"What is Quora?" It's the sort of question that looks quite legitimate – and it's the sort of question you might find on one of the hottest sites on the internet right now, quora.com.
Quora is a simple question-and-answer site. Whatever your question, type it in the search box and, if there isn't already an answer there, users will pile in and attempt to answer it. Information is organised more like Wikipedia than Google, with answers prioritised by how useful they are, but the site uses Twitter-style following to track the best contributors.
Founded in 2009 by Charlie Cheever and Adam D'Angelo, Quora now has a large number of registered users: it might be 500,000, though the number has begun to explode since Christmas. In fact, the topic of how many users the site has is one of the questions the users are debating. (They're pretty confident, as of this week, that it's gone past 500,000. Quora itself is not saying, and didn't respond to an email asking that and other questions.)
Why is it suddenly so popular? Because people have noticed that it has a strong preponderance of Silicon Valley's finest among its users, and that influential people are also using it: Steve Case, the co-founder and former chief executive of AOL, is among those asking and answering questions – any question you like – on the site.
Cheever says that the site was built from his own need to have answers to questions: in an article published this week in Silicon Valley's Fast Company, he says: "I'd catch myself at every point in the day when I wanted to know something, and I tried to imagine what life would be like if that information was available."
One point that marks Quora out from most other question-and-answer sites, such as the longstanding Yahoo Answers, or WikiAnswers, is that users are expected to use their real names – often derived from Facebook or Twitter. The challenge, Cheever says, is to keep the quality high while growing the site into the mainstream. "Right now, most of the content on Quora is very good," Cheever told the San Jose Mercury News: "It's very thoughtful and well written. So as we keep growing, how do we maintain that quality? There's no one answer."
Cheever and D'Angelo are former Facebook staffers, which may have led to the intense technology emphasis of many of the early questions, which came from technology startups in their area. But their eminence also led to experts such as the Google Images product manager explaining how colour image searches work, or Twitter's staffers explaining the idea of "cost per follow", Case telling how much it cost AOL to blanket-mail CDs to sign people up in the 1990s, and the Facebook co-founder Dustin Moskovitz giving his view of The Social Network – the film based on the founding of, yes, Facebook.
There are wrinkles to be ironed out: Quora has not yet fallen victim to spammers, though as soon as it gains size and reputation they will certainly test it, which will either destroy it or make it much, much stronger. It has also had some notable downtime as it has struggled with its sudden surge in popularity.
Robert Scoble, a tech blogger, can share the blame for some of that. In late December, he asked if Quora was "the biggest blogging innovation in 10 years", comprehensively praising it for everything from live updating to search engine optimisation.
Even Google's head designer, Irene Au, waded in, saying how much she admired the site's design. "That's been a very successful design, not only visually, but also for interaction," she told the audience at a Zurb design and interaction talk on 27 December. "For a Q&A site, it didn't turn into a Yahoo Answers with spammy answers. There's a lot of really rich, high-quality content there. It's one of my favourite sites to visit on a daily basis now."
Despite the near-hysteria of the tech community, Quora's traffic is still too low to be picked up by the measurement firm comScore, which said Yahoo Answers remained the market-leading Q&A site, with 204 million unique visitors worldwide in November 2010.
Ehow recorded 90m users and WikiAnswers 81m. The well-publicised, editorial-style Q&A site Mahalo recorded only 8m, according to comScore, and the teen favourite Formspring 958,000.
So far Quora, with a staff of just 12 people, has received $11m in financing, and was valued at $100m in its first round of funding.
Quora is also benefiting from the fact that its rivals have largely abandoned people-based question-and-answer systems: Yahoo Answers is nobody's first sensible port of call for getting a question answered, and others, such as Formspring, Mahalo and Ask.com don't have its Twitter-like 'follower' mechanism – which is undoubtedly part of what gives Quora its attraction: the idea that you might be electronically rubbing shoulders with someone who co-founded Facebook is irresistible to some parts of the technology business, including the press. Silicon Valley blog TechCrunch was criticised by a reader for making stories by "rehashing Quora posts".
Certainly there is some of the feel of the early Twitter about Quora: its simplicity and follower/following model is very reminiscent of Twitter, as is its attraction for technology buffs on the west coast. The problem now will be to build in size while keeping the spammers out – and the answers useful.
How to use Quora
• Register. You can do this using your Facebook profile or Twitter profile.
• Start asking a question by typing in the search box at the top right. You'll start seeing suggestions for questions that have already been asked (and possibly answered) begin to grow and change as your query continues. Want to know how making red wine differs from the process for white? Here you go.
• If you can add your own answer to an unanswered question, or improve on an already-answered one, do so by adding your own response.
• If you think an answer has been too highly or too lowly ranked, click it up or down. The best answers should therefore rise to the top.
• Start finding people to 'follow' by using Facebook and Twitter connections.
Or, more simply, read the guide that Quora's staff have put up.
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