However it has happened, interested in Quora has spiked in the last week. I’ve gotten more “follow” notifications in the week than I have in the preceding year or however long I’ve been on the platform. (Not coincidentally, I’ve answered more questions in the last week — five or so — than I have in the preceding year — one.) I’ m really torn when it comes to thinking whether Quora’s onto something really big here, or is just a flash in the pan that we’ll forget in another week.
First, let me say what I like about Quora, and there’s a lot to like. For starters, it’s not Facebook Questions, which I really hate. What I hate most about Facebook Questions is that it doesn’t even pretend to be a knowledge management solution. (Hold on KM aficionados, I’ll come back to you in a moment.) Questions is a great example of a feature that exists because someone thought it was neat to do without it meeting any real user need. If you’re the type of person that blurts out random questions to your friends and their friends at parties, then maybe Facebook Questions is for you. If, however, you want reasoned answers to important questions, I wouldn’t be going to Facebook Questions. Quora, however, follows what I believe to be a really successful model. You look at categories that have failed (and knowledge management is certainly one of them), scale back your expectations considerably but in so doing enable the category to be accessible to orders of magnitude more people. Then you scramble like hell to fill in the architecture so that it delivers as robust a solution as the failed category actually delivered in the first place. This was actually the success model of the Internet itself in the first place. We were trying all these complicated networking solutions that delivered robust client-server and other advanced functionality. When that largely failed or proved to complex or expensive, we stepped back and said “what if we can just connect these things and do little more than exchange files or a few screens of information.” Having done that, and gotten millions of computers into the network and having generated momentum, only then did we go back and say “now how to we layer on top all of those things we were trying to do in the first place.”
There’s room for this kind of approach in knowledge management. The top-down initiatives have largely failed because there was little incentive for participation (in fact, there was often disincentive) and the benefits of participation were inconsistent at best and elusive at worst. So, instead, Quora starts from a bottoms-up perspective. Let’s not try to build a knowledge management “system.” Instead, let’s just ask questions. And instead of asking questions on behalf of some nameless, faceless organization, let’s ask on behalf of your friends. You’ll answer their questions because you’re wanting to help them, not because you’re trying to fill up a knowledge management system.
Having started down this path, of course, what we really want is a knowledge management system. Something that brings together related questions, imposes structure and hierarchy, weeds out the bad answers (and answerers) and otherwise adds coherence from the chaos that a random socially-oriented question platform would produce. Facebook Questions hasn’t gone down that path yet and, given their friend- and activity-oriented focus probably never will. Quora is already walking down that path, allowing for the organization of topics, collaborative editing and other organizational functions.
At some level, what’s really going on is the intersection of three or four, or more, major platforms. We’ve got Facebook, the repository of social connections. We’ve got Twitter, the repository for ad-hoc questions and answers. We’ve got Wikipedia, the repository for structured answers. And now, we’ve got Quora, the repository for structured questions (and their answers). Even as I write this post, I get more and more excited about Quora’s position and opportunity. Questions are perhaps more contextually relevant and valuable than answers and so maybe Quora’s position in search rankings supersedes Wikipedia’s (and when was the last time you did a Google search where there wasn’t a Wikipedia answer in the top five).
So, what can keep Quora from achieving such a lofty position? That transition from bottoms-up approach to tops-down is fraught with danger. Right now, we’re using Quora to some extent as a social platform: we’re conversing with our friends. As it scales out and more and more of the answers I see are from not even friends of friends but from strangers (i.e., untrusted sources), will I value the feedback from a broader audience or will it diminish the platform’s value. I’ll assume that they’ll get to some kind of rating structure for people who answer questions. Unlike on eBay, however, where it’s pretty clear who’s a good seller and who’s not, it’s going to be much muddier here. And the moment you lose trust in the people answering the questions, the fundamental value proposition of the platform is lost. Forever.
How are they going to integrate with Twitter? For some questions right now, I go to Twitter largely because of its immediate response. At some level, I may actually want to “escalate” a Twitter exchange into a Quora solution. Doing that systematically would be hugely powerful and ultimately essential. If Quora is the question platform of last resort, it risks being left out of the knowledge creation loop. How will they get higher up on our priority list or is it just one more platform I’ve got to invest time in? Its integration with more immediate and frequent platforms (e.g., Twitter and Facebook) are likely to be key success criteria for how much value they can ultimately collect and deliver.
Almost three years ago, I declared Twitter “the most important platform you’ve never heard of.” People have been asking me ever since “so what do you think the next one is.” Foursquare was the one most often mentioned by others but I have steadfastly said no, that’s not it. (And it’s not because I don’t believe location-based solutions aren’t important. They are. Just not the way Foursquare does it.) Quora is the first thing I’ve even considered anointing with that lofty status. Their challenges are considerable, however. Unlike Twitter, where growth just makes the platform better and better (other than platform stability issues), for Quora it’s a double-edged sword. There’s value to its growth but considerably added complexity. What’s the right mix of friends and open community? Can you add sufficient structure to a bottoms-up approach or does it have to be designed in from the beginning? How good are the answers you get, how timely, how predictable and how reliable? My early experience is a real mixed bag. I’ve seen some good answers and seen some interesting discussions. I’ve also seen some things where I think the answers are just bad and/or wrong. Keep track in your own mind as you look around Quora and see what the good:bad ratio is.
I gave a speech a year ago where I made a Freudian slip and talked about the “wisdom of clowns” and not the “wisdom of crowds.” Idiots in large number does not a solution make. If that’s what Quora becomes, obviously kiss it goodbye. If, however, they can make it the repository for structured questions and reliable answers, then they really do have the potential to be the next big platform.