Here’s a nice summary from Beth Kanter to catch you up if you haven’t checked it out yet. Read that first, particularly the section on her first impressions.
It’s a Q&A service. You post a question, you get answers. But (for now) the answers that I’ve seen are professional, not “social” in the way throwing out a question on Facebook and getting lots of jokey answers is social. In terms of culture, think LinkedIn (minus the recruiter spam), not Facebook.
The site is very actively moderated, so the questions have to be asked in a particular way, so it’s not personal to the questioner, and so it’s not a yes/no answer. From the question guidelines, the goal is to: ”Make the site a great resource for people who want to learn. Try to write questions in a way that leads to reusable, helpful question pages, and answers that are useful to users who have those questions. Improve things that you think could be better. Avoid doing things that make question pages harder to understand, or less useful to people who have those questions. Don’t be afraid to do things that you think could make Quora a better resource.” Some people are complaining that their questions are being modified to the point where it’s not the same question (which is a valid point) but generally speaking I am absolutely FOR the service wanting to maintain a particular “style guide” and level of value to the questions posed.
(Quick point about the questioner’s name not being shown – I LOVE this. This means that everyone has an equal chance of getting good answers to their well-posed question. You can evaluate answers based on who wrote them; but you can’t ignore questions based on not knowing the author (or conversely, follow the same people all the time. This echo chamber is becoming a huge issue in the social media space).)
It’s therefore about the social object – which is a HUGE factor in the success of any Open Community, of course. In this case, the social object is any particular question you are following, which you can talk to others about. You can rate answers up or down, you can thank the answerer, you can comment on the question. That question can lead you to other related questions, as well as point you to other people who are interested in (or subject matter experts in) that particular topic.
It’s also therefore all about the long tail, which means it POTENTIALLY could have huge value (or be disruptive to) associations, which are by definition niche.
It has a great serendipity factor. I love how Beth puts it:
“Serendipity and Pivot Browsing: The site uses tags to categorize and link questions or what is known as pivot browsing which is the ability to reorient the page view by clicking on tags or user names or questions and it provides a lightweight mechanism to navigate a collection of objects. You can use any of those links to look around you. You can change direction at any moment. It is less structured and more free form than browsing traditional hierarchies. Rashmi Sinha uses this metaphor for pivot browsing: walking in the forests or some other open space, stopping to smell the pine, taking a break. You get the lay of the land as you walk around. The point is not just the destination, the point is the journey itself or serendipity.”
Now obviously the quality depends on some critical mass, even when we’re talking about niches, so there’s not too much on there right now that is very specifically association-related, but if this takes off and becomes more and more popular among professionals, this could explode. I think it might specifically explode PRECISELY because it does NOT have all the “social stuff” that people seem to be getting very tired of (the “not another social network” syndrome). You can dig right into topics without connecting to anyone.
You can follow people (initially based on your connecting the site with your Facebook or Twitter accounts) and they can follow you; but this is NOT a social network. Following people you already know is a serendipity engine for seeing what topics they follow. This can help you get started, but it can also help you be on the pulse of what people are talking about in your industry.
From another standpoint, I love that people are already thinking about it from different angles. To me that’s another signpoint for a successful open community, that it allows for potentially messy evolution. Here’s an example: a great post from Lara McCulloch-Carter (@ready2spark) about how to think about Quora from the event planning point of view.
My very early verdict? I’m starting to think Quora is really pretty awesome. And potentially awesome for associations and nonprofits. Bearing in mind the fact that my interest is in social media, and obviously there is a lot of content in that topic area to wander around in, here are a few examples of things that caught my interest just this morning.
Exhibit a: a question about what defines social media expertise – a topic that comes up a lot for me and a group of social media consultant friends who are constantly battling the snake oil factor – I expected ranting (on both sides of the issue) but was surprised by thoughtful and intelligent answers from people who know their stuff. (Of course, there are 6 new answers in the hour since I read it first, so that can always change!)
Exhibit b: “Which startups are hiring in the SF Bay area?” – this question has a ton of responses about companies currently hiring, including Appmakr (my fave app developer), Quora itself, Foursquare, Eventbrite, Square, Bump, Stumbleupon… – this is like an instant snapshot of the state of social media tools.
Exhibit c: A question about the Google Me rumors. This was tweeted out by Jeremiah Owyang this morning, and it has a really interesting set of answers not just about whether people think it’s true or not, but all the reasons why and thoughts about what it will look like.
Exhibit d: Is Radian6 worth the money? Interestingly, this is posted under the nonprofit topic. There’s a good range of responses but here’s somewhere I could potentially add an answer based on my own expertise. I can also vote up or down others’ answers – like if I see someone “pimping” R6 without disclosing their relationship (just an analogy btw).
Exhibit e: I like the way answers can be summarized (here’s a good example – what are the best blogs about data?) so you don’t actually need to scroll through everything if you’re looking for a quick answer to something.
Now whether you are interested in such topics or not, I hope this gives you a little feel for how this COULD work if the questions you were tracking were relevant to your own industry. I’ve only been on Quora for a few days, so this is just my very first impression.