This blog likes to think of itself as perched somewhat uneasily near the cutting edge of Web X.O technology (where X is a magic content free number, currently 3 but really moving so fast its best to use a placeholder).
Even so at least half the authorship of this august site must confess to be somewhat baffled by the raison d’être of a born again genre of web startup – Question and Answer sites (socially enabled, heavily funded and often invitation only).
Now Q&A sites have been around for a while, with services such as Yahoo Answers completing the difficult task of both attracting a massive user base and providing no apparent social value whatsoever. Or almost no social value – a good meme is not to be scoffed at.
Stellar examples such as Yahoo notwithstanding, the powers that be in Silicon Valley have evidently fallen in love again, and Q&A startups such as Quora, Aardvark are all over the place. Raking in millions in venture funding, earning column inches in the best kinds of blogs, and throwing parties for everyone in San Francisco. Quora in particular has been praised for creating an exceptionally high quality seed community, albeit one that is both small and more than slightly unidimensional. More and more, Q&A sites have been called the future of search.
Yet think about it. If you want to know something that is already documented somewhere, or can be worked out from information documented someplace, a traditional search is probably your best bet. Given a reasonable search query and a good search algorithm (and a lot of work has gone into the latter), many many ‘questions’ have an answer available instantly. Speed is therefore not the strong point of sites such as Quora – even if you get a good answer relatively quickly (by which we mean a few hours here), you probably want to give things a few days to get the most out of the community.
Now lets say search won’t cut it because your question requires an expert. And lets assume you’ve managed to get a huge population of users to sign on, so that any given question can in theory be mapped to someone who knows their stuff. Lets even assume they actually see your question – a very hard matching problem in the first place.
Even so, its unclear what the incentive is for anyone to spend the time needed to give good answers (remember they need to beat what the person asking could find using a web search). This is especially true where the question is uncomplicated and thus a little boring (to the expert). I’ve heard people point to Wikipedia to prove that users will volunteer high quality information on a wide range of topics. Perhaps, but the demands being placed on the community here are even higher – volunteer information *and* do it when someone else wants you to, not when you feel like it.
Quora, with its flourishing and tiny community of Silicon Valley techies endlessly discussing startups, business plans, technology and the bay area, isn’t a good place to get answers to questions in general. It is a good place to have a conversation, initiated by prompts, if you’re a particular type of person. Its hard to see the difference between whats going on within Quora and the back and forth chatter – often also initiated by questions – on the Android forums or a Linux Users discussion board or the Cricinfo facebook page or World of Warcraft discussion boards.
In other words Quora seems a Q&A site thats really just a super successful specialized online forum. There’s a place for them and you can find them in many shapes and forms – its the oldest internet application around.
But look long and hard at Quora and the chaotic (but large) Yahoo Answers and you understand why the important task of enabling information retrieval in general will require better search, better semantic algorithms and better content matching. Its not going to happen by hoping some amorphous, omniscient community in concert with a little special social sauce will come to the rescue and do the work for you.
I could be wrong of course. Its been known to happen.
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