What Is Quora? Seven Answers from Adam D’Angelo and Marc Bodnick

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.”

Quora Logo

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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  • http://www.nixonvs.com/ Nixon Virtual Strategies

    What bugs me about Quora is this: people really have no idea how to use it and so they are not asking questions that lead to thoughtful answers from others. For instance, someone asked a question about why the W in the Word with Friends logo is incorrectly valued with a 5. Another question I saw on the same topic of Word with Friends is “Is the Words with Friends team considering adding a feature that lets you get definitions for words people played that you may not know?”

    These are NOT the kinds of questions Quora is even worth bothering with. That’s a Google search and/or a direct email or letter to the company.

    Could you kill a Tyrannosaurus Rex with a pistol? I like that example question you used. While silly, someone with the right background and understanding of firearms could give an intelligent answer. But since few people give any thought or inquiry into what Quora is for and the types of questions best answered there, it’s a wasteland of almost “unanswerable” questions – or at least questions that don’t warrant time answering because it’s so obvious the answer would be easily sought in other ways.

    We don’t need another Google and the questions I currently see being asked don’t require a forum for an answer. I know you can’t make users do what you want them to all the time even if they do read instructions, but perhaps some moderators or something. Because if I had the time myself right now, I’d just Google a bunch of answers and paste links to the Google search in just about 80% of the questions I am seeing.

    So right now, Quora is not entertaining and I think the majority of people there are missing the point entirely.

    • Ryan Reichlin

      i agree and luckily this has already been partialy solved by only questions that pertain to your user history will show up in your “feed” and if noone upvotes the question it will effectively die off. but consider the Lowercase N in seven eleven logo and 5 for w in WWF these question resemble facebook statuses hoping someone will think you are soo kool for noticing it and seeking recognition ( think about it this kind of social interaction no matter how petty IS one of the things that makes FB so popular and might just work for Quora) so there might be alot of useless unanswered questions on this sight but there are still alot of notable ppl answering.

      • http://www.nixonvs.com/ Nixon Virtual Strategies

        Thank you, Ryan, for chiming in on this and reminding me I’d posted this.

    • Craig_Hubley

      A lot of this is probably users “gaming” the system, asking and answering pointless questions to rack up “credits” they can use to ask specific users other questions. The whole scoring and credit system seems like a failure.

      Early or first answers seem to get many more “upvotes” than others, particularly if they are not “downvoted” immediately out of sight (do a search on “Quora downvote cabal” for more on how this may be organized among elite users). It’s a sort of variation on the old “first post troll” on Slashdot.org which used a similarly failed ranking system, where it costs nothing to rank every single answer, and the rewards for multiple users conspiring to downvote or upvote overwhelm the non-conspiring users’ opinions.

  • http://freemusicformormons.com/lds-ward-choir-music roger pack

    How in the world does quora attract experts to answer questions? Just because it’s fun or what? I mean they have serious experts answering this stuff LOL.

    Speaking of which, I believe this article would have been better written as an answer to a quora question “what is quora” LOL

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  • frank

    I think this article answered the questions of what Quora is, and what it isn’t.

    • Craig_Hubley

      It’s out of date now (March 2015). “300 percent annual growth rate” is false and probably was false at the time, given that Marc Bodnick disputes the industry standard traffic numbers and essentially makes up his own.

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  • Frank

    I looked at quora for a while, and then lost interest. The answers there often reflect the US worldview too closely to be generally accepted.

    • Hannah

      There is a very large Indian population that is very active on Quora.

      • Craig_Hubley

        But they don’t “moderate”. ;)

    • Craig_Hubley

      Agreed. One example is that, worldwide, US conservatives (which in the real world means those who vote for and donate to the Republican Party, regardless of what ethics they personally profess) are perceived as being directly responsible for torture, apologizing for it, promoting it, and keeping the pressure on the US Attorney General not to prosecute oh say Dick Cheney for it. Intellectual figures such as Ben Carson, who have basically no credibility in academia and little even among the “conservative pundits” themselves, are nonetheless the ones who actually seem to lead policy on this.

      As conservatives are not willing to withhold votes, donations, apologies or otherwise from the party that initiated and continues to explicitly support torture, it should be a fair statement to say that “US conservatives support torture” without making fine distinctions among deeply religious Christians, self-proclaimed libertarians, and so on, who may well have deep objections. Fact is, clearly, they don’t take those objections they have seriously enough to shift parties or even sit on their hands at election time, so it’s a fair (if statistical) statement to just say that “US conservatives support torture” or that Ben Carson is actually the most visible US conservative “intellectual” promoting what the Republican Party / GOP itself actually does: torture, defend its key figures and those in Israel against war crimes accusations, defy the ICC, and so on.

      Worldwide most people are in countries that signed on to the ICC (International Criminal Court) and would defer to its definitions of torture, war crimes, etc., and say these things deserve prosecution or sanction.

      However, see what happens to you if you take these popular globally believed positions on Quora. The moderators, who include several who explicitly endorse Jeb Bush for President 2016 (including Marc Bodnick), and others who argue against ICC or for Israeli actions in many threads, will do everything in their power to censor this observation.

      And they won’t take their time about it, either. It’s flat out political bias and censorship and over time should drive off even Canadian and UK and Australian and New Zealand users of average views of those places. Most of whom would agree that US conservatives brought torture back to the Western world and continue to advocate and support it.

      • SortingHat

        I find it pretty sad too.

  • Jon

    No way I want these creeps to know my personal information.

  • Glen

    Unfortunately, Quora is going the way of Facebook in terms of “soft” censorship. It makes no bones about how heavily moderated it is, and while I’ve encountered many Quora enthusiasts who claim it pushes no particular social or political agenda, it clearly does. Thoughtful, reasoned, respectful, and relevant responses are aggressively weeded out, if they don’t conform to the particular worldview of Quora’s moderators.

    • Craig_Hubley

      Facebook shares the problem of unaccountable, non-transparent, Panopticon censorship, and is actually worse in this regard than Quora. No means whatosever of appeal and no transparency.

      However, facebook is far less aggressive against particular communities of users and generally does seem to understand that it is used as the world’s political forum, thus controversial opinions with actual arguments or evidence need their space.

      Quora’s “heavily moderated” environment is by contrast very selective and seems to depends on the whims of a few people who may be making very commercially oriented decisions. As you say ” Thoughtful, reasoned, respectful, and relevant responses are
      aggressively weeded out, if they don’t conform to the particular
      worldview of Quora’s moderators.” Who are US males, basically, trying to sell other US males on investing, advertising and partnering.

      • SortingHat

        The entire web is pretty much censored. Edward Snowden was right but I knew that before I even heard of him.

        On GLP and ATS if you mention the word TAVISTOCK you will get perma banned and according to some the word then gets changed to *Flowers* or something stupid.

        Since the 2nd half of the Bush era the web has slowly evolved into a political tool being for the *rich elite* only.

        We need a 60 percent tax on the rich AND cut off any loop holes that allow them to evade taxes by moving over seas.

        Someone with enough guts needs to come forward as a Congress member and not ass wipe to the rich party.

        It will take Congress because being President you will just be hounded and defamed if you go against the status quota so no President will be able to fix things. It will take a change of Congress.

      • SortingHat

        Since the 2nd half of the Bush era the upper 10 percent decided the web is for the rich only and the web is all but totally closed.

        Mobile phones will be what does it as big industry is pushing real hard to get people to throw away their computers to join the smart phone crowd. Once enough people are on board the web will be dramatically different to cater to that group and very dumbed down to match the levels of phones.

        We have a phone but it’s an old 2000s model that has no internet so there is nothing to spy on and it does just what it’s designed to do. Text and email.

        That’s what phones should be.

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  • Craig_Hubley

    I must agree with Glen and Frank that Quora reflects a particularly narrow subset of US worldviews, particularly in its moderation. Like Glen “while I’ve encountered many Quora enthusiasts who claim it pushes no
    particular social or political agenda, it clearly does. Thoughtful,
    reasoned, respectful, and relevant responses are aggressively weeded
    out, if they don’t conform to the particular worldview of Quora’s
    moderators.” There are statements about how Quora moderation works, mostly authored by Marc Bodnick himself, that are absolutely false and easily proven so. A typical censorship transaction begins with Bodnick himself tagging a comment thread or answer with the name of a particular “moderator” he handpicks, with no other information, thus a clear instruction to censor that thread or user. The moderator chosen might have expertise in nothing, or in “hair”, or in anything that has nothing to do with the subject, but in any case is Bodnick’s employee and highly unlikely to do anything but sanction, block or censor the user.

    Bodnick’s claims about moderation policy on Quora itself contradict this actual practice that he himself initiates and controls. For instance, it’s pretty obvious that no one beyond Bodnick and his handpicked editor actually look at these comments or users, flatly contradicting Bodnick’s own claim that all editors do. For another, there are supposedly “moderation@” and “appeals@” accounts to appeal decisions to, but these are not even linked or mentioned in block or ban notices. So, to be absolutely clear:

    Marc Bodnick, an officer of a company that presumably someday may want to make a public offering, is flatly lying to the public about its policies, personally participating in the process that contradicts them (thus he must be aware of it), and in some cases is clearly exercising his own personal or political bias in so doing. Go look at Bodnick’s own personal political views and affiliations and it takes about five minutes to find an example of a question, answer, thread, user intimidated or censored. This is not what Wall Street means by adult supervision.

    Then there’s the overt censorship of comments about Quora in other social media. That’s another whole can of worms, but go have a look at https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Quora&action=history and you see some things that are pretty amazing and uniquely abusive. For instance, at Wikipedia it’s pretty standard procedure to restore a POV tag that someone who works for a company has just removed. It’s also very frowned upon to use bots to revert edits without comments. Articles that get out of date are usually tagged as such. Yet all of those policies were clearly violated by Quora employees to keep this Quora article at Wikipedia reading fairly favourably.

    It’s not only against Wikimedia Foundation policy for employees of companies to edit articles about the company, it’s quite legally dangerous for the company or the employee involved.

    In fact when politicians, like Pierre Poilievre, got caught doing this, adding “promtional text” and censoring criticisms, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Pierre_Poilievre&action=history the article itself ended up adding a whole paragraph about these abuses. No such disclosure for Quora!

    In fact, Quora is so special at Wikipedia that when an IP is blocked by actual employees of Quora, or at their behest, someone so much as suggesting the procedure by which they could challenge that is met with a highly unusual “why would anyone want to do that?” as if anyone doing so would also be sanctioned. Even harsh critics of Wikipedia would see this is extremely unusual and wildly biased in Quora’s favour, especially as it’s admitted employees of the company doing the censoring and then calling for backup from their friends (who may well include other Quora employees). It’s amazing, and it’s certainly the kind of thing that validates most harsh criticisms of Quora.

    Given that, and Bodnick’s behavior, it’s really hard to justify investing in Quora, especially given what credible analysts were calling a “near-unicorn” valuation of $900 million. That phrase, and the simple fact that Quora was projected to be a billion-dollar company by now, are among those removed by employees. No idea if the company is aware of it, but given Bodnick’s active intervention in the moderation process at Quora, and that at least one person involved is both an employee of Quora and of Wikimedia Foundation, one would have to assume so until proven otherwise.

    Jimmy Wales is involved in both but he doesn’t edit articles about himself at Wikipedia, even when they’re clearly wrong, so there’s one person in the clear.

    It seems Wales, not Bodnick, needs to be the “adult supervision” at Quora. The investors should be replacing Bodnick with someone more like Wales, who has at least some concept of what “systemic bias” is, will deal with conflicts of interest with an explicit process, and who understands that procedures have to be followed by everyone, *especially* those with financial interests or top jobs.

    Because everyone’s watching.

    • http://www.GregoryKohs.com Gregory Kohs

      You’re right on target — that Bodnick is a hypocritical info-censor. But to suggest that Jimmy Wales would be a better replacement for him? That would be just as horrendous. (Note that Wales is a financial investor in Quora.) I have experienced Bodnick deleting my answers on Quora, if they are the least bit critical of his buddy investor Wales.

  • Craig_Hubley

    Marc Bodnick aggressively defends a “real names policy” (which is actually just a “real seeming names policy” that encourages the creation of undetectable ‘nyms that masquerade as real people). There are however serious problems with this: http://betanews.com/2014/09/13/facebooks-real-name-policy-is-wrong-discriminatory-and-potentially-dangerous/
    https://mikecanex.wordpress.com/2011/07/24/the-google-real-name-policy-is-wrong/
    and it is often called “ineffective” and “dangerous” http://www.slate.com/blogs/future_tense/2014/07/17/google_plus_finally_ditches_its_ineffective_dangerous_real_name_policy.html

    The basic problem is that the RealNamePolice http://www.dailydot.com/technology/realnamepolice-facebook-real-names-policy/ are always selectively enforcing this impossible nonsense “policy” and it usually falls on unpopular minorities or the less powerful users.

    There are ethical rules for handling pseudonyms, and among them is never to make it easy to masquerade as a real person by name, while making it hard to honestly declare yourself with a consistent pseudonym. Quora makes it very easy to invent a fake person, engage in a bunch of controversial dialogue, then disappear, having identified the actual real people opposed to your view or your point. Then as the disappearing user starts fresh, they have an edge over those from the first round of disputes, because they know their positions and names in advance. For reasons like this, content-focused sites like Wikipedia have abandoned the “use real names” fiction. Facebook and Quora pretend to enforce such rules, but they can’t and don’t.

    It’s obvious to any sane person that the users who follow such “rules” are put at a gross disadvantage in debate by those that can easily flout them because of the total lack of enforceability. At Wikipedia, if you want to create an account under your real name in the phone book, go ahead, and argue with 500 people if you want. But you can hardly complain that someone who called themselves “Nasty the beach troll” was pretending to be using their real name and promising not to suddenly disappear from the world having learned a lot about you. Wikipedia’s policy is that you have to assess that likelihood for yourself and whether you care. Facebook and Quora? They *pretend* and *promise* that they are forcing users to use real names, but in the end, they just do not and cannot. So why do they pretend to do something they just cannot do?

    The real reasons for overtly pushing such unenforceable and stupid policies are legal and financial: Facebook and Quora are both telling people that some number of real people are using their service. Wikipedia doesn’t care how many that is. But advertisers and investors do. Thus the fair and reasonable policy can be honestly supported on a nonprofit web site devoted to content, while the officers of a private company have every motive to falsely represent their policy, its effectiveness and enforcement, their user base size, and so on.

    It’s an inherent problem with private corporations running major social media services: They can’t honestly admit that many of the real users are not using “real names”, and they can’t control the pogroms, witchhunts and “outing” of unpopular or minority or vulnerable users, because they have agreed with their investors and advertisers to “out” and remove such accounts wherever found. Even if that process exposes oh say gay activists in Iran to torture and murder.

    Which the investors and advertisers don’t care about.

    This is just another factor skewing Quora towards US users who are generally not tortured nor murdered for their beliefs alone.

  • Craig_Hubley

    Here’s some more critical review of Quora to balance, sadly, propaganda from the interview above. The most recent of which claims that Quora has a “misogyny problem” similar to Wikipedia’s, but worse http://www.zdnet.com/article/quoras-misogyny-problem-a-cautionary-tale/#!

    By most recent, I mean summer 2014. Basically, almost no one writes about Quora any more.

    And here’s more reasons why not:
    https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=2773180
    http://www.attackofdesign.com/why-quora-is-in-trouble/

    And this one may be the best
    http://valleywag.gawker.com/is-quora-actually-smart-510343042/all#

    ” the “Black People” Internet Test, wherein the phrase “black people” is searched on a given online community. High results usually indicate a simple, ignorant user base—the kind of internet morons who tend to make sweeping generalizations that begin with the words “black people.” Quora, despite all of its esoteric overtones, scores quite high:”

    So, basically a snake pit of misogyny, racism, cliques and US conservatives?

    Seems so. At least until the hate cultists, misogynists, racists and cliques from India show up http://valleywag.gawker.com/most-of-quoras-traffic-is-now-coming-from-india-1341592714 (most of Quora’s traffic is now from India).

    • SortingHat

      That’s probably why they are ban happy. They mostly care about traffic from India and feel that anything else *rocks their boat* so they will ban people from other nations who don’t answer in the way India does.

      Reedit India has a lot of back links to Quora which needs to just be an India only site in writing and just ban people from even signing up unless their region is India. Then they can be at least honest about their intentions.

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  • SortingHat

    If you say anything that goes against their political agendas you will be downvoted and be banned from commenting.

    I have been banned from mentioning that both political parties are corrupt I think that is what did it but they wouldn’t explain. I plan to eventually learn how to hack into their website and give them what for!

    Big corporations are a parasite to mankind’s freedom and progress. Say NO to Korporate America!

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