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Quora’s Innovation: Picking the Right Crowd

In a recent blog post, tech writer and Rackspace employee Robert Scoble asked whether Quora is the biggest blogging innovation in ten years. It’s a question he doesn’t actually answer. He does answer a question about whether Quora will kill blogging (it won’t, he says, because it has no business model for publishers) and he lists all of the things he likes about Quora. But he doesn’t say whether the site provides something significantly new. That’s a shame because his question isn’t just about the innovation in Quora. It’s also about the nature of innovation and how much of it you need to create a successful start-up.

Quora was founded in 2009 by Adam D’Angelo, who was previously CTO and VP of engineering at Facebook, and Charlie Cheever, who managed the creation of Facebook Connect and Facebook Platform. According to a press release issued in March 2010, when the company closed its Series A funding (bringing in $86 million, no less), the service is intended to help people exchange information.

“Our belief is that more than 90% of the information people want to know is still not available on the web in a format that’s easy for them to quickly understand,” Adam D’Angelo said then. “People really want to share their knowledge with others, and we’re building a system for everyone to do that much more easily and efficiently than they have ever been able to.”

Anyone can place a question on Quora or supply an answer but the site relies on its community of users to categorize, summarize and unify questions to keep the information organized. It’s also possible to follow questions, topics and even people to keep up to date with the information flow.

Answers Like Blog Posts

While questions posed on Twitter have to be answered in 140 characters, answers on Quora can be long and detailed — like blog posts. Anyone can also add their own responses, contributing to the conversation, like a discussion on Facebook. Answers can be voted up or down, like on Digg. And content can be edited, like a wiki.

At its  heart though, Quora is essentially a question-and-answer site, which makes it one of many on the Web. Yahoo has a question-and-answer feature. Answerbag is a question-and-answer site. Google used to have a question-and-answer page but killed it off. Fluther is Twitter’s new question-and-answer site. And RefSeek lists no less than sixteen sites which all allow users to toss a question at someone who claims to be an expert and receive an answer.

Quora though offers two features that its competitors don’t supply.

The first is the extra following, organizing and editing functions that are supposed to keep the information organized and timely. None of those is particularly innovative though, and just about all of them have been used elsewhere, from Friendfeed to Facebook.

What has really made a difference for Quora — and what really makes it innovative — isn’t the technology the site uses to source information from the crowd or how it does it. It’s the crowd it’s tapping.

When someone on Quora, for example, asked how much it cost AOL to distribute all those CDs back in the 1990s, the leading answers weren’t from accountants or marketing experts tossing out vague assessments. They came from Steve Case, AOL’s former chief executive, Jan Brandt, the company’s former chief marketing officer, and Reggie Fairchild, product manager for AOL 4.0. Each of them weighed in with a fascinating fact based on their experience of the CD production, from the most successful design (the “Tide-colored CD marketing piece”) to the threat from Microsoft as an incentive to buy market share to the amount actually spent (more than $300 million, about $35 for each subscriber.)

Other contributors have included Stewart Butterfield, co-founder of Flickr, Josh Williams, co-founder of GoWalla, investor Dave McClure, and more venture capitalists than you can shake a business plan at. While users have waxed lyrical about Quora as offering an easy alternative to blogging, a place where the intelligent and informed can come together to hold discussions on the topics of the day, it’s the presence of the intelligent and informed that has kept Quora from becoming a place where users ask each other how to stop a dog hiccupping or which photo is the prettiest.

The Right Crowd

It’s that access to answers from people who really are experts that makes Quora different. It’s what’s made it such a useful resource for reporters looking to research stories and the curious looking for answers.

How Quora has managed to accumulate that magic load of contributors is something of a mystery. Some of it though might have to do with the way in which the site uses members’ Twitter and Facebook accounts to push questions that they find interesting in front of them. If someone on Quora is asking about canine hiccups, then only vets and hiccupping experts are likely to see it because someone they’re following on Twitter or Facebook is tracking the answer.

Part of it though may be just down to serendipity. Quora’s status as a stealth start-up had Silicon Valley insiders keen to give it a try, which meant that they made up the bulk of its users at launch and they were the ones who set the tone. Once that changes though, the conversations may change too.

As the BBC’s technology correspondent Rory Cellan-Jones predicts on his Quora bio, once the crowds grow, the tech experts are likely to start looking for somewhere more exclusive to talk.

The simple answer to Robert Scoble’s question then is probably “no,” Quora is not particularly innovative. It hasn’t created much that’s new so much as collected a number of tested functions and bolted them onto a standard answer site. If anything, you could argue that it’s done the opposite of innovation. The site’s growth and reputation depend less on how the information it supplies is organized and delivered than on who’s delivering it. Quora’s innovation then is to remember that the most valuable piece of technology isn’t a computer but experience and knowledge. It’s the people not the computers that make a start-up successful.

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