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Quo Vadis, Quora?

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I know, everyone is sick about hearing about Quora, the community question answering site that is the darling of the blogosphere, and perhaps you fled here from TechCrunch hoping for something different. If so, I apologize. And if you want to read something else, I encourage you to use either the random post widget I recently added to the right-hand sidebar  or the exploration widget at the bottom of this post.

But I have personal reasons to be interested in Quora. One of their lead engineers, Albert Sheu, was a star intern of mine at Endeca. And Quora raises lots of interesting questions about search, user experience, knowledge management, and online reputation. How could I resist?

I see three potential reasons to use Quora:

  1. Objective question answering.
  2. Subjective question answering.
  3. Community participation.

Let’s consider how Quora fares today on each of these, and where it might go.

1. Objective question answering.

When I blogged about Quora early last year, I said that “I don’t see Quora as a knowledge base of first resort–except possibly to learn more about software startups.” Despite Quora’s recently growth surge, I am not ready to change my answer significantly — I find that Quora’s topics are pretty sparse when I stray from its Silicon Valley focus.

Within that focus, Quora is nailing it. For example, I was curious to learn whether someone who signed a non-compete agreement outside of California was still subject to it if he or she moved to California, where such contracts are legally unenforceable. Not surprisingly, non-compete agreements are a topic on Quora, and I quickly found a useful answer from a lawyer.

But for most objective questions, I’m still turning to Google and Wikipedia — or to Twitter if both of those fail and I am willing to ask a favor of my followers (who kick ass!). Sometimes Google will take me to Quora, but I can’t imagine Quora will succeed through this flow in the long term.

2. Subjective question answering.

I see subjective question answering as Quora’s strongest suit. A good subjective question on Quora — often a “why” question — generates a diverse collection of interesting and informed perspectives. A couple of good example are “Why did Google Wave fail to get significant user adoption?” and “What is lacking in social networking now?“.

Again, these questions are well within the Silicon Valley focus, but I could see Quora extending this value proposition to other verticals if it can grow the communities successfully. And I certainly don’t see myself going to Google or even Twitter to get useful answers to subjective questions. The closest is Topsy, and Quora has the advantage of being explicitly organized around questions and topics.

3. Community participation.

Is Quora a question answering site or a social network? Quora users and employees have tried to answer that question (on Quora, natch), but I’m not sure Quora’s converged enough for anyone to know. What is clear is that Quora emphasizes conversation, making it more like a blog or wiki than an answers site.

Conversation certainly engages its participants. But it also raises the cost of participation. One of the things I love about Google is that it gives me information without unnecessary overhead. When I want conversation, I go to social venues like Twitter.

Perhaps Quora can be both a question answering site and a social network. But I suspect it will need to choose. Most people don’t have the time or patience to participate in additional communities, so question answering is the easier sell to a mass audience. But the participation is what makes Quora especially distinctive today. Perhaps it’s a question of quality vs. quantity.

So, quo vadis, Quora? I suppose I’ll have to check Quora (or Cwora) to find the answers.

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