Kara Swisher

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BoomTown Tries to Get Some Answers From Quora's Adam D'Angelo

Adam D’Angelo (pictured here) is too shy to subject himself to a BoomTown video–or perhaps too savvy–but he did agree to a sit-down for a short interview recently in a nondescript room in the Palo Alto, Calif., office building that houses Quora, the hot social answers start-up.

D’Angelo was, of course, the CTO and VP of Engineering at Facebook, as well as a prep school friend of the massive social networking site’s co-founder and CEO, Mark Zuckerberg.

But D’Angelo left the company in mid-2008 and with former Facebooker Charlie Cheever launched the question-and-answer site in January, after much venture capitalist shoving to get on board.

With more than $10 million in funding from Benchmark Capital and a whole lot more hype to contend with, D’Angelo and his small team have been trying to move the site well beyond its Silicon Valley-tech-dudes forum to one in which a plethora of topics and memes thrive.

As was the initial goal, D’Angelo said the aim remains to become the best place to find pertinent information about just about anything.

“The Web is a great place for finding information, but a lot of information that is really important is actually in people’s heads,” said D’Angelo. “If I had to pick one, I would say Wikipedia is a good comparison [to Quora], but there is room for more.”

Not such an easy task, which is why D’Angelo believes most Q&A sites still come up short for users.

“Quora is a simple interface, but it is very complicated underneath,” he said. “Q&A sites in the past had good systems, but they did not add in identity, reputation and quality.”

The hope is that by adding those elements, as it develops, Quora can more correctly answer the questions people are looking for.

“We are really interested in info that changes quickly and in unstructured info,” said D’Angelo, which he noted was at the heart of a lot of searches and well beyond data that search engines such as Google (GOOG) provides.

And for answerers, D’Angelo believes, it also gives them a place to feature their expertise in a much easier way than if they used their own Web site.

“We think people have found that Quora is different from a blog, in that people now have to think up what they think people might want to know,” said D’Angelo. “Here, they are given the topics and the questions, which means they are hitting areas they already know their audience is interested in.”

Interestingly, D’Angelo said he has wanted to turn down the spotlight on the site in recent months, as he hopes to get Quora on as solid footing as possible.

“We want to make a product that markets itself and not because we are big in Silicon Valley,” he said. “So, we want to tone down anything that does not have to do with improving Quora itself.”

Perhaps one of the reasons is the competing effort by his old pal and employer at Facebook, which launched its own Answers product soon after D’Angelo did.

D’Angelo declined to answer any questions related to the obvious and decidedly odd competition, although it is clear the move irks him, since it was a longtime interest Facebook was never interested in until he was and Quora attracted a giant amount of attention.

“There were a lot of different things I could have done [when I left Facebook]. But I felt this was an area that was completely neglected compared to other stuff,” is all D’Angelo will say.

Luckily for Quora, so far the Facebook Answers product has not garnered a whole lot of buzz, although D’Angelo discounted that as being a sign of Quora’s success.

“This thing is up to us, whether we succeed or fail is something that only we can determine,” he said.

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Just as the atom bomb was the weapon that was supposed to render war obsolete, the Internet seems like capitalism’s ultimate feat of self-destructive genius, an economic doomsday device rendering it impossible for anyone to ever make a profit off anything again. It’s especially hopeless for those whose work is easily digitized and accessed free of charge.

— Author Tim Kreider on not getting paid for one’s work