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Qui, Quae, Quora

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A friend of mine at Quora invited me into their private beta a couple of weeks ago, and by now I suspect that many of you are using it–especially since I’ve somehow managed to be the top hit for [quora invite]. Speaking of which, I appreciate that those of you with spare invites have continued sharing them with the stream of folks requesting them.

Anyway, if you haven’t heard about Quora yet, here’s a summary from the site:

Quora is a continually improving collection of questions and answers created, edited, and organized by everyone who uses it.

For those of you who studied Latin, the title of this post hopefully triggers at least a faint memory of relative pronouns and declensions. It’s been suggested that “quora” is a faux-Latin plural of quorum, which in turn is the genitive plural of qui. A less arcane possibility is that quora is intended to evoke the modern-day meaning of “quorum”: a gathering of the minimum number of people of an organization to conduct business. Or perhaps “quora” is a contraction of question or answer, befitting a question-and-answer site.

How did I come up with all of these possibilities? Well, I did study Latin (semper ubi sub ubi!), but I found all of the above from the Quora entry entitled “What does Quora mean?” (membership required to view). Indeed, Quora is a great place to learn about Quora, as well as about Aardvark, Hunch, and other question-and-answer startups. Because it’s been launched as a private beta and virally marketed among friends, the community–and thus its interests–are highly skewed towards tech startups. Indeed, people seem more inclined to compare it to programmer-oriented site Stack Overflow than to Yahoo! Answers–which speaks volumes about the current user base.

All that said, is Quora a useful site? It certainly offers useful information, but that’s a pretty low bar–after all, the open web already offers lots of useful information. The better question is what Quora offers that the open web does not.

Indeed, the closed nature of the site puts it at a disadvantage to the open web: no links, search engine optimization, etc. That said, I also haven’t seen spam or any of the other abuse endemic to the open web.

In any case, I don’t see Quora as a knowledge base of first resort–except possibly to learn more about software startups. Whether by design or by virtue of its early membership, the site is a very narrow scope.

The more interesting value proposition of Quora is the community it is creating. Quora facilitates conversation, much like a members-only blog where everyone uses their real names. It’s a well-designed social site, and I like that it revolves around substantive topics.

But I worry that Quora faces a catch-22. If the focus stays narrow, I can’t imagine it creating enough utility to justify its $86M valuation. But it’s not clear that Quora can scale up to a broader scope. Given what I’ve seen of question-and-answer sites, I’m skeptical.

What Quora does have going for it is an all-star team, and I’m sure they have big plans for the site. I’m very curious to see what those plans are, and how they play out.

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