Quora: Striving for an Ideal Online Society

Since launching Quora at the beginning of this year as a sort of thinking person's Yahoo! Answers, former Facebook employees Charlie Cheever and Adam D'Angelo have increased their staff to 11, raised $11 million, opened up to the public, and grown a vibrant community of questioners and answerers—even if they do still converse mainly about the San Francisco Bay Area and tech entrepreneurship. It has become a site I visit almost every day.

I recently went down to Palo Alto, Calif., to meet up with Cheever for the first time since January. What is Quora up to?

The top items on the company's list, said Cheever, are growth and maintaining a high bar for quality content. The two, he said, are often at odds.

The thing that most stood out from our conversation is that Quora thinks of its role as one of governance. It wants to design tools that encourage people to contribute knowledge that is informative and current. The company's plans are less about features and more about figuring out ways to get new users to make good contributions and to give power users incentives to share more. In a way, it's sort of like trying to give birth to an online version of Plato's ideal society, with participants fulfilling designated roles in the interest of the common good.

This means that while Quora's team thinks about such things as introducing user rankings as a way to organize information, it hesitates about implementation because that might discourage new expert contributors, with no previous standing on the site, from joining the conversation, said Cheever. Instead, Quora has recently been working on such things as giving user admins tools to distinguish quality contributions and building topic hierarchies. Another new feature recognizes how long it has been since a user visited the site, formatting the personalized news feed accordingly.

No. 1: "knowledge that people trust"

That's a different approach from the typical user-generated site—say, Facebook—which is designed to foster maximum participation by users without placing any sort of value judgment on what they do.

"Our No. 1 thing is knowledge that people trust," said Cheever. "Being a resource trumps making people feel good about themselves."

Like Formspring, a very different Q&A company I visited last week, Quora thinks of the contributions it inspires as a sort of "inverse blogging." Participants aren't writing into the void with no idea whether or not anyone wants to consider their opinions about the best hummus or the top startup lawyer. If people ask questions, it's because they want to hear answers. There's less pressure, said Cheever, to make something perfect. There's not an expectation that something has to be polished and professional-grade, or that people have to have the skills to build their own website to share their knowledge with the masses.

Although the site hopes that everybody is an expert on something, Quora also wants to offer satisfying ways for nonexperts to participate. They can do research and write concise summaries, or recruit experts and elicit their expertise, Maybe they could just be good at finding thumbnail pictures for topics (which the site recently added), said Cheever.

a "not for reproduction" option

Another big focus has been on catering to power users. As tech insiders have been roused to share their knowledge—especially about their own products or those of competitors—Quora answers have often become topics for news stories. (Here's one from GigaOM—and another and a third.) D'Angelo has even done this as himself, confirming rumors of Google's unannounced, major, upcoming social product in a post that amounted to irresistible link bait.

Because some users would rather keep their answers within the community, a few months ago the company introduced a "not for reproduction" option that will ostensibly stop certain posts from being distributed outside the site.(I'm not sure there's a legal precedent for disallowing fair use like this.) Quora is also, by design, not currently indexed by search engines, although it plans to allow it in the future.

What about scaling to knowledge areas outside its core topics, Silicon Valley and technology—if they are even separable? Cultivating a community of quality contributors is one thing; Quora's big test will be breadth. Some competitors, such as the technically focused Stack Overflow, are choosing the alternative strategy of launching multiple sites to address different topics. Cheever admitted that diversification on Quora is happening slowly, but said general knowledge about such things as local information in cities, music, movies, and sports—as well as in more specialized areas such as physics—is coming along.

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