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 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 low, thanks to the advent of cloud computing (Quora runs almost entirely on Amazon Web Services). And “we are a lot further along in the development of the Internet,” he says. “So there are investors now who have seen the pattern enough times: that if you get a lot of people using a product, there is almost always a good way to monetize.”
When the time is right to start charging for something, there are three obvious things to try, D’Angelo says. The first is selling ads. “We know for sure that advertising will work, because it works for so many similar products.”
Another option is creating some kind of premium version of the question-and-answer service and charging users for access. Closely related to that: the option to pay an expert, through Quora, to answer your specific question. Each option comes with its own hazards—if you start paying certain people to answer questions, for example, it might discourage others from posting answers for free. The point is, there’s still time to experiment. “We are just going to try things out, and I think there is a lot of potential,” D’Angelo says.
6. Quora is not a technology platform.
Some people are so active on Quora that their body of answers and comments comprises a big part of their online identity, right along side their tweetstream on Twitter, their timeline on Facebook, or their profile on LinkedIn. You might think, then, that Quora’s ambitions would include “platformization,” the extension of the Quora ecosystem across other sites, apps, and services. Yet you don’t see little red buttons all around the Web that say “Log in using Quora Connect” or “Share this on Quora.” And that’s another deliberate omission.
“It’s a lot of work to run a platform, and we have limited resources,” D’Angelo says. (He should know: he was at Facebook when the company was building its own platform.) “You have to make these commitments to developers, and then you have to support them for a long time, and it makes it hard to change things, and you can hurt your reputation if you don’t do a good job of it.” (Can anyone say Twitter?)
But the absence of a Quora platform hasn’t kept Quora’s content from leaking out to the wider Web. In fact, the company is liberal about sharing. “One thing that was conscious was Adam’s decision to let other outlets republish Quora content with minimal restrictions,” Bodnick says. “Anybody can republish content on Quora as long as you give attribution back to the page and as long as the writer has not tagged the page ‘Not for Reproduction.’” That kind of sharing is only good for Quora, in the end, since the links make for good branding and drive some organic traffic back to the site.
7. Quora isn’t just for the Web.
Quora is all about text—not just reading answers, but writing them and searching for them. The latter two activities have never been easy on mobile devices, which meant until recently that people who accessed Quora on their smartphones weren’t getting the same experience as people visiting via their desktop browsers.
The company has been working to fix that. This year Quora brought full text search to its mobile apps (before, you could only search for questions, topics, or people). It’s also added a rich text editor, so mobile question-answerers can use bold, italics, bullets, and other formatting to their hearts’ content.
“It used to be that mobile devices were great for reading, but essentially second-class citizens when it came to writing,” Bodnick says. “You could only write in plain text. But now we are letting people write with the same tools they have on the desktop, which is great, since about a third of our traffic is from mobile now, and in a few years, clearly, more than half of everyone’s traffic is going to be mobile.”
Quora rebuilt its iPhone app for iOS 7 and published it on the same day Apple released the new operating system last month. A big feature is an ever-present “+” button that lets users instantly submit a question or post to their Quora blog. The company says it’s also working on a native version of the app for the iPad and the iPad mini; they’ll be ready by the end of the year. (There’s already a Quora app for Android phones and tablets.)
Mobile users spend twice as much time on Quora as desktop-only users, so the company has every reason to make the service work better on smartphones. The iOS 7 app is so nice that I’m almost afraid to use it—I’m worried I’ll wind up going down the rabbit hole and miss all my work deadlines.
And that, in the end, is the only reason I don’t use Quora more than I do. Each answer is infused with the personality of its author, so the content never gets old, the way Wikipedia’s dusty-dry prose rapidly does. That makes surfing Quora’s vast knowledge base completely addictive—a problem that D’Angelo says he’s aware of. “You might use it more if each time you used it there was some kind of stopping point; if it wasn’t just this never-ending thing,” he says. “It’s something that we will look into. But I don’t know how much control we have over it.”
Helping users be less addicted: it’s the very definition of a good problem to have. Almost as good as being asked, over and over, to explain what Quora really is. If people weren’t intrigued, they wouldn’t be asking.
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