Monday, October 11, 2010

Quora: Experimental Public Knowledge Base For Grown Ups

Question and answer sites are crowded market. There are dozens of websites that provide question and answer functionality already: Yahoo! Answers, WikiAnswers, Askville, LinkedIn Questions & Answers, Answerbag, AOL Answers (formerly known as Yedda), Aardvark (now part of Google lab) and Facebook Questions to name a few. This crowded market just got one more strong player about 4 months ago.  It is Quora.

Quora was founded by two ex-Facebook employees, Adam D'Angelo and Charlie Cheever, last year. Starting with private beta launch in early January 2010, they have been open for public since June 21st. They raised $14 million dollars from Benchmark Capital and others with valuation of $87.5 million in March. What makes Quora special? Why would ex-Facebook employees enter such a crowded market?

Quora describes how they are different from other Q&A sites on their about page. In nutshell, Adam and Charlie believe there are mass untapped knowledges, about 90% percent according to their estimate, that are not captured in web, and they see Quora addressing that need. Quora is not a Q&A site per se, but public knowledge base site where article starts with people asking question and continues to be improved by community through wikipedia style collaboration.

However, this one-line description misses some salient points of what Quora does well.

1. Grown-up Focus User Experience

Although Quora does not mention it on their about page, they cater to grownups, particularly technically well-versed communities. It's evident from their UI layout, color scheme, and user experience.

Compare Quora's UI layout and color scheme with LinkedIn, the leading professional networking social networking site, UI and color scheme.

Left: LinkedIn Home Page UI; Right: Quora Article Page UI
Similarity Is Intentional

This is one of the clever moves from Quora UI design. By intentionally copying LinkedIn's color scheme and layout, they are signalling to the user that they cater to grownups.

This makes sense. In order to maintain high quality articles through constant collaboration, Quora understands it's all about appealing to and retaining expert users. That explains why Quora initially launched with closed invitation-only private beta exclusively with high value experts back in January.

Quora user experience is also geared for grownups. Although their simple UI hides many complexities behind the scene, such as handling duplicate questions, moderation policy, they don't offer user guide or detailed policy memo. Instead Quora lets users search for their question on Quora. This reminds me of Scheme meta-circular evaluator, where you write Scheme interpreter using Scheme -- if you don't understand the similarity, do not despair; it just means you are not a CS geek.

Quora is using their own platform to let user ask, collaborate, and grow knowledge base about Quora. Certainly, it's not a hand-holding that we've become accustomed to from sites like Google Aardvark.

2. Reputation Maintained

My Fledgling Quora Profile
All Quora Profiles Are Publicly Viewable
Watch Out, LinkedIn!
One of key differences between Quora and Wikipedia in managing user community is reputation. Learning from Wikipedia's failure to institute reputation system, Quora tracks reputation of each user from the start by maintaining structured profile page with contribution history and follower stat. Anyone can go visit user's page and see how substantive contribution the user has been making in the past -- note that Quora's articles and edits are all publicly viewable. This allows community to police themselves for quality content by awarding expert users or disapproving trolls.

There is also desirable side effect to this public reputation management. This reputation system will foster environment where people will want to use their own identity instead of using pseudonym or even fake identity. If you are putting time to build your profile, why would someone create pseudonym or fake identity to forgo the reputation?

3. Subscription To N-th Degree With Real-Time Update

Learning from Facebook and Twitter's success, Quora understands the ticket to play in Web 2.0 arena is real-time update and subscription. And they have mastered it on Quora. As Quora user, you can follow any question, any topic, and any user. All updates are delivered to subscribers in real-time and this is reminiscent of Facebook -- remember Facebook pushes page updates, group updates as well as friends update. I suspect this is one of the reason why Facebook Questions was put together in hurry to counter Quora's launch.

4. Facebook and Twitter Integration

Facebook and Twitter integration seem like a natural place to start for a new social site, and Quora didn't miss this either. Quora lets user login using Facebook or Twitter account, or create Quora's own account. Once Quora account is created, user can post their Quora activities on Facebook and/or Twitter. Quora is gunning for socially viral adoption using two of the best connected social networks.

These are great features of Quora, and people are noticing them. With superb user experience and high quality user community, Quora is a great contender to social network. Although their late entry into market and cautious start have meant small user base till now (about 55K as of Sept 19th), it has many good things going for them.

For those of users who grew tired of Facebook news feed spamming you constantly, Quora will be a welcome change. I for one will be rooting for Quora. They are the best looking underdog in the race so far.

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