Quora wants to go head-to-head with Wikipedia — and maybe Google too

If someone asked which web platform or service wants to organize all of the world’s knowledge, most people would probably say Google (s goog) — or possibly Wikipedia. Very few would likely put the question-and-answer site Quora in that category, but co-founder and CEO Adam D’Angelo wants to change that: in a blog post at the site, he says the company’s mission is to build an “internet-scale Library of Alexandria” by allowing anyone to share their knowledge on any topic. It’s an ambitious goal, to say the least — but does Quora have what it takes to actually get there?

In his post, D’Angelo reiterates Quora’s view that despite the size of the internet, the vast majority of usable information is still “trapped in people’s heads.” The idea of a site where anyone can ask anyone else a question about any topic was an attempt to extract some of that information — but D’Angelo makes it clear that Quora wants to do more. As he describes it:

“We hope to become an internet-scale Library of Alexandria, a place where hundreds of millions of people go to learn about anything and share everything they know. To do that we are going to have to expand. Today Quora is largely questions and answers, but that is not the ideal format for all knowledge. Other formats will gradually be added as we scale up.”

D’Angelo doesn’t mention what other formats this vision might include, but Quora’s founders have often talked about how the site was designed in part out of frustration that not enough internet users had blogs, either because they were too difficult to set up or required too much investment of time. Twitter is obviously one attempt to solve this problem — as are other platforms like Medium, the content startup founded by former Twitter CEO Evan Williams. Even Wikipedia has acknowledged the difficulty of getting people to contribute even small edits to articles.

If blogging is too hard, is Quora the solution?


Google+ is arguably an attempt to solve this problem as well: Google launched the social networking platform in part as a competitive thrust against Facebook, but also because it needed more ways of accumulating data from users about content, their preferences and recommendations, and so on — all of which it wants to feed into the giant maw of its search engine, as social activity becomes an increasingly important signalling factor in search results. And D’Angelo makes it clear this is the core of what Quora wants to become:

“The internet was supposed to allow anyone to set up a web page and share their knowledge with the world. But in practice it’s too difficult and takes too long and almost no one does it. Blogs are easy to start, but unless the author is famous, it takes years to build a following. More than a billion people use the internet yet only a tiny fraction contribute their knowledge to it.”

Does Quora have what it takes to solve this problem? A year or so ago, it was one of the hottest startups around, thanks in part to the resumes of its two co-founders — D’Angelo, who was the former chief technology officer at Facebook, and Charlie Cheever, who helped launch Facebook’s open platform. Although some saw the Q & A service as underwhelming at best, veteran blogger Robert Scoble at one point suggested it was “the biggest blogging innovation in 10 years” (although he later changed his mind on that). Cheever talked about how the site was trying hard to build a community around niche topics, and avoid some of the noise of previous attempts like Yahoo Answers.

Much has changed in the past year, however: Cheever left the company under somewhat mysterious circumstances (more than one observer noted that for a service that is all about asking and answering questions, there was very little information provided about Cheever’s departure). And Quora also stumbled badly when it introduced a feature mimicking Facebook’s “frictionless sharing,” which meant everyone could see which questions you had read — something many, including Om, didn’t like at all. The service later rolled that feature back based on user’s negative responses.

That said, the company managed to raise $50 million from a group of venture backers earlier this year, so it has enough spare change to embark on some of the expansion D’Angelo seems to be hinting at. Whether its ambitious vision translates into reality or not remains to be seen.