For Quincy Larson, the lightbulb moment when he realized the power of Quora came during a trip to New York City in May 2015. It certainly wasn’t the first time he’d encountered the QandA platform. That had come much earlier when he was working as a software engineer and, as engineers invariably do when they encounter problems they’ve never seen before, turned to Google to troubleshoot. Time and again he’d find himself landing on Quora articles (or rather, “answers,” as they’re referred to on the site) written by seasoned engineers and successful entrepreneurs. “I was impressed by how high quality the answers were,” he told me in a phone interview. “If you look at other question-and-answer sites like Yahoo Answers or Answers.com, their answers just seem very throwaway compared to Quora. People seem to put immense thought into what they’re writing, almost from a journalistic or literary approach.”
At one point Larson came across an answer he liked so much that he created an account just so he could upvote it. Once he’d joined, he began piping in with answers of his own, which at first were mostly ignored. This didn’t surprise him considering that the site boasted answers from people like Craig Newmark and Jimmy Wales. What value could he offer when he was competing with the founder of Wikipedia?
That all changed during his New York trip. “I had won a hackathon and the prize for winning was a trip to the U.N. building,” he recalled. “And while we were in our hotel I remember getting a lot of notifications from Quora. One of the answers I’d written about a month or two before was suddenly getting attention — a lot of upvotes and comments.” The question he was answering, on which programming languages one should learn in 2015, was somewhat controversial and spurred a vibrant discussion. It received over 500 upvotes and 80,000 views. “That gave me confidence knowing that you don’t have to be the founder of Wikipedia in order to get people to upvote your answers. A normal person could potentially build a reputation as a power user. It was a big revelation for me.”
Larson immediately began spending more time and effort on Quora, often up to several hours on a single answer. The work has paid off; some of his most popular answers attract hundreds of thousands of views and he’s amassed over 13,000 followers. To date, his answers have cumulatively generated more than 14 million views. He is certainly among Quora’s most powerful users.
Launched in 2010 by two former Facebook engineers, Quora made an immediate splash, garnering hundreds of press mentions. Early adopters, many from the Bay Area, flocked to the site, which promised to one day be an information repository like no other — a Wikipedia on steroids. With its requirement that users log in with their real names and its Silicon Valley sleekness, Quora would succeed where other QandA sites failed. “If Quora can fulfill its vision—getting experts to engage in its rollicking conversation and thus generate searchable and authoritative answers to thousands upon thousands of questions—then it may someday grab more pageviews than Wikipedia by filling in the gaps that no encyclopedia could ever address,” wrote Wired in 2011.
After that initial spate of press, it mostly stayed under the radar as networks like Twitter, Facebook, and Snapchat grabbed all the headlines. Despite the lack of coverage, however, the platform continued to grow its userbase, attracting answers from some of the most famous tech moguls ranging from Marc Andreessen to Jimmy Wales. Ashton Kutcher has answered dozens of questions on Quora and even President Barack Obama has stopped by to offer his thoughts on topics ranging from the Affordable Care Act to the Iran nuclear deal. And then in March, the company announced that it had reached 100 million monthly visitors, a 20 percent jump since just two months prior.
But why? After I read through several of the most popular answers on Quora, it seemed clear that highly-accomplished, skilled professionals — doctors, lawyers, programmers, VCs — were dedicating significant amounts of time and resources into providing helpful answers on the platform. As someone who produces content for a living and has devoted a large amount of my own time writing for networks like LinkedIn and Medium, I was curious as to what Quora had to offer its writers that they couldn’t get on much larger platforms. And so I reached out to several of its power users, people who have amassed millions of views to their answers and spent countless hours imparting their knowledge for the world to read.
For Larson, he sees a direct impact on his career. A little over a year ago he started Free Code Camp, an open source community platform for teaching people to code. Based on the referral traffic logged by Google Analytics, his website sees a substantial amount of traffic coming directly from Quora. “A big part of Quora’s value is that it allows me to reassure people that I know what I’m talking about and that I’m up to date on this stuff,” he said. “Free Code Camp has a curriculum and people are dedicating thousands of hours of working through it, so they want to make sure that I’m not some random joker that threw it together and doesn’t know what he’s talking about. For me it’s definitely useful to reinforce that we’re serious about this and that we’re focused on it.”
There was a consistent theme all the Quora users I spoke to mentioned: quality. In recent years, one news publication after another has ditched its reader comments section after finding it unmanageable and of low quality. It seems almost cliche at this point to note that most internet conversation devolves into racist demagoguery or, at best, off-topic non sequiturs. This rule is so pervasive that stumbling upon a community that somehow defies this rule can be like inhaling a breath of fresh air. Jeff Meyerson had worked as a professional poker player before pursuing a career as a software engineering, and back during his poker days he would frequent a forum called Two Plus Two. “They were these highly intellectual, meritocratic forums where poker players would discuss how to play the game on a professional level,” he told me. “And the calibre of conversation and intellectual maturity that people rose to on Quora was something I hadn’t encountered on an online forum since Two Plus Two. It was a really exciting experience to find a community like that once again.”
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Meyerson started answering poker-related questions on Quora, benefiting from the fact that there were few other users who understood that niche. But as he got more serious about his tech career he began branching off into other subjects, answering questions about mobile development and investing in marijuana businesses. Occasionally he even got to combine his interests, like when he answered a question about what lessons from playing poker can be applied to software engineering. Over a span of 629 answers he’s amassed 6,000 followers and 1.6 million views.
The time spent answering questions is worth it, said Meyerson, because of the opportunities for brand building and personal connections. “I’ve made some extremely close friends through Quora,” he said. “If I really needed something from these people or they needed something from me, I could reach out to them. The fact that I’ve been able to form really strong relationships speaks to the strength of the platform.”
Not all the power users I spoke to were focused on personal branding or career enhancement. A retired physics professor, Jess Brewer recognizes that much of his career ambition lies behind him. His original goal upon retiring from academia and research was to start writing science fiction novels. “But then I heard this story about Margaret Atwood attending a dinner party sitting next to a brain surgeon,” he told me. “And the brain surgeon said to her, ‘I’m going to write a novel when I retire. And Margaret Atwood replied, ‘That’s amazing, when I retire I’m going to become a brain surgeon.’ And I just thought, oh shit, there’s no escaping the point she just made. This is not something you can do when you finish your career; it takes a lifetime to become a great writer. So now I’m satisfied with being a fair writer.”
Quora is Brewer’s creative outlet of choice, and reading through his hundreds of answers, what I found interesting is that many of his most popular contributions have nothing to do with physics, the topic for which he has the most expertise. One of his most popular answers, with over 300,000 views, was a flippant response to the question “What can I learn right now in an hour that could be useful for the rest of my life?” His answer: “When you tie your shoes, after you make the first loop, wrap the other string around it twice (instead of just once) before pushing the second loop through. It will never slip loose. (Assuming shoelaces will be around for the rest of your life.)”
“The problem with academia is that it’s very bad form to talk about something you don’t know anything about,” Brewer said. “And it’s even worse to say something as if you were sure when you’re not, because the way science progresses is by being meticulously positive that you’re not screwing up. And that’s great. That’s why science is so successful. But sometimes it’s not fun to have a strong opinion but be required to keep your mouth shut because you might not know what you’re talking about. At Quora, you can speculate and say stuff that’s meant to give people pause for thought. You can give challenging statements.” Quora, for him, isn’t about establishing himself as an authority, but rather it’s to scratch that pedagogical itch that he’d once scratched by teaching.
Of course, as any community grows, it becomes more difficult for individual users to gain notice, especially as celebrities begin to participate on the platform. I remember the early days of Twitter when Digg-founder Kevin Rose was its most popular user and you felt like you were having conversations with a tight-knit community. It’s not uncommon for early adopters to claim they’ve noticed a decline in quality as a user base expands, and as Quora’s reach continues to extend outside Silicon Valley and its tech-centric culture, it may discover that quality is only so scalable. After all, Wikipedia, considered by some to be the gold standard for community contributions, has stalled out in growing its coterie of active editors. In a world where every platform is valued by how many millions of monthly active users gained, quality only gets you so far.