The next time you’re sitting alone with your laptop or smartphone and you have a few minutes free, don’t waste it browsing Facebook photos, watching cat videos on YouTube, or reading cartoons (though xkcd is fine). Instead, do a search at the Q&A site Quora, find a topic that you know something about, and write an answer.
That way, you’re sharing knowledge that might otherwise stay locked up in your head. You’re creating something—adding your own unique viewpoint to the bounty of the Interwebs—instead of just consuming stuff all day long. And your answer just might be seen by tens of thousands of people.
Or just go read more @justinbieber tweets. But the question-answering habit is the one that Quora hopes millions more people will adopt—and that could eventually help the company rival Yahoo Answers and even Wikipedia as a home for crowdsourced information and advice.
Already, four-year-old Quora is home to millions of answers (at least 16 million, one observer has speculated) on 400,000 topics, and has north of 1.5 million monthly unique visitors. Probably well north—the 1.5 million number is a June 2012 estimate from ComScore, and Quora says that in the past year it has grown by 300 percent “across all user metrics.”
If that kind of growth were to continue for a couple more years, Quora could become truly enormous, reaching far beyond its initial user base of Silicon Valley insiders to become a leading global media operation in the same club with Facebook (where Quora founder Adam D’Angelo spent four years leading back-end engineering efforts).
Which means it’s time to come to grips with Quora. But the first and hardest question about the company, both for consumers and for people in the tech community, is the same one that’s long plagued its Bay Area peer Twitter: what is it for, exactly?
One answer is this: It’s a place where you can ask questions no encyclopedia is ever likely to answer, and expect inventive, authoritative answers from people who ought to know. The question “What does it feel like to be the CEO of a startup?,” for instance, has more than 50 answers on Quora from actual or former CEOs. For the slightly more theoretical question “Could you kill a Tyrannosaurus Rex with a pistol?” the top-ranked answer is from a former pistol instructor with the U.S. Marines. (The short version of his reply, by the way, is no—you’re about to be dinosaur food.)
But that answer doesn’t explain how Quora’s technology operates under the hood, or what D’Angelo plans to do with the $61 million that Quora has raised from investors (about a third of that is from his own Facebook winnings), or how the whole operation works as a business. To explore those questions, I recently traveled to Quora’s headquarters in downtown Mountain View, CA, to meet with D’Angelo and his head of business and community, Marc Bodnick. Bodnick is one of the key managers shaping the company’s direction, especially since co-founder Charlie Cheever stepped away from day-to-day operations at Quora in late 2012. He and D’Angelo spent an hour with me, outlining the company’s basic mission and its priorities for growth.
I’ve consolidated our conversation into the seven basic points below, which should help to define what Quora is, at least at the moment (the answer could be very different in a year or two). But even after talking with D’Angelo and Bodnick, I found that it’s still easier to explain what Quora is not than to say what it is. That’s why five of the seven headings below are phrased in the negative.
1. Quora is whatever people think it is.
Given his accomplishments to date—4.0 GPA at Caltech, CTO of Facebook, co-founder of Quora, still not out of his 20s—D’Angelo is remarkably unassuming, and so is Quora. The company doesn’t do much formal marketing, and it’s never overtly tried to tell its users how to use the service. Yes, the company wants to encourage certain behaviors—especially answer-writing—but it does that mainly through the design of the product, which is essentially half search engine, half authoring tool.
“The thing we’re trying to do us just get everyone to use it, and once they use it, they understand it in a deeper way than we could get to through some direct communication,” D’Angelo says. “The thing that’s worked best—and I think this is true for a lot of interesting companies—is that if you can just get people to use it, they build their own understanding. So, what Quora is to each person is slightly different, depending on who they are and what they’re using it for.”
2. Quora is a tool for sharing knowledge, as opposed to information.
The founding hypothesis at Quora goes something like this: the Internet is a vast and wonderful storehouse of information and entertainment. But it only captures a tiny fraction of the world’s knowledge, if you think of knowledge as a combination of factual data plus first-hand life experience. “90 percent of what people know is locked away in their brains; they haven’t shared it anywhere, not in print, not online,” Bodnick says.
“We think of [knowledge] as anything in anyone’s head that might be useful to other people,” D’Angelo says. “The thing we really care about is getting that knowledge out of people’s heads.”
That’s why so much of the company’s engineering and design work goes into matching users with questions they can probably answer. If you go to the “Open Questions” section, for example, Quora will start by showing you questions related to topics you’re following and questions you’ve already tackled. “Once you show someone a question they can answer, they are generally pretty motivated, especially when they are the best person in the world to answer it,” D’Angelo says.
And when it comes to capturing useful knowledge about a very specific question, more isn’t always better. If you want to know how Ashton Kutcher prepared for his recent role as Steve Jobs, for example, you should really just get Ashton Kutcher to answer. (He did, which is the sort of thing that happens surprisingly often on Quora.) “If the best person in the world for that question wrote the answer and no one else did anything, that would be enough,” says D’Angelo.
3. Quora is not Wikipedia.
Technically, both Quora and Wikipedia are crowdsourced databases of information about the real world. But it’s how the two organizations define “crowd” that sets them apart from each other.
Over the years, Wikipedia’s claim to being collaboratively edited has grown weak. “Anyone can put Wikipedia in the palms of his or her hands, including you. All you need to do is simply edit an article,” the organization says. In reality, the vast majority of Wikipedia users never write or edit anything, and for understandable reasons: it’s … Next Page »
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