Katherine Boehret

A New Social Network Where Inquiring Minds Run Wild

If brief communications like Twitter’s 140-character messages, Facebook status updates and text messaging leave you longing for more substantial discourse, you may be in luck. This week, I took a look at Quora, a question-and-answer site that encourages thoughtful—even long-winded—discussions.

Quora (Quora.com) was launched about six months ago by two former Facebook employees who wanted to create a forum where in-depth questions could be posed and answered. Users vote answers up or down according to how good they are, the idea being that the best answers get pushed to the top of the queue by the community of users. Few of these questions can be answered with a simple yes or no. For example, one question asks, “What role did social media play with regards to the revolution in Tunisia?” (See here for the answer with the most votes: http://3.ly/8Gqf.)

One thing to be wary of: There’s nothing that qualifies the most popular answers as accurate, nor do people who write the most popular answers necessarily qualify as experts. This could lead to confusion or even danger, like medical questions that are answered incorrectly. Quora users are required to register their real email addresses, and some answers are more believable than others according to who answers, like the CEO of Netflix answering a question this past fall about how much the company spends on postage per year (answer: between $500 million and $600 million).

As soon I signed up for Quora by submitting an email and password, I walked through steps to “follow” certain topics that interest me—like technology, journalism, media and news—so whenever those topics are discussed, the related questions and answers appear on my Quora home page. I also linked my Twitter and Facebook accounts to my Quora account, which clued Quora in on some topics or people that might interest me according to the information in those accounts. Once these accounts are linked, it’s a lot easier to share Quora questions or answers with people on Twitter and Facebook.

People, like topics, can be followed. If someone I follow posts a question, answers a question or votes an answer up or down, this activity appears on my Quora home page.

Though Quora may sound simple, I found it uninviting, geeky and poorly explained. The site lacks instructions on how to use it; people just have to figure it out as they go. For example, a newcomer might not know that Quora answers can be voted up or down by seeing two tiny triangles that appear beside each answer. If I select the up triangle, this indicates I voted for that answer, and news of this vote is shared on the Quora home page of anyone who follows me. A number beside each answer indicates how many votes it has received so far. But unless you’ve used the site for a while, you wouldn’t know any of this.

After a few weeks of use, I found I preferred using Quora less for asking my own questions and more for reading other people’s questions and answers about topics I liked. I occasionally voted on answers to show whether I supported them or not. One user asked me a direct question, which I answered. I asked a question of the Quora community, but no one replied.

I found Quora’s questions and answers to be rather smart and entertaining. Its Silicon Valley roots are evident in its numerous technology-related questions and answers. I typed “tennis” into a box at the top of the screen and one of the first questions that surfaced was “Is tennis popular in Silicon Valley?” Instead of that question, I selected “What is the history of tennis’s strange scoring system?” and read the answer with the most votes, which seemed right to the best of my knowledge. Interestingly enough, this answer also included a link to a related article on Wikipedia.

But compared with the rest of the Web, where images, videos, animations and sound entertain website visitors, Quora’s text-filled pages can come off feeling a bit like textbook reading assignments. This is because all but a handful of questions are answered with just text. Video isn’t enabled on the site, though founder Charlie Cheever told me that this might be possible in the future.

Another problem with Quora is that most people who use the Internet are conditioned to rely on search engines like Google, Bing or Wikipedia for queries, typing the right key words to get the intended results. And people are often searching for quick answers that take just a couple seconds to read.

Plenty of other question-and-answer forums exist, like Yahoo Answers, which has been around since 2005, ChaCha.com and Ask.com. Facebook introduced Facebook Questions to a small number of its users over the summer, but when asked, a company spokeswoman wouldn’t say whether or not this offering would be available to all users anytime soon, if at all.

Quora’s combination of social networking (following topics and people) and in-depth answers helps differentiate it from those services.

Private messages can be sent from one user to another through Quora, and new messages are indicated with a red number that appears over your personal “Inbox” at the top of the Quora site. Likewise, when new notifications appear on the home page, a red number is shown above Home at the top of the page. This home page can be viewed in one of three views: Your Feed, All Changes or Followed Questions; users can toggle between these views.

Only people who have created accounts can browse the Quora.com site, though links to content can be opened by anyone. This differs from Twitter.com, which can be visited and searched by anyone regardless of whether or not they have a Twitter account. Quora also lacks one central home page where everyone can go to see every Quora question and answer, or which answer received the most votes on the entire site. Mr. Cheever told me that the site deliberately tries to keep your world small so you can focus on the topics or people you follow.

Quora relies on its community members to police one another, like Wikipedia, and less than 100 users are also granted administrator privileges to do more serious operations like deleting answers that use hate speech or other offensive remarks, which aren’t permitted according to the site’s policies. Every edit made to an answer is logged in the Quora system for everyone to see. This helps users understand an entry’s history on Quora.

This site doesn’t put much emphasis on interaction with others, though you are notified whenever someone follows you and you may be prompted to suggest topics for someone who starts following you. Like Facebook and Twitter, a list of users who you might want to follow is suggested in Quora.

For now, Quora feels like a website designed for techie insiders without instructions for mainstream users. But its smart community, intriguing questions and way of showing users just the content they want to follow will keep people coming back to the site. With a lot of polishing, Quora could be a social network people use every day.

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