Quora and the Search for Truth

The scale is so big that there’s no point in saying what the top 50 questions are, said Mr. D’Angelo, Quora’s CEO. Unlike a news business, immediacy isn’t an issue, either. “Eighty percent of our views happen a month after an answer is written

By QUENTIN HARDY

The Internet has a nagging problem: There is lots of information, but often confusion about what’s true. Many big websites try to solve this problem with their services. At least one, Quora, suggests that maybe we don’t care that much about the truth.

Quora is a question-and-answer website founded by Adam D’Angelo and Charlie Cheever, two early employees at Facebook. Begun in June 2010, it claims to have information on over 450,000 topics, almost all posted by its registered users.

“The scale is so big that there’s no point in saying what the top 50 questions are,” said Mr. D’Angelo, who is also Quora’s chief executive. Unlike a news business, immediacy isn’t an issue, either. “Eighty percent of our views happen a month after an answer is written,” he said.

Next year, Quora hopes to start a money-making business; Marc Bodnick, the company’s head of business and community, said Quora was likely to put ads with its answers. “The real value is in the 90 percent of questions that aren’t about what will happen next week,” he said. “Our traffic is evergreen.”

The range of topics is certainly impressive. Questions include “What’s it like to hug a penguin?” and “Who are the likely 2016 Republican presidential candidates?” and “Is Al Qaeda winning?” Most of the questions have multiple answers, which other readers vote up or down.

Answers with the most votes don’t always end up at the top of a list of answers to a question, presumably the place of truth; over 100 factors, including down votes and who is voting, affect the ranking. But the votes are what is visible, and they matter for the business of keeping people engaged.

It’s not just impossible to say how accurate the answers are; it may not really be an issue. The penguin question, for example, has two answers at its top with opposite conclusions. Their difference may be resolved this way: Hugging a penguin at Sea World is cute, and hugging a penguin in the wild is like asking for a mugging. There is no such distinction in the answers themselves, however.

It is reasonably entertaining, however (in this case, if you’re into penguins). Quora styles itself “the topic network,” which is another way of saying it is partly in the business of organizing knowledge into categories about which people can have discussions. Everything is subject to change, a kind of implicit admission that nothing can ever be finally known.

As systems of knowledge go, it’s an exercise in the impossibility of certainty. With few exceptions, it’s hard to say that anything has an authentically “right” answer, since everything is open to revision by a new entrant. Readers of the questions vote on answers, and their positive votes appear as a tally next to the answers.

What often seems to get votes, and thereby win pride of place in the “truth” contest, seems to be personal experience. A lot of what people want to read about, after all, is other people. And they tend to trust other people’s stories.

In some ways, it’s possible to look at most of the big websites as information filters of one kind or another. Google uses factors like links to a web page, or the publisher’s reputation, to find likely places for a query’s answer. Facebook organizes music, topical news and the bonds of love and career according to social connections. Twitter users organize around people the reader esteems, or hashtags. Quora’s filter seems often to be its own members and their personal experiences.

With so many topics, it’s crucial that a new user be captivated by some question. Registration seeks information like college and occupation, which can help. The real key is participation.

“If you answer one or two questions, we know 11 or 12 topics to put in front of you,” Mr. Bodnick said. If you read in those topics, you are also more likely to vote, write comments on answers, or write an answer yourself.

Keeping the topics interesting is what builds engagement, which in turn leads to more answers. “It turns out to be a really interesting problem,” Mr. D’Angelo said. “It unifies statistics, artificial intelligence and machine learning.” A recent report from Quora runs to 17 pretty technical pages.

Quora does not divulge traffic numbers, but according to Alexa, Quora is the web’s 441st most visited site, which puts it around Okcupid and The Drudge Report. Comscore figures Quora had 1.15 million unique visitors in December, well under the 3.1 million uniques it counts for Stackoverflow, a question-and-answer site devoted to technology questions.

That is all pretty good, considering Quora is the only one of those sites that requires the commitment of registration. There’s some kind of truth in that, assuming people give their correct names.

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