The idea of sharing knowledge is certainly not new, and ever since the Internet became a common feature at home and the workplace, this knowledge-sharing has increased dramatically, be it in the form of static content, or dynamic interactions.
Examples of the latter are question and answer (Q&A)-based websites. Nothing new, these originated from such esoteric roots as Forum 2000 in the late 1990s, and ran wild over the course of the last decade with community-driven sites such as Yahoo! Answers, WikiAnswers, AnswerBag and Stack Overflow—some of the longest-running sites out there today. In essence, such websites follow the crowdsourcing model. According to Wikipedia (itself a crowdsourced website), crowdsourcing is a neologistic compound of crowd and outsourcing for the act of taking tasks traditionally performed by an employee or contractor, and outsourcing them to a group of people or community, through an “open call” to a large group of people (a crowd), asking for contributions.
Quora, one of the newer start-ups in the field, is a knowledge market or Q&A website that opened its virtual doors to the public in June. It describes itself as a “continually improving collection of questions and answers created, edited, and organized by everyone who uses it.” Its name, the plural of Quorum, is a description in itself—meaning the minimum number of people of deliberative body required to conduct business in that group, or in this case, groups.
Quora is an invitation-only, closed group for now, but as is the case with most ventures and start-ups, it should open up to the larger social crowd in the months to come. Among the many advantages of a closed group are high levels of credibility and expertise, compared with spamming, junk and possible phishers on other similar platforms.
Traditionally, with Q&A sites, a problem is posted by an individual or a company, and the “best answer” from the community members is selected. Various websites—usually of the technical or academic kind (such as Innocentive and Experts-Exchange)—offer a model where the individual who gives the best answer gets a monetary reward from the institution or individual who asked the question. There are many other knowledge-exchange models, some using virtual currency as an incentive, others using reputation systems, and some where the site pays researchers—instead of the questioner—to answer questions.
These Q&A sites are also known as Internet-based knowledge exchange marketplaces. There are two types: fee-based (whether for the answerer or questioner) or free. Most of the best- known Q&A sites, such as Yahoo! Answers, Ask.com (formerly Ask Jeeves) and WikiAnswers, fall in the latter category.
However, most free Q&A sites, especially the most popular, unfortunately suffer from a number of inherent drawbacks, such as a repetition of questions and answers, the posting of questions that can be answered easily by simple Web queries, as well as the varying quality of answers that come from everyone, from trolls and amateurs to experts.
Newer Q&A start-ups are quick to point out these problems, and are trying to incorporate innovative strategies to avoid them. While the first problem, repetition, can be solved easily by a thorough Q&A database check before accepting new questions, or by aggregating similar or identical questions, the second problem—the posting of questions that have readily available and factual answers—is a much harder challenge, one that ironically points to the separation of a mainstream audience from experts. The biggest challenge for free Q&A sites, as always, remains the quality of answers provided, once again placing experts on one side of the fence, and amateurs on the other.
While the challenges faced by newest start-ups are difficult, the Web and its users are continually evolving, and taking advantage of these changes is certainly one of the healthy ways of not just surviving, but thriving.
One of Quora’s primary differentiators is that it takes into consideration people’s fast-evolving attitude towards identity on the Internet, which is quickly trending away from anonymity and “pseudonymity” towards real comfort with real names. This is a mark of a maturing Web culture, triggered in no small part by the growing prevalence of personal blogs, as well as social and professional networking sites such as Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn.
Quora asks its members to use their real names and real professions on the site, though users can also choose to interact anonymously if required. Utilizing such a mature Web practice certainly has its benefits on a Q&A website; however, careful consideration of the answer itself will always be essential, regardless of the identity of the answerer. While one’s answer or opinion on an issue can be given more appropriate credence, it should not mean that the substance of the reply is disregarded on the basis of non-relevant credentials. Surprisingly, most interactions on Quora manage to avoid the latter trap and, combined with spam and troll moderation by the website’s administrators, things are kept on an even, non-biased keel.
Not everything is perfect, however, in the world of Quora, with the website requiring no proof to establish its users’ identities and professions. This places a level of trust in users that may still be premature by present Web-culture standards— only those users with obvious aliases are blocked by the website, pending submission of proof. There have also been cases where people with unconventional names (unconventional with respect to the Western world) have been blocked on suspicion of fraudulent identity. Understandably, these individuals were not happy with the apparent double standards when it came to identity verification. Many users have admittedly tried and succeeded in faking their profession, going from chef to exotic dancer, without repercussion.
This new challenge, of assuming identities and professions, not necessarily celebrity in nature but fictitious nonetheless, may be just as difficult to overcome as the first lot of challenges. However, the small team at work behind the scenes at Quora is certainly aware of these flaws in the system, and workarounds do seem to be around the corner.
Apart from Quora, other Q&A start-ups are popping up, such as Stack Exchange, a network of specialized Q&A sites. Joel Spolsky, one of the founders of Stack Exchange, speaks of the market that new Q&A services serve—providing the information that doesn’t yet exist on the Internet, information that cannot be Web-searched. This ranges from opinions to factual knowledge, and everything in between.
Stack Exchange, an aggregator, also keeps its community tightly knit and maintains quality by trying to build new Q&A sites in “overlapping circles”.
Given the rising trend of Q&A sites, Facebook is now planning to introduce Q&A and knowledge-market features on its own interface in the near future.
The potential for advertising on these Q&A sites, particularly specialized ones that attract a niche audience, is also quickly becoming an enticing prospect for many companies, which can now reach a target demographic of educated and savvy individuals without expending valuable resources on a broad spectrum of potential consumers.
While there hasn’t been a shortage of Internet-based knowledge marketplaces, no matter how specialized, in nearly a decade, the future looks capable of offering new ways to find the answers and opinions you are looking for, from real people.
In Quora’s word
Everything on Quora is tied back to a person. Each question and answer has a revision history associated with it, and each change in the log is associated with the person who made it. People use their real names and pictures on Quora and have a short bio describing them; this helps anyone reading things they write to understand why they should believe what is written and take into account the author’s perspective. For example, if Michael Jordan gives an answer to a question about basketball, that means something really different from someone who has never played the game giving an answer.
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