Facebook is beta-launching its expected Q&A product today. It’s a way to ask friends, and friends of friends, for advice and recommendations on any topic. What’s surprising about this product is it’s entirely public — and that it’s awfully similar to Quora, the startup founded by former Facebookers.
Everything submitted to Facebook Questions — which can be asked through user’s status publisher box or from the dedicated Questions page — will be publicly available to everyone on the Internet via the Questions page. That’s not to say they’ll be easy to find; Facebook is not opening the product up to be indexed by search engines or creating a directory of all questions — yet. Users can browse question pages by topic or through a roulette-style randomizer.
The millions of users chosen for the Questions beta will start seeing questions from their friends showing up in their news feeds today (users have been chosen in pods of friends so that they will have people to participate with). While questions will be publicly accessible, unless you’re friends with someone asking one, you’ll have to go looking through the application to find questions.
Questions can be free-form or polls with up to five choices, can be tagged with topics, and can be “followed” for updates. A Facebook spokesperson said the company wants to incorporate user feedback before rolling out the product to all its users, and that it hopes to do so soon.
The public nature of Questions makes it an important test for Facebook. The company has been harshly criticized for changing the default settings on personal content that may have been previously private to make it more public. But there’s no such thing as a private question on Questions, so if this product does well, it could be a bounty of public (and more monetizable) content.
When early word of Questions got out, the prototype product was criticized for its similarity to Quora, which former Facebook CTO Adam D’Angelo and early engineer and product lead Charlie Cheever founded last year. Facebook director of product Blake Ross participated in a discussion on Quora itself about the overlap, arguing that the comparison was unfair, and Facebook’s product would be differentiated because it would be oriented towards helping users find quick answers to questions from people who are socially or spatially around them.
However, Questions as currently implemented does seem awfully close to Quora, with its public questions, follows, and organization based on topics. The Facebook spokesperson said Facebook is building a system to match similar questions, and will attempt to direct users asking a question to previous ones on the same topic so it can create a living resource, just as Quora does. Though perhaps Facebook Questions will have less of a rigorous attitude towards moderation and social governance, which are crucial parts of the Quora DNA.
One of the reasons Q&A companies and products are so hot right now is because they provide a crowdsourced alterative to search. But then the question becomes, as we move away from traditional search, how will this activity be monetized (for more on that question, see a GigaOM Pro analysis I wrote (sub req’d)). Facebook Questions is currently not an advertising product, though you can see how advertisers would want to get involved in recommending their products as answers to questions. However, the spokesperson said Facebook Pages owners will be able to ask and answer questions of their fans (and some Pages are already being included in the beta).