Some answers pooh-pooh the notion that Quora is social networking—as does Quora itself. To which I say, pooh-pooh right back atcha. If you want to use a Q&A site with no social networking frippery, you use Stack Exchange. And Quora is not Stack Exchange.
(Even though, ironically, Stack Exchange has much better gamification than Quora does.)
Some answers also point out that Quora is not immune to social media stupidity, which indeed it isn’t—though I don’t know that I long for the Elder Days of Quora, when you could get any question you wanted answered on Quora, as long as it was about venture capital. There is an Eternal September phenomenon on Quora, but I certainly don’t want to go back to the Internet of 1993.
So, Quora does indeed attract a higher proportion of smart people than other social networking sites do. Why is that?
I nominate three factors.
Early Hubris. Quora was founded with unsustainable hubris. It was going to be the go-to destination for anyone of woman born that ever had a question. It was going to have the best answer to any question. It was going to replace Wikipedia. It was eventually going to replace Google.
I’m not making this shit up. Look at some of the early stuff D’Angelo was writing.
That was nonsense, and it was nonsense that it took a long time for Quora management to walk back from. (It has, mercifully; D’Angelo now talks about the best-informed opinions, rather than the best facts.) But the mission that Quora set out for itself attracted smart people, because they were interested in giving those best answers. Even if at the very start Quora had a very narrow focus, it soon broadened enough that a critical mass of smart people were contributing to it.
And of course, even before that, the hype. Oh, the hype. The hype made it clear that Quora was where smart people would hang out and give smart answers. That perception of Quora has endured to this day; not without justification, although the other two factors are what have ensured that it remains justified. Jennifer Edeburn and I have independently defined Quora as Facebook For Smart People. (I think Jennifer’s daughter’s term was Geek Facebook?) The infamous article How to Get Thousands of Leads from Quora in Five Months defines Quora as “a question-and-answer site and community for intellectuals to voice their opinions—think Yahoo Answers but with actual good advice.”
Network Effects. Smart content begets smart content. Once a critical mass of smart content is there, smart people will notice it in their googlings (or however else they come to be aware of Quora), start reading what they find interesting, and eventually start contributing more of the same.
And the much-pooh-pooh’d social networking frippery is what keeps them here. Absent the gamification of Stack Exchange, or the professional reach Stack Overflow already has within that stable, social networking frippery was always going to be how it keeps them here. Even if D’Angelo allegedly wanted to do away with comments.
Then again, I’m not sure it matters what D’Angelo or Cheever (remember him?) originally had in mind. I’m happy that Quora exists alongside Stack Exchange, rather than as the more bombastic duplicate of it.
Good Content Curation. There is much about how Quora is run that I have little time for, as those who have been reading me know. Quora Design? Runs around in circles, and accidentally generates 20% of Quora content, through people asking how to do things now that the UX has changed. Quora Moderation? The unseen 90% of what it does makes this a better place. The seen 10% of what it does deserves all the vituperation it gets. Quora Community Curation? What Quora Community Curation? It takes a little more than a Patagonia Jacket to sustain a community, rather than having your best writers repeatedly feel fungible and flee.
But Content Curation: that the bots do well. Good answers really do float to the top of the answers to any given question. They do get exposure. The topic bot is stupid, but not so stupid or resistant to community topic gnoming that it doesn’t generate real value. (QCR is another matter.)
As a result, when you come to Quora, you see smart people’s smart content quickly, and you often have to hunt to see dumb people’s dumb content. (The multiple iterations of comment redesign have been an attempt at this as well, though a rather more brutish one.) That makes it obvious to newcomers that there is smart content to be had here, and if they happen to be smart, it motivates them to stay.