Blog Post

Why Robert Scoble is Both Good and Bad for Quora

In another example of why web startups both love and hate attracting the attention of Robert Scoble, the widely-followed blogger and social-media maven created a minor firestorm over the weekend about Quora, the hot question-and-answer site that could be worth as much as $300 million. After initially embracing the service, which he called “the biggest blogging innovation in 10 years,” Scoble wrote that he had changed his mind and was no longer as interested in Quora for a number of reasons, including the way his responses have been treated on the site.

It might seem as though this dustup is of interest only to Scoble fans and other Silicon Valley insiders, but it has focused another spotlight on some important hurdles that Quora has to face as it tries to grow.

Just to recap, Scoble celebrated Quora as a revolution in blogging in December — one of a number of mentions that helped generate a flood of new users for the service, which a Quora engineer discussed in a post on the site. Among other things, Scoble liked the ability to follow questions, to vote things up Friendfeed-style, and the addictive quality of being able to see questions and answers being posted in real time. On the weekend, however, he said that he had reconsidered and that it was a “horrid service,” in part because of the way his answers got down-voted and hidden by the site’s moderators (there’s a discussion of the problems with Scoble’s activity on Quora if you’re interested, and Scoble himself has written about his mistakes in using the service as well).

Quora’s biggest challenge, as I have written before, is to expand its appeal and broaden its reach — partly in order to justify that $300-million valuation — but without negatively affecting the quality of answers that are the Quora’s main claim to fame. That commitment to quality is something that co-founder and former Facebook staffer Charlie Cheever has reiterated in interviews (including one with me), and is the key to avoiding the fate of similar services such as Yahoo Answers, which have been overwhelmed with low-quality content to the point where they are functionally useless. Cheever has written on Quora about this challenge, and some of the things that the service is working on to try and help maintain a high level of quality in both questions and answers.

The issue that Scoble’s experience highlights is this: in online communities like the one Quora is trying to build, there is a need for mavens like him — they help promote a new service, as the uber-blogger did with FriendFeed in its early days, before it was acquired by Facebook and co-founder Bret Taylor became the company’s chief technology officer. Their attention can create some scaling problems, since they often bring massive waves of new users and traffic, but they are still crucial to widespread adoption. At the same time, however, they can also distort these same services by their use (I confess that one of the reasons I soured on FriendFeed was the ubiquitousness of Scoble and other social-media types). And as Scoble himself has admitted, they sometimes get things wrong — like the assumption that Quora was going to become a Friendfeed-style blogging engine.

That misunderstanding, meanwhile, highlights another issue with Quora: it is arguably still too difficult to understand what kind of service it is trying to be. Is it trying to be social and conversational like a blog or other social-media tools like Twitter? No. In fact, overly conversational and even humorous answers get voted down or hidden by site moderators (an activity that should probably be explained better, so that users can understand what behavior is appropriate and what is not). Mike Arrington is right that Quora seems focused on creating something much more like Wikipedia — when I spoke with Charlie Cheever, he described how he hoped to make Quora serve a similar function, but for topics that Wikipedia doesn’t think are important enough.

The big issue for Quora is that becoming a new kind of Wikipedia is an honorable goal, but it is never going to become a mainstream service by doing so, just as contributing to Wikipedia is still something that only a tiny fraction of the online population ever does. But if it concentrates just on high-quality answers to arcane questions, and cracks down on personality and the other things that attract users like Robert Scoble, how is it ever going to grow to the point where it can justify a market value of $300 million? For more on the question of Quora and its long-term value, see analyst David Card’s recent report for GigaOM Pro, “Is Quora Worth the Hype?” (subscription required).

Related GigaOM Pro content (sub req’d):

Post and thumbnail courtesy of Flickr users Steve Jurvetson and Alexander Rachmann

29 Responses to “Why Robert Scoble is Both Good and Bad for Quora”

  1. Never understood Why a lot of folks listen to Robert is beyond me. Just today Kyte was in the news : The very service Robert said will kill Qik.

    But the reality is Qik got a $100-150 Million exit (Skype) and Kyte got less than $25Million exit (KITD)

    Do you guys live in some blogger echo chamber ? Who is Robert or OM or any other blogger to say which startup will be a success and which will fail ?

    How much PR money/kick backs/ expensive dinners did Robert got from Kyte to say those things about Qik ?

    I feel all these bloggers techcrunch gigaom robert are paid by PR folks to write all these article praise or mention companies in these blog articles ..

    The latest example of this is mentions of Instagram and Quora : One more mention of these two on techcrunch and gigaom and I am going to puke !

    • I never got anything from Kyte and I never got anything from Qik, either. Qik executed better than Kyte did after I wrote those posts. I can’t predict which team will out execute the other (Qik had better UI, went for more of a personal videoconferencing thing than a video publishing thing, etc etc).

      • Robert, how well the team will execute as the product meets the market is the single most important factor in which early stage company will be a success. Trying to predict winners based of beta releases without estimating who will execute better is basically a meaningless exercise.

  2. i have a number of issues with the site, not the least of which is their intent to encourage users to *not* search google for simple answers or run questions against a simple store of wikipedia data….rather, they seek to promote simple questions and answers (state capitals etc) and present this as a ‘beneficial service’ for users…yes, you read that correctly, they want users to ask what color appears when you mix red and blue, but not what happens when you multiply numbers (read on)

    here’s a discussion of this disingenuous approach to building their content store in an effort to monetize around wikipedia content and other common or pre-existing knowledge: (adam d’angelo chimes in himself)

  3. I wasn’t aware that Scoble was still a tastemaker or even relevant to anyone. Huh.

    I don’t entirely see the fascination with Quora. I think Stackexchange is already on the path to perfecting the facilitation of Q&A, and they’re pretty damn good at it. The categories outside of programming are already gaining critical mass and are genuinely useful. Is there a reason it’s less sexy?

    • Yuvamani

      First let me say StackExchange is awesome.

      The problem is its a google optimized engine. Namely you search google for some problem in say jquery. You get an answer. Its great for technical and semi technical questions which have definite answers.

      Quora is going down a different path. It has been designed like facebook as a communication medium. What this means is that the service is addicting to use … Like facebook.

      What this means is that it is a better place for questions with non definite or nonprecise answers. And that arguably is a larger market than the market for definite or precise answers.

      Here is the thing I always land up in stackexchange through google.

      I always land up in quora directly. That is the difference .. and the source of the valuation.

      • Wait… so typing something into my Chrome bar and getting an answer, which may come from a Stackexchange site, is suboptimal? You want it to be more complicated for me?

        Stack is addictive as well, for the people who want the “high score,” and those people can’t fake it with poor answers since the score is awarded by people who can verify their answers. It’s a system that works exceptionally well, and the frankly the discovery mechanism is irrelevant.

  4. Putting Quora’s valuation aside, Scoble’s near-term change of heart is important because I think it was in part a reaction to a better analysis/comment by Dave Winer (a very smart guy).

    My own take is that Quora’s editorial activity will be its best and worst feature. In that context, there is going to be a lot of activity in this space for alternative services that either narrow the scope of the authorship or enlarge the audience by letting everyone write without editorial input (other than moderation of rules).

    Zoom out and you’ve got a new generation of micro-content farms. Their success will in part depend upon the activity of the users to willingly participate to create content or engage in discussions. If celebrity contributors are driven-off to the gated communities then who knows what the business model will look like.

    One last comment about Quora; does it have more or less potential to be a conversation/discussion board replacement? Some questions have multiple “good” or valid answers. What little time I did spend on Quora I was more interested in reading everyone’s comments irrespective of their credentials. A lot of bright people were willing to share ideas.

  5. Victor Dweck

    I think Quora is a great site, with a truly unique appeal. The fact that Robert Scoble has 409 responses on it is enough to justify the effectiveness that it has had on engaging industry experts in an open forum. Quora deserves a ton of credit for this.

    On paper it would seem like a wishful and unrealistic achievement.

    Now, what Quora needs to make sure it doesn’t do is prematurely try and scale to a service with 10 million unique visitors a month. Quora should design and implement methods to maintain and carefully grow the service the way it is.

    It’s important that Quora remember and continue to grow from its roots; quality over quantity.

  6. Quora is a fascinating service that has the potential to be one of the great repositories of knowledge on the Internet—as well as a venue for making social and professional connections, enjoying some good-natured ribbing, and sharing war stories. At least that’s how I’ve used it in the year or so since I joined during the closed beta.

    That said, Quora defies stereotype; it requires patience to grasp the true value of the site and become familiar with the quirks of its unique version of netiquette (which I’ve christened “dequorum”). Many observers have analogized the invasion of large numbers of new users seemingly overnight to the “eternal September” that befell Usenet newsgroups in the mid-90s when AOL users were given access to a communications medium that had been colonized by an unrepresentative sliver of the population—mostly science and engineering types from government and academia. Newcomers faced a frosty reception from those who resented their (usually unintentional) violations of netiquette, as well as the impending commercialization of a formerly non-commercial medium.

    I think the key to understanding Quora is that it’s first and foremost about primary sources—the newsmakers, not those reporting on them—but the threshold for newsworthiness is low, subjective, and spreads across an endless long tail of verticals. An Olympic gold medalist in crew posts about the meaning of a coxswain. Some of the co-founders and earliest employees of Facebook critique “The Social Network” and its factual inaccuracies. I think of it as much like Wikipedia, except with an actual personality attached, a much greater degree of interactivity, and an incentive for everyone to contribute (recognition).

    • Thanks for the comment, Antone. I think you are right that Quora is trying to create a sort of broader and more personal Wikipedia, with experts answering the questions — a little like what Google wanted to do with Knol, I think, but failed. I don’t know if Quora is going to get there, but it is an interesting goal.

      • Nelson Hill

        Quora works NOW because it is still cloistered. Subject is not Scoble, it is Quora’s alleged algorithm– it is either going to work, and change the world, or it is not and they are somewhere between doomed and redundant. If it works, Scoble’s comments will be where they belong.

  7. The fact that quora is getting so much attention without really reaching critical mass makes me feel that Quora is doomed. All this attention is only going to create economic justification for spammers to spend their energies on quora.

    Wikipedia ,after it reached critical mass, is more of a heavily moderated site and less of a user generated site.

  8. Don Martin

    BI is reporting that Quora gets less than 200,000 unique users a month. How in the world is Quora valued at 300 million? What is the justification for this valuation?

    • Well, what do they say about mansions on the edge of water — people value them at whatever they want to pay. nevertheless, the big question is whether Quora grows into that valuation. If you have an answer, please share and of course, thanks for your comment.

  9. Dont take this the wrong way Scoble:

    here is the problem statement:

    Quora is a system for the curation of high quality high accuracy expertise.
    Scoble has no such deep area of expertise, he a communications evangelist, and as such, can’t comment directly of the topics of narrow, vertical interest to people seeking expert advice, and for experts seeking peer advice.

    It’s just not his thing. For the populist Web 2.0 neighborhoods, Scoble is a great enabler, like Loius Gray, although I prefer Louis over Robert Scoble anytime, and that is not personal, I don’t know Robert.

    For Quora, Robert Scoble, or more accurately, the Scoble effect, is like King Midas in reverse.

    • Thanks for the comment, Alan — I agree that Quora’s central focus has to be quality answers from people who know things. That’s not to say Robert doesn’t know things, because he does, but his opinions may not be as relevant as he would like them to be within the context of the kind of community Quora wants to create.

      • Don Saxton

        Defining relevancy is an ancient human problem. Some rules are easy to understand like when to cry wolf. I have couched users to the point that they left, which is not the desired effect. Scoble is receiving this public drubbing in part because he is such a public character. Banishing him to Elba is not the useful solution. The useful result is to find some way that relevancy rules are negotiated and clearly established. That hasn’t been easy in the last 100,000 years and there might not be an algorithm for it. It can take years for contributors to a Wikipedia article to agree on the most relevant wording. That always occurs after focus moves from personalities to actual subject at hand.

    • Yuvamani

      @Alan Interesting comment on the lines of Quora is a wikipedia.

      Firstly even in wikipedia, you do not have to be an “expert” to contribute. Just mine the information and refer to an expert source to back your assertion and you are good.

      So does that mean that I can only answer narrow focused questions which I am an expert in ? Even Wikipedia does not have such stringent rules.

      Scobles defence is that since he is a journalist he hears and over hears a lot of things which he contributes back to quora. Just like the wikipedia contributor who is referring to actual experts. Scoble’s answers are referring to experts who may not have the time to get on quora and answer questions.

      How is this wrong ? And what does it mean for quora …

  10. Erik Schwartz

    Quora is interesting because Steve Case answers questions about AOL and a slew of ex Yahoo’s discuss what went wrong there and when. There are people who were actually involved in the events being discussed shedding new light on how and why decisions were made.

    If Robert wants to chime in about PodTech or FastCompany it would be interesting. But he answered 400 questions in a month, how many of those companies was he DIRECTLY involved in? Quora is best when it’s about first hand experiences, it’s source material. It’s not about journalists or people who opine.

  11. Well articulated. I wonder how Quora is going to go mainstream without diluting the expertise it now enjoys. I see three threats, and you articulated the two biggest. Will the masses arrive and overwhelm the service with poor questions and poorer answers a la Yahoo Answers? Will a small number of social media mavens craft a disproportionate amount of Q/A and drown out other more expert voices? The third threat is spam, and I have the most confidence that they will solve that one.

    I appreciate that folks like Robert Scoble can promote the platform and give it a wider following, but I’d rather that niche questions are answered by experts, not media mavens.