Facebook Moving to Answer the Quora Question

Facebook is beta-testing a product in the same space that so many giants have attacked and fallen short–a curated question-answer, which has stumped the biggest of bigs. Has it been about social scale all along?

I just clicked on an innocent-looking Facebook ad asking for beta testers. What followed was a page explaining how Facebook is launching a new product that involves getting users to ask and answer questions that will be published to Facebook as a whole.

Note: I’ve copied and pasted the beta user offer from Facebook at the bottom of this post. Decide for yourself if I’m reading this right.

For those with only a moderate level of tech obsession, the service I’m talking about is one in which users interact with one other, posing and answering questions that are available to all users. Sort of what user forums are for software.

Google has tried it, Yahoo has tried it, and Quora, a tech darling of the moment–which just happens to be run by former Facebook CTO Adam D’Angelo, with guidance from original Facebooker Matt Cohler–is trying it. I’m a beta tester for Quora, and have used several ask-answer type services online. A weakness has always been the scale of the user community.

We’ve all heard the “if Facebook were a country” statistics–or, if you haven’t, here’s a handy infographic, which is already two months old (click to enlarge).

I include the table above only to illustrate that if Facebook has anything, it has scale. Even considering the recent privacy hullabaloo, 80 percent of Facebook users who couldn’t care less still add up to a ferociously huge user population for an ask-answer service.

Okay, okay. Yes. Google (GOOG) has scale. Yahoo (YHOO)–well, it once had scale. But both sites boast core services based on moving freely in and out of their pages. Nothing keeps users in like a walled garden.

Additionally, there is something inherently social about asking questions that early ask-answer crowd seems to have missed.

Yes, I want an expert to answer my question about how a catalytic converter works (or Wikipedia), but if I want to know how to throw the best dinner party, I am just as likely to take notes on an answer from a friend of mine who throws great parties as I am from Paula Dean. Maybe more so.

Quora realizes this. It has built out a whole social networking component to its service, and encourages you to connect the other networks you are already a part of.

But what’s harder? Getting people to know one another or getting wannabe pundits to pontificate about something they are interested in–on the Internet? I know I’m an easy sell on the latter. Just ask me

Below is the copy and pasted text from Facebook’s “so you wanna be a beta tester” questionnaire. Decide for yourself what it’s up to.

Help us build the future of Facebook.

We at Facebook are preparing to launch a brand new product to the world. We think it will be as exciting as Facebook Photos and Facebook Events, but we need your help to make it great.

As a beta tester, your job will be to ask great questions and provide great answers about your favorite topics. Economics? Skydiving? Relationships? Mexican Restaurants? It’s up to you. You’ll be the first person outside of Facebook to use this product. Your expert writing will be seen by tens of millions of people–including job recruiters. And we’ll bring our best beta testers out to California to tour Facebook headquarters and meet the team.

Ready to get started?
Before we can give you exclusive beta access, we’d like you to submit three great sample questions and answers. We’re looking for evidence that you can write clearly and authoritatively on familiar subject matter.

Here are some guidelines to follow when submitting your questions and answers:

Choose provocative questions. Write about things you know. Some examples:
How can I get over my fear of flying?
What are some fun family activities to do with two small children on the weekend?
What caused the U.S. stock market to crash in 2009?
What’s the secret to throwing a great housewarming party?
What are the main differences between Google Chrome and Internet Explorer?
What are women looking for in a relationship?
What methods has BP tried to clean up the oil spill?
What should I do to prepare for the Bar exam?
How did The Beatles find success?
Write detailed, articulate answers.
Where relevant, cite and link to third-party sources such as Wikipedia.
Your answer must be original. Plagiarism is unacceptable.

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The problem with the Billionaire Savior phase of the newspaper collapse has always been that billionaires don’t tend to like the kind of authority-questioning journalism that upsets the status quo.

— Ryan Chittum, writing in the Columbia Journalism Review about the promise of Pierre Omidyar’s new media venture with Glenn Greenwald