What is Quora? A simple guide to social media’s new darling

quoraQuora is something of a mystery. For some reason, it’s become an Internet phenom, regarded by industry professionals as many times more legitimate than your run of the mill Q&A sites, but still unpretentious enough to seek out more than purely academic content and personnel. In reality, the site is just a series of questions with a community consensus on answers. So why is it suddenly the apple of Silicon Valley’s eye? We take a look at the enigmatic site, and where it’s going.

Quora’s origins

A private beta version of Quora was launched in 2009 by founders Adam D’Angelo and Charlie Cheever, both former Facebook execs. Quora is based around the idea that people don’t only want to share information about themselves (a la Facebook), but also want to share knowledge.

Last year, Quora received as much as $11 million from venture firm Benchmark capital and analysts estimate it’s current valuation is approximately $300 million. Now, it’s becoming what Ask Jeeves never had a chance of being: A legitimate, question-answer system with its ear specifically tuned to all things tech and geek related. In an interview with GigaOm, Cheever said he wants Quora to serve as a Wikipedia for all the topics that the open encyclopedia finds unimportant.

Who’s using Quora, and how

Obviously, everyone is able to create an account and use Quora – but some of those users happen to be particularly notable in the digital media industry. AOL founder Steve Case is an active user, and Mark Zuckerberg even has a profile (though he’s only asked five questions and answered none). Bloggers and writers from publications like The Wall Street Journal and Business Insider are consistently contribute to the site – even though how some of them are using it is controversial.

Business Insider writer and longtime industry expert Robert Scoble has been less than shy about his feelings for Quora. He loves it. He’s one of the most active users on the site. Scoble was recently criticized for abusing the site and turning it into his personal soap box (don’t worry, he repented).

Interestingly enough, he was called out by TechCrunch’s Michael Arrington (who, we realize, has a flair for argument), whose own site unabashedly loves Quora and makes no secret of using it as a resource. They aren’t the only ones: Many industry writers and bloggers use Quora for content generation, which, from a certain angle, seems equivalent to a day spent hovering around the tech world water cooler. It raises the question: If the people answering the questions on Quora (which include the likes of Google engineers, Facebook product managers, and App Store developers) are reputable sources, are their answers akin to interviews? There’s been incredibly interesting commentary on everything from Google’s muddled social project to technology’s unicorn, the White iPhone. When a user asked what Dustin Moskovitz thought of The Social Network, Moskovitz himself provided the answer.

But part of Quora’s appeal is that it’s an open forum, and sometimes things can be misconstrued – and motivation isn’t always clear. Companies are more than able to add anonymous intrigue to questions concerning their upcoming products, and scorned employees welcome to provide one-sided narratives.

Really, at its core, Quora is a society of tech and digital enthusiasts who want to talk about the industry and indulge their own curiosities. And its members, founders, and employees are so tremendously protective of it that you either play by Quora’s rules, or you walk yourself over to the wasteland known as Yahoo Answers.

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