The new social network kid on the block is Quora.com, a question-and-answer site for the smart set. Even its name is a conversation piece. Is it a mash-up of "Q or A" or a hip abbreviation of "quorum"? It's not important. What is important is that it filters out the hoi polloi to answer questions of value to you, whether it's "What is it like to always be the smartest person in the room?" or, for the purposes of this tech test drive, "What are the best London coffee shops for hanging out/writing?"
The road test: Before you can post a question, you must complete a short tutorial on how to do it properly, meaning that the questions and answers are of use to a wider audience than just yourself. At first this seems like a waste of time. We're smart, savvy Web jedi, we don't need that kind of hand holding.
Or maybe we do. While our question "What are the best London coffee shops for hanging out/writing?" elicited some good answers, we found even better recommendations by following the answers to the more succinct "What are the best coffee shops in London?", which we failed to notice had been posted a few weeks earlier.
Of the many options written by our Quora compatriots, we visited five in one week, chosen by writer enthusiasm and personal convenience: Flat White (and its sister Milk Bar), Tapped & Packed and Sacred Cafe, all in SoHo and Taylor Street Baristas in Mayfair. A sixth that was often recommended was Monmouth Coffee in Covent Garden, already a favourite of ours, and used as something of a shibboleth to discern good taste among the respondents.
The highlights: The site itself is well organized, a model of ordered chaos. Thanks to basic features like being able to follow a question (or a questioner, or a theme) and rating individual answers, we were able to quickly zero in on the best crowd-sourced answers.
But the real highlights of this test drive were the Quora-led coffeeshops themselves. Without one exception, they all had great coffee, delicious food, cool ambience, excellence customer service and seating that was highly conducive to writing in one's journal about the merits of visited London coffeeshops recommended by Quora users. If we had to pick a favourite (the previously beloved Monmouth aside) it would be Taylor Street Baristas, with its almost Quaker aesthetic of clean, dark wood tables and pew seating, happy baristas, funky global music soundtrack, excellent breakfast fare and, of course, flawlessly smooth and rich coffee.
The speedbumps: As the competing London coffeeshop questions demonstrate, it is an inexact science to asking a question to get the most/best answers. Another question we posted, "What are the best New York City coffeeshops for hanging out and writing?"a city where we actually have our own list of great answers (the Hungarian Pastry Shop in Morningside Heights, Tea Lounge in Park Slope, Cafe Reggio, Cafe Grumpy in Chelsea), surprisingly elicited only two anaemic answers.
And while there is protocol for writing questions, there is none for the other half of the site: the answers. In the London questions, some answers included little more than the names of places while other added mini-reviews and a few, most helpfully, wrote where the coffeeshops are located.
The bottom line: There are no shortage of answers on the internet. There is a shortage of smart, useful answers on the internet, whether they're travel-related or not. Quora proves its value in a road test challenge it didn't even know it was entering. And, to borrow a hyperlink joke from the Taylor Street Baristas site, if the answers that Quora delivers are not the kind you are looking for, we respectfully suggest you return to where you've already been before.