A Question for Quora

Will a flood of new users dilute the quality of the Q&A site?

Silicon Valley’s most talked-about new Web company, Quora, offers a novel spin on an old concept: it takes a standard Q&A site and adds Twitter-like social networking to the mix. The site has grown rapidly in recent weeks, in part because of the quality of its content and community—but now its newfound popularity may jeopardize the content that made the site a success in the first place.

Social space: When a user first visits Quora, a pop-up shows how to craft a question properly.

Quora was founded by two Facebook alumni: Adam D’Angelo, previously the social network’s chief technology officer, and Charlie Cheever, the engineer and manager responsible for creating Facebook Connect and the Facebook Platform.

Their new site launched in an invitation-only beta in January 2010. Quora’s easy-to-use interface, as well as the founders’ impressive connections, rapidly attracted an elite group of early users, many from Silicon Valley’s most innovative companies. That meant Quora users could read the opinions of high-profile people from within the tech world, including former AOL chief Steven Case explaining the dot-com bubble, Facebook cofounder Dustin Moskovitz’s opinion of The Social Network, or well-sourced gossip on Google’s in-development social tools.

Quora has social- networking features similar to those of the microblogging service Twitter. Users can “follow” one another and receive notifications when people they know submit questions or answers; they can also follow certain topics or questions to keep track of new content.

Cody Brown, founder of Kommons, a Q&A site that allows people to publicly pose questions to Twitter users, says Quora’s design and features create a more “structured” space for sharing thoughts than most blogging or social-networking sites. That design encourages contributions from people who might steer clear of social websites, he says: “It’s not like a conventional blog or Twitter, where you are looking at a blank space and have to come up with something. You get a more specific prompt to contribute, and so it feels less narcissistic.”

This approach generated the insider content that led to a recent surge in users and media attention. Yet Quora’s success could endanger the very thing that caused that success, says Eileen Burbidge, a London-based investor in startups who previously served as product manager for Yahoo Answers.

“Quality of content and community is diametrically opposed to mass market success,” says Burbidge. “Having worked on Answers, I can tell that the level of quality is going to drop from the very high level it is at now as more people sign up.”

How to: A pop-up tests users on how to write a Quora question correctly.

To minimize that decline, Quora will have to shift the core of its efforts from engineering to moderation, says Burbidge. “I can tell that they’re already starting to moderate more because people are starting to complain on Twitter, for example, when their content is hidden,” she says. The site’s emphasis on real identities—users can only sign up using a Facebook or Twitter ID—may also help combat a reduction in quality, she adds.

Yahoo Answers draws more page views than any other Yahoo site, says Burbidge, and despite being the butt of jokes for answers of dubious quality and poor spelling, it “does have good quality and a community for that scale of site.” However, a business model that can reliably convert the site’s popularity into cash has proved elusive, she notes. Quora’s creators have yet to discuss how it will make money from its own content.

Quora, which still has fewer than 20 employees, didn’t respond to requests for an interview. However, in a post published recently on Quora, cofounder Cheever wrote that it had already “been a big challenge to preserve the character of the site,” adding that efforts were being made to help new users fit in. Before new users can post a question, for example, they must take a quiz on what makes an “appropriate” style for a question on Quora.

Cheever also wrote that the company would encourage high-quality discussion by tweaking the system by which users rate each other’s answers to ensure that the highest-quality answers are shown, and build new moderation tools. However, he conceded that it’s impossible to control everything. “We don’t have complete control over how Quora turns out,” he wrote. “The content on Quora is, at the end of the day, a product of the people who use it and edit it.”

Kommons’s founder, Brown, also doubts that Quora can gain a lot of users and still maintain its current level of quality. His first question on the site, posted a year ago, asked how Quora would scale beyond being just a “nerd party” (edits by other users later removed this phrase). Yet Brown believes Quora could still reshape the Web without becoming a blockbuster to rival Yahoo Answers. “I think Quora is actually a competitor to TechCrunch and the other tech blogs and media that have been writing about it,” says Brown. A social Q&A site focused on a particular subject area—Silicon Valley tech or otherwise—could usurp blogs and other media by directly connecting readers with the important figures in that area, he says.

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