Facebook just released its long-awaited Questions feature to the masses.Question and answer sites are getting tons of attention right now. Quora, in particular, has been one of the hottest things in tech for a couple months now. It recently raised a hefty $11 million series A.
Facebook Questions has been billed as a Quora-killer, out to steal that thunder. Because of Facebook’s massive user base, Mashable’s write-up of the feature predicts Questions will “prove to be more useful than Quora or even Twitter as a Q&A platform.”
This entirely misses the appeal and promise of Quora. Tech insiders are in love with the service, and find it incredibly useful, in part because it’s a smaller community, certainly not in spite of that fact. If achieving a massive scale were essential to Quora’s value, it wouldn’t be worth visiting yet:
What makes Quora so terrific is the quality of its users, not the quantity. Someone recently asked the question: “Why do Facebook employees like Gowalla better than Foursquare?” The question only received three answers: two from former Facebook employees (including platform architect Dave Morin) and one from Foursquare investor Fred Wilson.
That is Quora at its best: high quality responses from intelligent people who know what they’re talking about. Not only does that not require 500 million users, it probably isn’t possible with 500 million users.
As a general rule, the quality of online (or offline, for that matter) discussion drops the wider the pool of participants gets. The voting system on Quora is meant to improve that equation, but there’s no reason to think it can work at an indefinitely large scale. Other successful services working on this model are similarly small and targeted, like Stack Overflow, which caters exclusively to programmers. Even Quora is pretty unimpressive once you stray outside its core areas of competency.
That’s not to say Facebook Questions can’t be a huge success. The “Q&A space” actually has a lot of very different sorts of businesses in it. Yahoo Answers is a massive success on the strength of mediocre crowdsourced content that crushes it in SEO. Google recently purchased Aardvark, a question-and-answer product that isn’t really in direct competition with any of these.
Of course, this does invite the question of how Quora will turn into the sort of business that can justify that $11 million investment. It won’t be by competing with Yahoo Answers and Answers.com on scale. Stack Overflow uses its highly specific audience to generate revenue off of highly targeted ads and job listings, and will grow by launching sites in other verticals, rather than expanding and losing focus.
Quora may have similar ideas in mind. Or it may have a completely different strategy. Or it might flop altogether without ever making much money at all. That’s what most startups do, after all. But it won’t be killed off by Facebook Questions, because Facebook will never do what Quora does well.
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