Is Quora On the Wane?April 03, 2012
In October 1964 Prince Philip was touring Canada when he chanced to remark that: “the Beatles are on the wane.” The comment caused a furore, there was a rapid retraction and over the next six years The Beatles went on to record albums including Help!, Rubber Soul, Revolver, Sgt. Peppers…, ‘The White Album’ and Abbey Road and another 12 UK number one singles.
There are two big lessons one can draw from this: firstly that Prince Philip would never have cut it as an A&R guy and secondly that there are always people ready to declare that one phenomenon or another is on the way out.
A lot of the time people are right – not least because fashions change. The world of technology is both fast moving and buffeted by trends. In the mid 90s Steve Jobs and Apple, long since having parted company, were more or less written off. The tablet PC was a dodo in the hands of Microsoft but like Lazarus rising from the grave in the hands of Apple. Google+ has been dismissed despite a big push from the mothership. Is that premature? Who knows?
It’s a question that’s constantly being asked of almost every technology company that’s made a name for itself. It’s still being asked about Apple; can it survive without Jobs? Surely the only way now is down – there’s no market left to grow…etc. etc.
It’s certainly a question being asked about Quora. One top rated answer, from Vladimir Polaski suggests that some people are losing interest. He believes there’s been a loss of focus: “It’s not what I signed up for: The site seems to want to turn itself into a discussion board,” he says. “I was attracted to the site initially because I could learn a lot of stuff by just asking. That doesn’t happen anymore.”
Also critical of the quality of the replies and the proliferation of what he sees as cliques Polaski says he returns more in hope than expectation and from habit.
The real issues however are much the same that affect our analogue lives as well as our digital ones.
It’s a point I’ve made before and it’s worth making again, that we only have so many hangouts. Starbucks set out to develop a ‘third space’, something somewhere between work and home, both socially and geographically; you grab your coffee on the way into work and hang with your friends when you head home.
Your computer and the internet offer virtual home, work and third spaces. Home is your personal stuff – picture, video and music libraries. Work, obviously, is the machine and that collection of files related to stuff that earns you a crust. The third space is generally a social meeting zone, though it might also include shops news sites and others.
Look at your browser favourites. Mine include three newspapers (plus the BBC website which is my home page), a Meetup site related to a hobby, Twitter, my blogs (which actually link from my browser bar) Hotmail and Yahoo! Mail, my bank, a couple of utilities relating to weather and no more than half a dozen temporarily bookmarked sites.
At some point when that list gets too long something has to give and some of those favourites get deleted or shoved in a dusty folder. There are only so many sites I can keep up with. The internet sucks away time as it is. Perhaps at some point when I can wire myself directly into the web and browse separately with the different hemispheres of my brain that list will grow longer, but for now it’s like my real life hang outs.
There are supermarkets that serve my needs – I visit two regularly and another three occasionally….and so forth. I have three or four pubs I visit when I’m in London, two or three in the sticks where I live. The Meetup group I hang out with Saturdays gets together in one of them.
The Meetup group likes to welcome more people but when the rate of growth is too fast new members can’t be assimilated into the group’s culture. Instead existing members find themselves swamped by newbies. They don’t like it. It makes the regulars less likely to attend. It’s not unfriendliness – it’s just that they go to the meet because they like the vibe. If the vibe changes – not the people necessarily but the atmosphere and culture – going there loses its purpose.
It’s the same with sites like Quora. They’ve pursued a social element because it’s been a major driver of growth for sites like Facebook (from whence the founders came). But Facebook is more segmented. It’s not a social free-for-all in so far as you choose whether or not to let people into your circle and what groups to join. Quora is more freeform. You enter the great question mosh pit. The tone is set by the people who post and the exclusive Silicon Valley vibe of its early days has worn off.
Quora does have a slight issue. It hasn’t quite decided what it is – a utility or a hang out. I’m not sure you can be both. It could aim at being a virtual water cooler – serious but relaxed – or a plug in to a bigger app – like Facebook.
But whatever it decided to be it first needs to acknowledge that being all things to all people is a damned difficult trick to pull off. Right now it’s running the risk of not being anything to anyone.