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

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exhausting and discouraging. The technical and cultural barriers raised against newcomers are high, and even the tiniest change to a Wikipedia article can prompt a “revert war” with the site’s established clique of volunteer editors.

“You can make it very difficult to contribute, you can set up all these rules you have to follow about what can go into an article and having a neutral point of view and citing every source, and you can get into fights with other editors—if you are willing to have a very small percentage of people ever contribute,” D’Angelo says. Such restrictions may be unavoidable if you’re trying to build an archive of established facts on notable subjects. But if you’re interested in gathering experiential knowledge, they just get in the way, he says. “I think [Wikipedia] gets great results for the area that it covers, but if you want to get the other knowledge that is out there in people’s heads, then you need to make it easier.”

For people who want to participate on Quora, there’s a big blank “Add Your Answer” box on every question page, and all you have to learn in order to write an answer is how to operate a few text-formatting buttons. Once your answer is published, other Quora visitors may take issue with it, but they can’t delete or edit it just because it’s heterodox. Says Bodnick, “Wikipedia takes an anonymous, consensus, single view—‘this is what the community of editors has decided that you should know about Mozart’—whereas Quora allows multiple perspectives.”

Also unlike Wikipedia, Quora requires contributors to use their real names, so that readers can gauge their credibility more easily. “When you let people use fake names, you allow them to engage in adversarial behavior that deters others from writing,” Bodnick says. “But when you require people to use their real names, it forces them to think about their reputations and the consequences of their actions. It keeps people civil.”

4. Quora is not just for asking or answering questions.

There is one place where anonymity is allowed on Quora: you can submit a question without identifying yourself. Which means that if you’re trying to drum up interest in a topic that hasn’t been addressed yet on Quora, there’s nothing stopping you from submitting a question and then answering it yourself.

I was somewhat surprised to learn that Quora doesn’t frown on this use of the site, unless the answers aren’t useful or are purely promotional (in which case they’ll probably be downvoted anyway). “We encourage people to write their own questions, because they know better than anyone which questions they are best qualified to answer,” D’Angelo explains. “We don’t want you to write questions that are like, ‘Why is Calafia Café such an amazing restaurant?’ when you are the owner of Calafia. But we do want people to write, ‘What are the hours that Calafia is open?’ and then answer that.”

D’Angelo and Bodnick also like it when public figures go on Quora to make announcements or react to news stories. One recent case involved a dispute over an anecdote about Dell that Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen has reportedly used in his books and speeches about innovation. According to a Forbes magazine article, Christensen argued to an audience at a 2011 Gartner event that Dell had spun off too much of its hardware design work to Taiwanese manufacturer Asus, eventually allowing Asus to overtake Dell with better, cheaper computers of its own. One user went on Quora this May to ask whether that version of the story was true. The question elicited an answer from no less a personage than Michael Dell. “This may make for a good story but it’s not accurate at all,” Dell wrote.

“Sometimes if you want to make a public statement about something, or set the record straight about something, it’s easier to just write a short answer to a question on Quora than to issue a press release or publish a blog post,” D’Angelo says. “It’s a pretty effective communications channel for some companies.”

In another break with its identity as a question-and-answer site, Quora introduced a new feature this January: blogs. Anyone can set up a blog on Quora, and their posts will be highlighted in Quora’s search results and feeds right alongside all of the site’s other content. (By feeds, I mean the personalized e-mail newsletters that users receive, as well as the question lists that users see when they arrive at the site.) Other users can upvote the posts, just as they would with answers.

The idea behind the blog feature was to help writers tap into Quora’s distribution system, without having to conform to the Q&A format—and, of course, to keep building the Quora knowledge base. “What we have found is that many people love Q&A but some people want to share knowledge that is in more of a presentation form, not prompted by questions,” Bodnick says.

The benefits of posting on Quora rather than a personal blog can be dramatic. When a Silicon Valley designer named Tim Smith posted to his own blog about the time his British sports car broke down in Steve Jobs’ driveway, the post attracted exactly six comments. When he reposted the same story on Quora, in response to the question “What are the best stories about people randomly meeting Steve Jobs?,” he got 300,000 page views, 7,800 upvotes, 114 comments, and 215 shares.

“If you are a writer about parenting or medicine and nobody knows who you are it can be really hard to get a following,” Bodnick says. “But if you write a great answer or post that people agree is interesting, you will get tons of distribution because of upvotes. We will give you supercharged exposure.”

5. Quora is not a business—yet.

Quora doesn’t collect revenue from anyone, for anything, and D’Angelo says he is deliberately avoiding spending a lot of time thinking about how to begin. “Sometime in the next year we will start to experiment with it,” he says. “In the long term, this is a business, and we fully intend to make it profitable, but it’s a decision for now to focus on growing, so that later, when we do make money, there are more users to work with.”

D’Angelo’s detailed reasons for leaving the business-model question unanswered are straightforward. First, he says, the company’s 60 employees have their hands full solving engineering challenges that go along with a 300 percent annual growth rate. “There is a lot of work we have to do just to keep up with the growth,” he says. “That is not easy, and that has to take priority over everything.”

The work is mostly about making sure the service runs smoothly as more people join Quora. Generating a unique, personalized home page for every user means bringing together a lot of data from a lot of servers very quickly, which gets harder as more users and more data enter the system. Then there’s all the indexing, ranking, and machine learning needed to match people with questions they can answer and topics they’ll find interesting.

The second reason: focus. “It’s just nice for the company to be focused on growth and on users right now,” D’Angelo says. “It makes everything a little bit more efficient. It means all of my time can go toward that. There will be some distraction cost [from business questions] later on, but I think we’ll be able to afford it when the company is bigger.”

D’Angelo feels that Quora has room to wait even longer than Facebook did before coming to grips with the revenue question. Its infrastructure costs are … Next Page »

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The Author

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy.

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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.

  • 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.

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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.

  • 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.