Quora: Looking for answers online

Maggie Shiels
Silicon Valley reporter

image captionBefore the internet, the Encyclopaedia Britannica held the answers

During the age of the enlightenment in the 18th Century when many new ideas and theories were being formed, Sir Francis Bacon famously said 'knowledge is power".

That very maxim holds as true today as it did then but even in the age of the internet, it can be hard to get access to the right kind of knowledge.

One Silicon Valley company working to change that is Quora, a question and answer site not unlike AllExperts.com, WikiAnswers, Cramster, Mahalo and Yahoo! Answers.

Quora's co-founders are part of what has been dubbed by research firm Wedbush Securities as the rise of the second internet where social is the driving force.

The founders certainly have social in their DNA.

Charlie Cheever worked at Facebook where he oversaw the creation of Facebook Connect and the Facebook platform, and Adam D'Angelo was Facebook's chief technology officer and a high school friend of Mark Zuckerberg.

In a document published earlier this year, Wedbush's Lou Kerner noted that in the off-line world the Encyclopaedia Britannica ruled supreme in the Q&A sphere. In the first internet that was overtaken by Yahoo Answers which has now been superseded by Quora.

"I think what we are seeing is a lot of people that aren't just techies or nerds coming onto the internet and participating and transitioning not just from being consumers of information but also creators of it as well," said Mr Cheever.

"If you wanted to put stuff online ten years ago it was hard and you had to learn how to make a webpage whereas now it is much easier and is not just tech people who can contribute their knowledge online. We are part of a larger movement of a democratisation of the internet."

And of course the great leveller as even Google will attest is information.

Authored answers

If you look Quora up on Wikipedia, it is described as an "online knowledge market" but Mr Cheever explains what that means in the simplest of terms.

"The basic idea of Quora is that there is all this stuff in people's heads - the wisdom and knowledge they have accumulated that is not shared in the world and we want to make a place where they can share all this stuff with the people who want to know it.

"Ninety per cent of the information, the knowledge in the world is in people's heads and not on the internet and we want access to that. It seemed if we could connect people who wanted to know things with the people who knew them, then there was a lot of value to be unlocked there," added Mr Cheever.

The founders' background in social networking plays a big part in how the site runs.

Users must use their real identity, a driving force on Facebook which has always said it increases trust and transparency. But Quora goes further by urging users to write a short biography of who they are.

"Having a user say who they are is important but so is having a short bio. So having you answer a question about the BBC carries more weight because we know you work there rather than if you were just identified by your name. That gives you credence and weight that a user name with no other insight would give. It helps people get more value out of that answer," said Mr Cheever.

Users can actually post anonymous questions and those answers are voted up and down by the community based on their usefulness. Of course when it comes to answers, who is to say who is right and who is wrong and just how comprehensive an answer can people expect?

"You get to the top of the mountain by taking thousands of foot steps," said Mr Cheever.

"We think about the site as establishing a consensus and getting as much input from everyone and bringing it all to the same spot. In reality there is a lot of things where just purely the facts don't capture what people know or want to know and it is important to get more colour and know where they are coming from to understand an issue completely."

So it's about more than just the facts and Mr Cheever pointed to a recent question asking "why hasn't another product disrupted and replaced Craigslist?" as an example of what he means.

The 38 answers include graphs, diagrams, charts and responses from a number of chief executives, entrepreneurs, inventors, engineers and marketing execs.

"The answer to this question is not a factual, indisputable thing but instead is this throughtful analysis which helps us understand the issue and can advance that understanding."

Mr Cheever regularly likes to highlight what he calls the "question of the day" which recently asked "what did it feel like to be inside the World Trade Centre at the time of the 9/11 attacks?"

"This was a really moving question and one where there is really no way easy way to find the answer to this question. But people who did survive wrote a really moving account and that was cool to see."

Mr Cheever has himself resorted to Quora to get some much needed answers.

One concerned finding out what was needed to survive a harsh New England winter and another was about why a street near his home was blocked off to non-pedestrian traffic.

"It is not the most meaningful example of what people are asking on Quora but a lot of the small things add up to our understanding of the world."

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