and helpers uncomfortable. I feel disapointed if the answers come from the American or the occidental point of view only participants. I feel sorry for all of us that want to get in the meat grinder of human thinking under the idea that Quora first class answers are the ultimate truth.
    We are all humans that make mistakes everyday, including this special one.

  • 10 Daniel Tunkelang // Mar 6, 2011 at 8:00 pm

    For you, Ricardo:

    To Quora or Not to Quora – That is the Question

  • 11 Ricardo // Mar 7, 2011 at 6:40 pm

    Thank you Daniel.
    I’ll repeat my comment in level343,
    “Worst of all, is discriminative. You can’t get in unless you are invited. ¿How many smarter people aren’t there? At least smarter than the founders of Quora.
    Besides the subjective answers anyone could get fron there, some times “Gurus” have little time off and their answers may be of a lower quality than when they have plenty of time and will to answer. You could ask the same question to the same person six months later and probably the answer will be different.
    This project made a tipicall mistake, starts with the world standing still, like a photograph, but it is more like a movie, but of infinite dimensions.
    Good luck though to the founders for risking their asses following their limited, in my opinion, dream.”

  • 12 Ricardo // Mar 7, 2011 at 6:58 pm

    Besides that, can anyone tell me the profile of the moderators?
    It seems from what I have read, many if not all, are professionals of math related careers and have post-grades in related fields. No idea of the ages, but to be in front of a screen eight hors per day, they must be under 30.
    What about the life experience, the criteria, the wisdom they should have to respectfully keep an inteligent exchange of ideas in a civiliziced way, instead of modifying or cutting off what is not exactly as the site profile should be.
    In Mesopotania there were many ideas presented, discused and tested. Unfortunately, domination struggles ended with it.
    Now we may have an opportunity to bring the concept back, but without the risk of dying while doing it.

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