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).

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