A perfect storm for Q&A site Quora

At one point considered threatened due to the arrival of Facebook Questions, the Q&A service has seen a remarkable uptick in usage over a matter of days. Why?

Caroline McCarthy Former Staff writer, CNET News
Caroline McCarthy, a CNET News staff writer, is a downtown Manhattanite happily addicted to social-media tools and restaurant blogs. Her pre-CNET resume includes interning at an IT security firm and brewing cappuccinos.
Caroline McCarthy
3 min read

They are rare moments in the dot-com world: when a service literally seems to burst with usage, real usage rather than just hype, after a period of comparative sleepiness.

The launch of Facebook's developer platform in mid-2007 led to a rush of new users on a service that hadn't yet convinced the world it was useful outside college campuses. Several months earlier, a relatively unknown messaging service called Twitter had suddenly become the talk of the technology world when the South by Southwest Interactive Festival in Austin, Texas, proved to be the perfect laboratory for its fledgling growth.

It looks like that may be happening yet again: the past week has seen an extraordinary amount of online chatter and new use surrounding Quora, a question-and-answer site co-founded by two early Facebook employees, Adam D'Angelo and Charlie Cheever, with users reporting litanies of new followers that they haven't seen since Twitter's youth. Does this spell a sunny, Twitter-like future for the young company--or, in other words, what exactly is going on?

"All of a sudden I'm getting a lot of Quora followers the last couple days, has it reached a tipping-point?" asked Twitter user Kyle Bradshaw.

"With all the tweets today about Quora I thought I'd give it a try!" declared another Twitter user, Joan Mikardos.

Here's the Quora story, in short: It's been a favorite of the Silicon Valley set since long before its public launch last June, due in large part to the fact that it's become a hub of discussion for industry elite--much like the early days of Twitter. The Quora Web site lists only 14 employees, with four of them (including Cheever and D'Angelo) listing Facebook as a past employer. Two others are ex-Googlers, and a third worked at Twitter. The company is backed by Benchmark Capital, where another ex-Facebooker, Matt Cohler, occupies the venture firm's seat on the Quora board of directors.

Yet Quora is very much the underdog; when it was still in private beta, Facebook launched its Q&A product, Facebook Questions, leading some to wonder whether it was trying to snuff out its ex-employees' start-up. Both companies offer a more groomed alternative to Q&A sites that are better known for strings of incoherent answers than clusters of good ones, and both focus on making existing questions easy to find and on emphasizing the "real" identity of the people asking and answering, resulting in their frequent classification as "social search" rather than just Q&A.

But in spite of the Facebook Questions behemoth, Quora is getting more rather than less buzz.

True, it had the gift of some positive year-end ink, with posts by TechCrunch, Fast Company, and the U.K.'s Guardian all highlighting it in the final days of 2010 and touting its potential. It's appeared on many "companies to watch in 2011" lists. But press alone is unlikely to generate such an enormous amount of activity. It's that second level of discussion and promotion that creates real usage--not "everyone's talking about it," but rather, "everyone's using it." It requires neither a download nor a smartphone, the way other hyped services like Foursquare do, potentially inflating the numbers of curious newcomers diving into its ranks.

And this buzz may be coming at the most opportune time for Quora to show off that it can be actually useful: It's less than a week after New Year's Day, which in many cultures means a time of goal-setting and a push for self-improvement. New visitors to Quora seeing its breadth of questions about workout plans, diets, and job advice may be drawn to it more than they would be otherwise.

Or it could have been boosted by something else entirely: as one respondent to a Quora query (what else?) about increased activity said, "I think it's because people are Googling the character Quorra from 'Tron,' and misspelling her name."

Quora representatives, perhaps bogged down by the spike in usage and attempting to keep their servers afloat, did not respond to a request for more information.