In three posts last week, I considered how buzzy Q&A website Quora is more like Wikipedia than not. In this post, I’ll address how the different organizations behind them may affect the communities surrounding each.
For all of Quora’s upbeat talk about wanting to become “the best place” for answering questions on any conceivable topic, it is first and foremost a for-profit enterprise, and one allegedly worth somewhere between $300 million and $1 billion. It’s not hard to imagine how outside pressures (such as those from investors) might eventually force Quora to choose between the best thing for its community’s experience and the best thing for its financial well-being.
In fact, this probably has already discouraged one type of editor: the free culture / free software crowd, who helped build Wikipedia. One would think these folks might otherwise be interested in building a universal repository of information—but not if it’s a closed system. As we’ve seen in the unhapphiness of some Huffington Post bloggers following that site’s sale to AOL, one needn’t be a close follower of Richard Stallman to have questions about spending a lot of time helping to build a resource that may never produce a monetary return. Now, I am not saying those complaining about HuffPo are right, or discounting that participation on such platforms can be rewarding for non-monetary reasons. But it’s something Quora will have to look out for.
A good example involves an incident well-known at Wikipedia where, in the site’s early years, a significant number of editors on Wikipedia’s nascent Spanish-language edition decamped over such concerns. Among several reasons for the split, the most significant involved a suggestion (not even a real proposal) that Wikipedia would pay the bills by selling ads on the website. At the time, Wikipedia belonged to a private company owned by Jimmy Wales, and its url was www.wikipedia.com. So they left and started a competitor, Enciclopedia Libre Universal. The Spanish-language Wikipedia eventually recovered and outpaced its rival, but not for several years. (Wikipedians call this the “Spanish Fork”; for more information see this Jauary 2011 interview and Andrew Lih’s book, The Wikipedia Revolution.)
It probably doesn’t matter whether Quora might one day include advertising, because these types of editors would never have showed up in the first place. Let’s imagine, just for the moment, that they did open up advertising. One way or another, that would end up influencing content, which would be hard to reconcile with their stated goal that “each question page become the best possible resource for someone who wants to know about the question.” Even if advertising didn’t influence content, it would inevitably interfere with it.
A handy comparison is Twitter: a few years back, one of it co-founders inadvisably pledged the site would “never” have advertising. They came up with a clever solution in Promoted Tweets, but there are still backlashes in store, like the one this past weekend over the “quickbar” added to Twitter’s iPhone app. And remember, the question here is not whether Quora will alienate participants so much they all leave—but whether enough disengage or never show up to keep it from competing with Wikipedia for mindshare in a serious way.
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Of course, it must be acknowledged that Wikipedia’s being a non-profit foundation (taking over for Wales’ dot com in 2003) comes with its own drawbacks. Late last year, many readers expressed displeasure with the months-long banner campaign featuring Wales and others “begging” for money. But they say this about NPR, too. And while its listeners put up with it (even as they sometimes put in for it) there is a huge audience of people who like neither the content nor the management, and stay away.
One thing about being a hot new startup does help Quora: it has a dedicated design team actively working on the site design, and can make decisions more quickly. Wikipedia often struggles to make big changes, and with implementation of Flagged revisions or the debate over paid editing, disagreement can lead to paralysis and a default to the status quo.
At the moment, which is better remains a philosophical question: Wikipedia’s open and free nature vs. Quora’s closed and proprietary model. If you think that sounds like an easy question, consider the debate between Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android. The two operating systems are currently very competitive, and it’s an open question which will pull ahead. Applications within Apple’s closely-regulated App Store are far more reliable and considered to be of higher quality than those within Google’s open app marketplace.
For any number of reasons, this may not be a great analogy for discussing Wikipedia and Quora. But consider how competitive the Android platform might be if it had debuted not one year after Apple’s iPhone but ten years. If Quora had launched at the beginning of the 2000s instead of its end, we might be talking about a very different competition. Right now, it is difficult to see how Quora can close the gap (more like a vast gulf) between itself and Wikipedia. At least, it won’t happen anytime soon.
But perhaps the Wikipedia comparison is setting the bar too high. Quora is an interesting platform, and I don’t see why it needs to achieve a Wikipedia-like ubiquity to become useful. It certainly needs to displace Yahoo! Answers, and it needs to start showing up in Google search results. If its community continues to grow and build out its content in areas that Wikipedia doesn’t want to cover, then it just might have a chance. The philosophical difference is resolvable only with data: as Quora develops in months and years to come, we’ll see how it stacks up. I’ll still be spending most of my time on Wikipedia, both as a reader and an editor. But if I can’t find it there, my next stop will definitely be Quora.
Follow me on Quora, if you are so inclined.