Quora, the question and answer site that quickly became the darling of Silicon Valley, aims to become an Internet-scale Library of Alexandria, according to an end-of-the-year post on the company’s blog.
In their mission statement, the site’s CEO Adam D’Angelo says he hopes that the site will become the place where hundreds of millions of people will go to learn and share their knowledge.
If I were a cynic, I’d say that he’s one more founder who wants to jump on the MOOC bandwagon.
Quantity over quality.
To give you some background on the service: Quora started as a very restrictive community, mostly comprised of people who are part of the Silicon Valley ecosystem. Founders, developers and investors participated in very interesting discussions, and you could actually find really good advice there.
And I think this was a crucial part of Quora’s early success. Limiting the site to quite a small but well-connected audience that shared the same interest in technology and startups was somewhat the magic ingredient here. Opening the service up to more people held the risk of watering down the experience. Also, the so-called early adopters who bring most of the value in the early stages of a platform tend to move on when the room gets too crowded. You can see this phenomenon happen over and over again.
Back in the day, Twitter used to be a fairly small group of early adopters. There were a lot of interesting dialogues going on, and the moment the service got popular, this group felt that it was time to move on. For some time, this new haven was Quora, then Path; now it might be app.net. It’s a simple math equation — the more people are participating, the higher the risk of low quality content, annoying Internet marketers, stupidity, and trolls.
Of course, I understand that in order to build a viable (profitable) product, a platform needs as many users as possible. But if this means that you have to sacrifice quality over quantity, especially in an education vertical, I see trouble ahead.. especially if D’Angelo is now talking about building a platform that not only aims to provide hundreds of millions of people with knowledge, but also wants to enable them to share their knowledge.
If Wikipedia did not succeed, why should Quora?
First of all, wasn’t that the idea of Wikipedia in the first place? Everybody knows how few people are actually participating in adding knowledge to the site. Sure, there is the problem that Wikipedia is known for its rather oppressive culture that makes it hard for “outsiders” to participate, but still, even with a more open community and a better interface, I doubt that the number of people participating would grow significantly. And as you can see from the obligatory end-of-year message to donate and support Wikipedia, most users who profit from the site are not even willing to cough up $10. Now, if Wikipedia (which is, I would argue, an integral part of our digital society) hasn’t found a way to get people involved in sharing their knowledge, why would Quora succeed here?
Second of all, the comparison with the Library of Alexandria is a bit far-fetched. Yes, the mission was to collect all knowledge available at the time, but the system itself was also quite restrictive. Not just any book could be added to the catalog, and not just any person got the chance to work there. It was a very elite group of people. Which brings us back to the cradle of Quora.
I don’t think the learning part is the issue here. It is pretty easy to open up the platform to a read-only audience and make the content searchable from outside. The issue is to get quality content in forms of questions and answers (or other means), which is apparently on the road map. In the mission statement D’Angelo states that:
“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.”
Sounds pretty much like a MOOC to me.
Do we really need more educational content?
But to me the real question is: do we really need more content / knowledge on the Internet? Part of D’Angelo’s argument is that most knowledge is still not available on the Internet today. It is locked in the minds of great people or in books, magazines and other outlets that most people don’t have access to. But my take is that this happens for a reason.
The knowledge that is locked away is, quite often, copyrighted material that publishers don’t want to have out there in the wild. Scientific magazines want their subscribers to pay for the issues, not access them on a free platform. The list goes on.
Apart from that, I think that there is a huge amount of knowledge on the Internet we don’t even know about. It is simply buried under tons of noise and every piece of content that is added every second. Therefore to me, one of the major works that needs to be done is curation, not shovelling more (and often duplicate) content on top of it.
One year ago, I wrote a post titled “The Answers Are Out There – What We Need are the Questions” in which I showcased two startups that aim to curate the content already available and turn it into online courses. This week, Learnist, an offspring of Grockit raised $20 million for its “Pinterest for Education” service that also offers a platform for experts to curate existing content in the form of short lessons or courses.
Of course, it is hard to say what strategy is eventually behind a mission statement, but I don’t see what Quora could do differently from existing educational platforms especially, when we take into consideration that the success of the platform is based on limitation and restrictiveness.
First published on edcetera – straight talk on edtech