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Can Quora Survive Its Growing Popularity?

If you're a Web service, especially a young startup, you want to get as many users as possible, right? But there are worse things than having a small number of users—particularly when the service you are offering depends on the quality of the content provided by those users. Quora, the red-hot Q&A site that has been growing at a dramatic rate over the past few months, finds itself in that position now: The site depends on high-quality answers and has deliberately kept things small to cultivate a knowledgeable community. But can it keep those virtues when membership is exploding and not everyone wants to play by the rules?

Early on in its growth, Quora—which was launched early last year by Adam D'Angelo, former Facebook chief technology officer, and fellow Facebooker Charlie Cheever—made it clear it wanted to remain small to cultivate a community that would be different from, and better than, other Web services by keeping out trolls and focusing on positive behavior. Call it the "Yahoo Answers" problem (YHOO): That service, while similar in approach, suffers from an overwhelming supply of stupid questions and equally stupid answers. Cheever told Liz Gannes: "Our No. 1 thing is knowledge that people trust. Being a resource trumps making people feel good about themselves."

To try to build up a core of high-quality content and users, the site remained in invitation-only beta before opening up to all users in June of last year. The quality of answers is noticeable: Questions have been asked and answered by Silicon Valley luminaries such as Netscape founder Marc Andreessen, Facebook co-founder Dustin Moskovitz, and even AOL (AOL) founder Steve Case. In an interview with me in November, Charlie Cheever talked about the kind of community Quora is trying to create, and how he and others at the site spend a lot of time thinking about how to encourage good behavior and how to handle the inevitable disputes over unacceptable questions and answers.

Difficulties of Fast Growth

Such challenges, however, become exponentially harder as a community grows larger and more diverse, which is exactly what has been happening to Quora over the past few weeks. Ever since a number of high-profile blog posts and events drew attention to the service in late December, membership has been climbing rapidly—something you can read all about in a response to a question about Quora itself. Some users, including me, have seen their e-mail in-boxes overwhelmed with hundreds of follows every day for the past two or three weeks—in part because the site auto-follows all your Facebook and Twitter friends when you sign up. Although Quora won't say exactly how many users it has, it likely has more than double or triple the number it did a month ago.

There are obvious challenges on the technical side when it comes to that kind of growth—as Twitter found in its early years. And there are substantial moderation challenges if you want to maintain a certain atmosphere and community ethic, as Cheever and D'Angelo clearly do. Questions have to be read and edited, and rules have to be enforced. Just this week alone, several corporations, including the Huffington Post, set up Quora accounts, but Cheever confirmed to me that the rules of the site—at least for now—allow for personal accounts only. I've also come across accounts with fake names, another problem that social networks of all kinds have to contend with.

Some kinds of behavior Quora wants to encourage. A user named Lucretia Pruitt got hundreds of up votes for a post she made instructing new users on proper conduct—but while many up votes came from Quora staff, other users responded negatively to what they saw as a lecture and disputed some of the recommendations. Alex Blagg, founder of a social marketing site called BajillionHits, got into an argument on Twitter about the fact that his humorous answer to a question was being threatened with removal, and others have criticized the moderation on the site as well. These incidents bring up a central issue for Quora: How much of a site's standards do you let users determine themselves, and how much do you impose?

Some users are already complaining about the decline in quality on the site as traffic increases, while others are afraid this will happen soon. Still, lots of high-quality communities online are going through, or have gone through, the same thing Quora has—from Slashdot and Metafilter to newer communities, such as StackOverflow and Y Combinator's Hacker News. The transition's not easy to make, and many services have failed to overcome what Robert Scoble calls the "chatroom problem" or fallen into the "trough of disillusionment," as Gartner likes to call it. Quora may someday wish it had remained small and exclusive.

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