Prisms, Kool-Aid, and an Opportunity (a response to Vivek Wadhwa on Quora)

a red balloon saying Quora and a pencil about to pop it

Silicon Valley is again drinking its own Kool-Aid; it is looking at the world through its own prism.

– Vivek Wadhwa on TechCrunch

Quora has that certain magic that only one or two startups a year have. When it first launched it seemed kinda dumb, a slightly better version of q&a sites from before, that all flailed into spam. But it became exceptionally clear very shortly that it wasn’t like those other sites. that the product, combined with the launch strategy of concentrating on a certain group of people (which is how facebook launched as well) made for a very nice product. Now the question is can they turn the corner. I think they will.

TechCrunch editor Michael Arrington, in a comment

Oooh, controversy!

In Life imitates art imitates life … I’ve been talking why I come to the same conclusion as Vivek, so I was looking forward to seeing what he had to say on.  And there’s some very good stuff, including an excellent point I hadn’t seen elsewhere, talking the important of topic-specific and community-oriented Q&A sites:

This is where people with common interests will gather and exchange ideas.  For example, for people seeking legal advice, there is LawPivot, and for businesses looking for experts, there is Focus.   For techies, there are sites like StackOverflow, Slashdot, Hacker News; for children, there is Togetherville; for business students, there is PoetsandQuants; for entrepreneurs in India, there is StartupQnA; for Indian accountants, there is CAClubIndia; and China has its own groups, and so do many other countries.

Indeed! So I added another bullet to my answer on How would Quora be different if it prioritized diversity.

And in the comments, superstar VC Fred Wilson makes a very interesting diversity-related point as well:

i’m very bullish on vertical Q&A services as evidenced by our investment in stackoverflow, which is a great Q&A service for software engineers. stack also has serverfault for tech/ops people, and is building out a whole network of verticals with their stackexchange platform

i think quora is doing a great job servicing the techcrunch crowd with Q&A needs. can it add other verticals? sure. should it do that under one all encompassing service at the quora.com domain? not sure that’s a good idea

So I added something related to that too.   Other ideas welcome.

two question marksThe funny thing is, though, I actually disagree with most of what Vivek is saying in the rest of the article.  For example, a major thrust of his argument is that he thinks the quality of the answers will inevitably decline.  Here’s why:

The people whose opinion I value, such as Quora’s #1 respondent, Robert Scoble, will simply stop posting on the site when they get drowned out by the noise from the masses.  They will turn away after having their posts voted down (so that they look less important than their peers) and being personally subjected to the types of mindless, anonymous attacks that you see in the comments section of TechCrunch.

Hmm.  Do I detect a Silicon Valley prism?  Anyhow …

Yes, if the best posts get voted down everybody will lose interest.  If posters get attacked, they’ll leave (and Quora’s had some incidents already).  But none of this is inevitable.   Other sites have solved this; and Quora’s paying attention to all of these things — with rare exceptions, the tone is a lot more civil than TechCrunch.

But when there are hundreds of answers to a given question, by people you have never heard of (often with fictitious names), how will you separate the wheat from the chaff?  And how will you distinguish fact from fiction?  You certainly can’t trust the rankings of the respondents when these rankings are themselves generated by Quora users.

Once again, this is a problem that’s been solved by other sites — in a variety of ways.  Naver, Yahoo Answers, Stack Overflow … all of these sites involve hundreds of answers and people with fictitious names.   As if by magic, the wheat gets separated.   Well-designed crowdsourcing works.  Q&A is exactly the kind of task where diverse groups outperform.

Unlike Facebook, where everyone socializes, and Twitter, where ordinary people tell their friends what they are thinking, a Quora-like tool is only for those who want to learn what their intellectual peers are saying on, or to research, a particular topic.

Not really.  Most of the people who visit a Q&A site come via search or a link, and just want an answer to their question.  Most of the participants come to give feedback on a piece of knowledge, and then the next step is to contribute something of your own or critique something somebody else has said.  Quora only needs a relatively-small number of people hanging out there to be incredibly lucrative.

So while I agree with Vivek’s overall conclusion — a lot of Kool-Aid is getting drunk here — my reasoning is different. Quora’s key challenge is to broaden their base beyond techie guys.  They don’t seem to be doing anything about it.

Look at things from a different prism, as an entrepreneur, this is pretty exciting news.  The Q&A space is very attractive:  Yahoo! Answers and Answers.com have been top 20 web sites in the US — in early 2008 Yahoo Answers! was important enough that Oprah helped promote it and both Democratic presidential candidates posted questions there.*  And with Google’s plummeting search quality highlighting the limitations of algorithmic search, there’s a chunk of the search market up for grabs.  So it’s a very cluttered space; check out the lists of Quora competitors and other Q&A sites.

How to stand out from the pack?  Well, the most-hyped new general entry is Quora — who isn’t paying attention to diversity.  Their prime contender StackOverflow has no female developers or designers and is starting from its base of excellent sites targeting the rather un-diverse audience of programmers and IT pros.  So even if one or both of those sites together dominate the market for “techie guys and others who like the same kinds of user interfaces they do”, there are plenty of other audiences up for grabs.

Sounds like an opportunity to me.

jon

* Obama’s had over 17,000 responses, although if I recall correctly Oprah got more.