Can Quora Survive Its Growing Popularity?

Updated: If you’re a web service, especially a young startup, you want to get as many users as possible, right? But there are worse things than having a small number of users — particularly when the service you are offering depends on the quality of the content provided by those users. Quora, the red-hot Q&A site that has been growing at a dramatic rate over the past few months, finds itself in that position now: The site depends on high-quality answers, and has deliberately kept things small in order to cultivate a knowledgeable community. But can it keep those virtues when membership is exploding and not everyone wants to play by the rules?

Early on in its growth, Quora — which was launched early last year by former Facebook CTO Adam D’Angelo and fellow Facebooker Charlie Cheever — made it clear it wanted to remain small in order to cultivate a community that would be different from, and better than, other web services by keeping out trolls and focusing on positive behavior. Call it the “Yahoo Answers” (s yhoo) problem; that service, while similar in approach, suffers from an overwhelming supply of stupid questions and equally stupid answers. Cheever told Liz Gannes: “Our No. 1 thing is knowledge that people trust,” said Cheever. “Being a resource trumps making people feel good about themselves.”

To try to build up a core of high-quality content and users, the site remained in invitation-only beta before opening up to all users in June of last year. The quality of answers is noticeable: Questions have been asked and answered by Silicon Valley luminaries such as Netscape founder and VC Marc Andreessen, Facebook co-founder Dustin Moskovitz, and even AOL founder Steve Case (s aol). In an interview with me in November, Charlie Cheever talked about the kind of community Quora was trying to create, and how he and others at the site spent a lot of time thinking about how to encourage good behavior, and how to handle the inevitable disputes over unacceptable questions and answers.

Such challenges, however, become exponentially harder as a community grows larger and more diverse, which is exactly what has been happening to Quora over the past few weeks. Ever since a number of high-profile blog posts and events drew attention to the service in late-December, membership has been climbing rapidly — something you can (naturally) read all about in a response to a question on Quora itself. Some users, including me, have seen their email inboxes overwhelmed with hundreds of follows every day for the past two or three weeks — in part because the site auto-follows all your Facebook and Twitter friends when you sign up. Although Quora won’t say exactly how many users it has, it likely has more than double or triple the number it did a month ago.

Quora cofounder Charlie Cheever

There are obvious challenges on the technical side when it comes to that kind of growth — as Twitter found in its early years — but even more than that, there are substantial moderation challenges if you want to maintain a certain atmosphere and community ethic, as Cheever and D’Angelo clearly do. Questions have to be read and edited, and rules have to be enforced. Just this week alone, several corporations, including the Huffington Post, set up Quora accounts, but Cheever confirmed to me that the rules of the site — at least for now — allow for personal accounts only. I’ve also come across accounts with fake names, another problem that social networks of all kinds have to contend with.

Then there are the kinds of behavior Quora wants to encourage. A user named Lucretia Pruitt got hundreds of up-votes for a post she made instructing new users in the proper conduct — but while many up-votes came from Quora staff, other users responded negatively to what they saw as a lecture, and disputed some of the recommendations. Alex Blagg, founder of a social-marketing site called BajillionHits, got into an argument on Twitter about the fact that his humorous answer to a question was being threatened with removal, and others have criticized the moderation on the site as well. These incidents bring up a central issue for Quora: How much of a site’s standards do you let the users themselves determine, and how much do you impose?

Some users are already complaining about the decline in quality on the site as traffic increases, while others are afraid this will happen soon. That said, there are lots of high-quality communities online that are going through, or have gone through, the same thing Quora has — from Slashdot and Metafilter to newer communities such as StackOverflow and Y Combinator’s Hacker News. It’s not an easy transition to make, and many services have failed to overcome what Robert Scoble calls the “chatroom problem,” or fallen into the “trough of disillusionment,” as Gartner likes to call it. Quora may someday wish it had remained small and exclusive.

Update: Charlie Cheever has written a Quora post (members of the site can write posts to all their followers as well as asking questions) about the efforts that the service is making to maintain a high level of quality, which he says the company is “deeply committed to.” The site has added a quiz and some tips on how to phrase questions, which is now shown to all new members (screenshot below), and Cheever says that it also plans to improve the “voting ranking mechanisms” for answers, as well as “special tools to support the efforts of reviewers and admins to improve the site and maintain civility.”

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Post and thumbnail photo courtesy of Flickr user Steve Jurvetson