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Are Question-and-Answer Websites like Quora the Future?

While Google is a terrific tool, it doesn't necessarily answer all our questions.  What if you have a specific situation that needs a personalized response?

 

That's where websites like Quora and Stack Exchange come in.  By combining aspects of forums, wikis, and social networks, these sites are trying to build human-generated, human-searchable arks of knowledge.  Wired magazine had a terrific article on this: Does Quora Really Have All the Answers?

 

For me, the killer feature is the Digg-style voting, where users can move good answers up and bad answers down.  Flamebait can be flagged and deleted.  This encourages people to really write relevant, helpful responses.  That's where many forums fall flat, because you're stuck with the trolls who write "First!" and other banalities in the comments.  The movie rumor website AintItCool.com is notorious for this.  The traditional practice of using moderators doesn't scale well, because they can't be monitoring the website 24/7.  The voting is a great crowdsourced solution to moderation.

 

I'm a big fan of the Q&A format. Once I had a vexing problem with displaying one of my websites in Firefox.  I posted a question on DocType, a Stack Exchange website for web designers that focuses on HTML/CSS troubleshooting.  To get help faster, I included a screenshot and the troublesome code snippet.  Within 15 minutes, I had a reply.  After a little back-and-forth with a web designer I'd never met, he suddenly gave me a code snippet that fixed my problem.  Awesome benefit of crowdsourcing.  Linus Torvalds, the creator of Linux, said it best: "Given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow."

 

Getting back to Quora, I think its main appeal is that many of the most active members are Silicon Valley insiders:

Users ask questions about raising capital, or about booting a cofounder who fails to pull his weight, and almost immediately a discussion sprouts up among seasoned engineers, investors, and CEOs. Sometimes, it’s almost comic how questions will draw cameo appearances from the exact person who can offer the most insight. How did Friendster blow it? Jonathan Abrams, the company’s founder, is among those who posted answers. Why did AOL make a particular decision? Here is former CEO Steve Case weighing in with his perspective. Netscape cofounder Marc Andreessen has dropped in to answer questions; so, too, has Reed Hastings of Netflix and Rob Glaser, founder of RealNetworks.

This gives Quora some star power.  If the masses catch on to Quora, I'm betting the writing quality will sink.  In that Wired story, some have already complained that it's happening.  Ironically, its greatest strength is also its greatest weakness.  Quora has weak coverage of topics outside the tech startup niche.  So it's not quite at the stage where you can ask about anything from wine recommendations to farming tips.  Some might argue that its a good thing, which saves Quora from being Yahoo Answers.

 

I've been looking into creating a Q&A website, although aimed at another niche.  From what I've seen, comparing the different Q&A frameworks largely comes down to programming preferences, e.g. Python/Django vs. Ruby on Rails.  If anyone has advice on building this kind of website, I'd love to hear from you.

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Comment by Marcus Sortijas on June 6, 2011 at 10:31pm
Interesting thoughts, guys.  I think this format works best for niche sites.  Not sure whether an 800-pound gorilla will emerge, like the Google of Q&A.  Quora wants to be, but they need to get a much broader and active user base. 

I remember reading somewhere that a really low percentage of users will actually write a comment.  Most users are "lurkers" who look but don't participate.  Social networks are changing this, though.
Comment by John on May 26, 2011 at 8:17am
StackOverflow is amazing. However, if you look at the <a href="http://stackexchange.com/sites?sort=questions">other StackExchange sites</a>, the performance is questionable at best. While StackOverflow reports 1.7 Million visitors a day, almost all the other sites have less than 10,000 visitors per day. I haven't look at the quality level of answers on each site. Plus, most of the sites are less than 1 year old. However, it will be interesting to see how many reach critical mass.
Comment by Alex Salkever on May 26, 2011 at 6:45am
Quora actually appears to be losing steam. It's a great site but making Q&A sites that scale well is a social engineering feet. I'd look to StackOverflow as a better example of how to build a business around this. They have been masterful.
Comment by John on May 25, 2011 at 6:40am

Marcus, good post. As you mention, Quora's user base is heavily concentrated in the tech startup sector. Compare this to LinkedIn groups that has a far larger and more diverse user base. There are an incredible number of groups covering a broad array of business niches (many groups have thousands or tens of thousands of members, the group I run has 4,000 members fro a very niche area). You need that critical mass of expert users to make a knowledge site useful.

 

I am not sure how Quora is going to build that critical mass in different domains. One plus of LinkedIn groups is that individual people can 'own' groups providing them incentives to manage and build them. The downside is that you get lots of groups, many which are worthless.

 

On pure technology and focus, I think Quora is better than LinkedIn groups. LinkedIn has no voting and allows for random discussions.

 

Ultimately, I am sure there will be lots of Q&A sites and that different sites will become dominant in various domains.

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