Much of the online buzz of recent weeks has focused on Groupon and its big funding round and Facebook's move with Goldman Sachs to boost capital. But further under the radar, a little social networking company called Quora has started to go ballistic.
For the uninitiated, Quora aims to create a social watering hole where interesting and sophisticated questions are asked, and intelligent answers are provided, generally by people who have deep knowledge of the domain under discussion.
This has been tried online before: It was the initial goal of Yahoo! Answers and several other question-and-answer startups that soon foundered under the weight of inane ripostes and spammy answers when their services grew more popular and gained traction with users. But this Q&A service, launched by two Facebook alums, Charlie Cheever and Adam D'Angelo, may yet solve the classic Groucho Marx conundrum -- how to create a club that they actually would want to be a member of.
For said club to be a viable, venture-backed (by Benchmark Capital, no less) investment, Quora needs to grow quickly. And that it is doing. Its user base has ballooned from only a few thousand early this fall to a conservatively estimated 200,000-plus today. Quora's founders executed flawlessly their strategy of allowing in the tech elites who dutifully seeded Quora with loads of top-notch answers -- often more informative answers than those found anywhere else online on a topic.
Witness this in-depth post about the economics of red-hot online luxury goods vendor Gilt. Eliciting this sort of user-generated content is hard in the first place. Keeping Quora a temple of knowledge and minimizing the chaff will likely be an Augean stables type of task.
A Site for Answers, Not Arguments
To their credit, Cheever and D'Angelo have built in some interesting features that, oddly, make the site remind me of a Quaker meeting. A user may post questions, but can't answer their own questions -- though you may clarify your question with a comment. A given user may answer a question only once, after which they can't post again on that Q&A thread.
In other words, Quora is designed to give you your say in a somewhat limited fashion, but to discourage the obnoxious back-and-forth, tit-for-tat troll fests that pop up at many other Q&A sites -- and on any site where commenting is freely allowed. Samil Shah has a great summary of the features and other interesting things about Quora in this TechCrunch post.
This doesn't mean spam isn't already finding its way into Quora. One question I posted was answered by a marketing contractor clearly promoting a client, and in a manner that seemed to ignore my initial wording. But if Quora can manage to keep even a modicum of quality control, it could become The Economist of Q&A sites, thanks to the existing deep well of content it has generated -- some of which has been good enough for media sites to repost whole-cloth. (Quora allows and encourages reposting of its content, as long as the repost links back to it.)
It's clear that Quora is experiencing a major growth spurt. Over the past two weeks, my in-box has been flooded with notifications that people are now following me on Quora (this is how you watch what someone is doing, saying or reading).
Reminiscent of Twitter
In fact, I knew Quora had truly hit steroidal levels of growth when both Web 2.0 Conference mogul (and Federated Media CEO ) John Battelle and angel investor/Mahalo.com founder Jason Calacanis followed me on Quora. Calacanis, who also founded the This Week in Technology webcast, is known for embracing social media and mass-following lots of people as part of his information assimilation strategy. Battelle is someone I know and have spoken with a number of times as a journalist and blogger.
Some are saying that Quora's growth is reminiscent of the flash adoption of Twitter en masse by the tech universe in the wake of the South-by-Southwest Conference of 2007. If the pattern holds, look for Quora to become the next big valuation startup to spark a private sector bidding war.