The Monday Morning Quarterback

The First Rule of Quora

The first rule of Quora is you do not talk about Quora. Because the second rule is that once you tell people about Quora, it will probably get spoiled.

Though it started on the web in 2010, I stumbled across Quora only a couple of weeks ago and I’ve been enthralled ever since. It’s a deep, dark, never-ending compendium of questions and answers on every topic. As an early adopter (I ran a Compuserve BBS back in the dark ages, and went to college with Steve Jobs) I think Quora leaves self-centered sites like Twitter and Pinterest in the dust. I love crowdsourced answer sites, from Aardvark to Yahoo Answers, and Quora is my favorite so far.

Want to know if Mitt Romney believes in dinosaurs? What are the predictions on the economy? Has the Dalai Lama ever played Clue? What is Angela Merkel up to in Bonn this week? When will Bette Midler perform again? Was The Wire better than The Sopranos? Should rich people be taxed more than poor people? Is plutonium the new hemlock? What’s that Chinese amusement park in Tibet all about? Why does Don Draper cheat? What happened to Cher’s face? Quora is one heck of a guilty pleasure. (America’s #1 guilty pleasure? Bacon.)

It’s like Wiki and Twitter hooked up and had a kid who went to Princeton. Like its ancestors, Quora is crowdsourced, meaning anyone can post questions or answers, and it’s up to the users to decide what is right and what needs to be modified. It’s much more dense though, and very easy to get lost. Quora itself is not helpful, and you can feel a little unwelcome on your first visit, but that’s part of its smarter-than-you charm. Quora can be a destination for a quick answer (Where’s the best pizza in town?) but it can also pull you in with its warm tentacles as questions lead to questions and the answers pile up like a car crash fog. (Is fog precipitation? No, fog is a cloud that can produce precipitation.)

Forget following Ellen Barkin’s foul-mouthed rants on Twitter – though she’s very good, especially when a cab driver ticks her off – and forget those Facebook “friends” you haven’t seen since high school. And don’t even mention all those people you’ve never met who want your recommendation on LinkedIn. When it comes to social media, Quora may be the real thing. It’s benign, brainy and addictive.

And now that you know about it, it’s probably going to become really popular. And once it gets really popular, it will have to deal with encroaching commercialism, and that will mean more rules and … all of a sudden People will be covering Quora’s storybook wedding. (Who created Quora? Adam D’Angelo, 2006 CalTech grad and former Facebook employee.)

The reason I’m writing about it at all is because a perfectly nice reporter named Virginia Heffernan broke the first rule of Quora and wrote about it the other day. Her article went viral, every news source heralded the “un-Twitter” and Quora membership mushroomed. (What’s the most expensive mushroom in the world? Top-grade Cordyceps, selling in the U.S. for $100 a pound.)

Quora is really fun. You can search for any topic, ask any question, and when you feel capable, you can answer questions too. On my first visit, I encountered this question: “What is the essential Elvis Costello album?” Some elitist fool (a Rolling Stone writer at that) answered Blood and Chocolate. Well, sure, if you’re talking about later, post-punk, post-rehab Elvis, and not even considering his vital, Hall of Fame-worthy first two albums, My Aim is True and This Year’s Model. So I had to answer. It was necessary. Essential Elvis Costello listening must include albums with The Angels Want to Wear My Red Shoes and High Fidelity. This is Quora, after all.

My submission enabled me to join a legion of much more famous Quora-spondents, including past Secretaries of the Treasury and current Harvard professors. There are a few heads of state in there, several astronauts, a whole bunch of venture capitalists, scientists, theologians and politicians of all stripes. I agree with Ms. Heffernan: a visit to Quora is what it must be like to spend a weekend at Martha’s Vineyard.

Till recently, Quora had an average daily viewership of just over 160,000. That’s sure to double, triple, and before you know it, there will be Bieber postings. Oh wait, there already are. The question, “Why is Justin Bieber so popular?” is answered by former teen magazine editor Jyll Saskin, who writes:

His explosion in popularity isn’t solely due to his singing chops. He has been very active on social networks, especially Twitter, since before his rise to fame. As a result, his fans all feel like they truly know him, like they created him, so they feel personally invested in his success because “he cares about them.”

Thank you, Jyll, that explains a lot. The kid can sing, and he’s exploited technology. He’s like Sinatra.

As I write this, there were these great questions:

Could the earthquakes in New Zealand and Japan affect the likelihood of a quake along the San Andreas fault? (Answer: not necessarily.)

Why do the Glee Cheerios cheerleaders wear their uniforms all the time? (Answer: it allows the cheerleaders to feel superior to others and attracts straight 18-39 male viewers.)

What about Mexico’s recent election? (Answer: Mexicans are worried, but hope change brings good things.)

Is the newly discovered subatomic particle actually “Higgs Boson”? (Answer: probably.)

What happened to Cher’s face? (Answer: she tried to turn back time.)

So there you have it. Quora is the next big thing. Now that you and a thousand others know about it, Quora is going to explode. It will grow larger, more labyrinthine and probably much more popular. That will be a bit of a shame, because it won’t be quite as fun as it is right now, when only 160,000 daily users and I indulge ourselves and respect the first rule of Quora: there is no Quora.

– Art Reker, Account and Creative Executive