For Quora, the Community Is Everything

Charlie Cheever, a co-founder of hot startup Quora, doesn’t really like the word “community” that much, for a number of reasons. Whatever he chooses to call it, building one is at the core of what he is trying to do with Quora, along with his co-founder and fellow Facebook alumnus Adam D’Angelo, the social network’s former chief technology officer. The startup has raised $11 million from Benchmark Capital (among others), but Cheever said in an interview with me that the company has no real interest in monetizing the community it has built so far around questions and answers. “We’re not really focused on making money right now,” he said. “I think if we can solve the problem we are trying to solve, we will find a way to make money.”

What problem is Quora is trying to solve? Cheever says that while there is a huge volume of information already online — and terabytes more added every day — he and D’Angelo are trying to get at “the 90 percent of information that isn’t on the Internet yet, because it’s in people’s heads.” Quora’s mission, he says, is to get those thoughts on the Internet “and get it in front of people who care about it.” The best way to do that, he believes, is to create “a civil place on the Internet where people can interact” and be able to ask and answer interesting questions.

Other sites are also going after the same prize in different ways: StackExchange is a platform based on StackOverflow, the tech-focused Q&A site, which is being rolled out to address more topics, and is backed by Union Square Ventures (whose most prominent partner, Fred Wilson, spoke highly of Quora in a recent interview with GigaOM). A recently launched legal Q&A site called LawPivot has been described as a “Quora for legal questions,” and Kommons is another newly launched startup that wants to crowd-source questions to ask public figures via Twitter and the web.

So far, Quora has been able to do a fairly good job of keeping its interactions high-quality, something the startup paid a lot of attention to while it was in invite-only beta. (It opened to the public in June.) But will it be able to maintain that level of quality as it scales and becomes more widely used? Even Cheever isn’t sure — but he says the company is determined to try. One of the ways it’s trying to do this is by selecting moderators from the community who can help users and also referee disputes that arise over how Quora’s “ideal society” (as Liz called it in an earlier post) should function.

In one recent incident, for example, a Quora user posted a response to a question about whether users of the site were “borderline Aspies” — in other words, showed signs of Asperger Syndrome. Though the response was thoughtful and inoffensive, a moderator deleted it, and Cheever later got involved in a discussion about how moderators and admins do their jobs at Quora. “There are times where things come up that we haven’t dealt with before, and we have to figure out with our users how to deal with it,” Cheever said. “We want to be as open as possible about what we’re doing and what the policies are.”

Even Wikipedia — which Cheever says Quora has looked to as a model of how to create a community around “user-generated content” — has had its own growing pains involving its community, and the rules that govern who can edit pages. That kind of backlash is one of the reasons that Cheever doesn’t really like the word “community.” While it has lots of good overtones of real-world communities, he says, it can also have a more negative connotation: something closer to an exclusive club, where only certain people are allowed in. Within reason, Cheever says that Quora wants to appeal to as broad a cross-section of people as possible. Unlike Wikipedia, which often removes topics because they aren’t deemed “notable” enough, Quora wants as broad a selection of topics as well.

A stroll through the site shows questions ranging from thoughtful queries about the inside workings of Facebook and what are some of the hot Silicon Valley startups that are most likely to fail, to esoteric questions such as “What is the best way to track my APM in StarCraft II,” which Cheever himself posted an answer to. The Quora founder says he now spends three to four hours a day, not just answering questions on the site, but also, helping guide users and oversee responses in cases like the Asperger question, where policies need to be adapted or developed.

For now, Quora feels like a really fascinating series of conversations you might overhear while wandering through a particularly popular — but very civilized — bar or restaurant in San Francisco or Palo Alto, Calif. The company’s real challenge will be to maintain that civil society even as it scales beyond the core group of like-minded users who, until recently, provided the bulk of activity on the site. And what about competitors such as Facebook’s own Questions feature, which many took as a direct shot at the startup run by two prominent former employees? “We don’t really talk about that much,” Cheever said. “I don’t even know what Facebook Questions is like, really.”

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Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr user Adam Kazwell