We hear about dozens of new social media sites each month, but few of them merit much time or attention. The same can't be said of Quora, which has become a flat-out behemoth of buzz in recent days.
After an admittedly brief test run through the site, I wanted to share some first impressions and try to answer the questions most everyone (including me) has been asking.
1. What is Quora?
It’s a question-and-answer service built as a social network. You can ask questions to the public, contribute an answer or even edit someone else’s question to make it clearer.
Thanks to its early popularity among the tech set (and the fact it was founded by an ex-Facebook exec), the site features answers from some pretty big hitters, such as AOL co-founder Steve Case.
2. Is it new?
Not tremendously. According to Wikipedia, Quora was created in mid-2009 and launched into private beta in December 2009. It went fully public about a year later.
3. Then why am I suddenly hearing about it everywhere in January 2011?
There’s rarely a clear answer for why social media sites hit critical mass, which Quora clearly has in the past few weeks. It seems to be a combination of an influential early-user set, positive blog coverage and subsequent writeups in the mainstream press, which hasn’t had anything new and shiny to talk about on the social front since discovering Foursquare around its one-year birthday.
4. Is it like Twitter?
Nah, not much at all. Which is why I find it strange that so many people are comparing the two. I suppose Twitter will always be the most tangible example of a site that seemed to come out of nowhere and be seemingly everywhere at once.
Twitter thrives on breaking news and concise, punchy opinions. Those don’t fly so well in the Quora community, As my friend and active Quora user Lucretia Pruitt notes in her excellent introduction to the site:
“Pithy, witty Answers are cute - but useless. Yes, we all get that you're brilliant and funny. Take it back to Twitter. The point here is to add to the knowledgebase, not to prove your keen sense of humor.”
5. Is it like Facebook?
No, but the Facebook integration is nice. This is one of the few times when I was glad to have a site import my Facebook and Twitter contacts who were already active on the service (all 0.4% of them!). You can also set it to “Like” every answer that you, uh, like. Which is OK in moderation, but Quora is already raising hackles by letting people spam their followers with Foursquare-esque updates on new answers and questions.
6. Is it like LinkedIn?
It actually reminds me of the best parts of LinkedIn, which is the reputability and insight of the people who answer your questions. Quora puts quite a bit of stock into the influence and expertise of those answering, which is a nice change from most of the other alternatives.
7. Like a blog? Like Wikipedia? Like a raven and a writing desk?
Structurally, each “question page” probably looks most like a blog post with an active comment stream. But what you don’t notice at first is the community editing aspects, which are robust. (Even outside the question pages, you can make edits such as suggesting titles for your friends’ bios.)
That said, Quora is quite different from both blogs and Wikipedia. It’s more of a global community than any blog, and unlike Wikipedia, the information is usually paired with some background about the contributor Here’s a good sample of how Quora most notably differs from Wikipedia, as stated in the site’s “How do I get started?” thread:
“Explain why. When you write an answer, provide an illuminating explanation. If you list a fact that you found elsewhere, link to your source. Summarize links and references in a sentence or two (or more) to aid your readers. If you're giving an opinion, say why you think what you say.”
8. Still sounds a bit like Yahoo Answers. Is it like Yahoo Answers?
9. But I hate Yahoo Answers.
I was just kidding. It’s very different, but Quora definitely lives within the same curiosity niche. And because of Quora’s penchant for expertise and professionalism, I think Yahoo Answers will remain much more popular with the casual-browser set.
10. Will you just tell me what is it like?
OK, fine. It’s like the community side of LinkedIn, merged with the organic networking of Facebook, smashed up with the informative aspects of Wikipedia, topped with a dash of the “I just can’t see this catching on” from Plurk. With blog comments.
More succinctly, it's a place to find suprirsingly insightful answers to questions that probably have never occured to you. Which can be addictive, but not always enlightening.
11. Should I be using it?
Sure, go give it a shot. Or don’t. It’s really not going to change your life one way or the other. Like most folks, I’ve been in “lurker mode” in recent weeks, waiting to see if the site offered any practical benefit.
Will it be like Twitter, and only reveal its best features to those who use it patiently and consistently over time? Will it become the invaluable community information hub the Web has always wanted?
Or will its own popularity turn it into an unnavigable hodgepodge of weak opinions and spam? Will it vanish into obscurity with the many other startups that fleetingly catch the interest of Silicon Valley?
Maybe I should go ask Quora.
Until then,, I recommend checking out these sample questions to see "why people are so into this":
• What are the must-have iPhone apps? Why?
• Why does the Facebook Places icon so obviously contain a "four" in a "square"?
• Who are the most interesting speakers on social media topics?
And, as we've all wondered...
• How many neurons does an octopus have?
David Griner is a social media strategist for Luckie and Company and contributing editor for Adweek’s blog, AdFreak.com. You can reach him by e-mail or on Twitter.
Photo credit: Tim O'Brien on Flickr.