Has Quora Jumped The Shark?December 05, 2011
Back in 1977 the producers of the sitcom Happy Days recorded an episode in which The Fonz, played by Henry Winkler, made a water-ski jump over a caged shark. The episode gave rise to the phrase ‘jumping the shark’, modern shorthand for the notion that something has peaked – the thinking being that after the shark-jumping episode Happy Days went into decline.
I mention this because, according to a 60Minutes/Vanity Fair poll published five weeks back, 83% of people had no idea what the phrase meant (9% thought the phrase had itself ‘jumped the shark’ while 7% thought it was still relevant and the unaccounted for 1% were presumably comatose while being asked the question).
And so I find myself asking whether Quora has ‘jumped the shark’. My question was prompted by one on Quora; “Should I use spray-on tanner before a VC pitch in order to seem more relaxed and less needy of funding?”
The question itself got a fair amount of media attention, after all Quora is a site that has ‘long’ (in tech start-up terms) been a hangout for Silicon Valley execs and VCs. The most popular answer, from Pipewise CEO Michael Wolfe set the tone for most of the responses that followed. “It is sorta a rookie mistake to show up at a VC meeting without at least a spray-on tan,” joked Wolfe. “If the investors are top quartile, I’d even recommend a tanning booth or a trip to a beach to show a deeper level of commitment.”
The subsequent attempts at wit got weaker and weaker while at the same time they edged closer and closer to plain and rather ugly prejudice against people who might get a spray tan. They make an easy target. After all while it’s socially unacceptable to make fun of people because their skin is brown, back or yellow it’s fine to take the mickey if their skin is orange. Racism is out but class prejudice remains.
I attempted a more serious answer. Silly idea. I might as well have turned up for a Hawaiian barbecue in a suit.
So what is my point? Broadly speaking it’s this: whether in real life or on the net your hangout has a purpose, a style, a reputation, a crowd. If you set out to provide a certain sort of setting, to be exclusive or to attract a particular crowd (and perhaps business plan is built around it) then it affects your business if the wrong crowd turn up. One minute you’re running The Viper Room, then next it has turned into TGI Friday’s, or perhaps you’ve arranged a wine and cheese reception for VCs to meet start-ups and you get gate-crashed by a large crowd of tech fanboys who want to know if anyone there has ever met Mark Zuckerberg. As some point the cool crowd start to drift away and eventually the hangers on and fans follow them and you’re left with not much.
I don’t want to be too hard on Quora. For a start there are a lot of serious questions still being posted on the site and getting serious answers. However the more Quora gets publicity for trivial posts the more it risks losing its reputation amongst the people whose presence helped build the site in the first place; opinion formers, movers and shakers.
Quora has been here before. A year ago, when Robert Scoble praised the site, there was an influx of his followers and some existing users didn’t like the presence of the new crowd. Yet Quora is still going.
On the other hand if Quora does decide that it wants to pursue popularity over quality it faces fierce competition. According to Business Insider teen/entertainment/mobile Q&A service ChaCha is getting 12 million unique visitors per month while Ask.com has morphed from straight search into social search and gets 53 million visitors monthly. Quora is currently reported to have around 400,000 per month and while that’s up 300% on the year that is a very long way behind the major popular players.
That matters because if you’re going for popularity the obvious revenue stream is from advertising and (if they go the Facebook route) data-mining.
Though Quora has introduced Quora credits a shift towards quantity over quality makes it far harder to introduce a serious paid-for element. The VC/spray tan discussion points very much to Quora increasingly being primarily a social rather than a business hangout.
My guess is that in the medium term Quora’s future may well rest with Facebook, after all the Quora team have a pedigree as senior FB people and the combination of the two could presage a clean up in the social search arena.
Whatever happens it’s hard not to wish Charlie Cheever well – he comes across as personable, smart and modest. You have to root for him and his team on that basis alone.
So maybe Quora hasn’t jumped the shark but it’s nevertheless quite hard to see exactly where it is headed if not for a reunion with the mothership, which is a little more like being eaten by the shark than jumping it, but there you go.