Wednesday, January 05, 2011

The real-time web vs the new edifices of information

I've been having a play with Quora - a kind of wikipedia meets Yahoo Answers with a real-time spin that's suddenly got very hot.

There's some good social stuff going on, lots of instant connections being made - sign up through twitter and facebook and hook up with your pals for a festival of Q&A!

You get to ask and answer questions - the crowd gets to raise the profile of some questions over others (surfacing them to other folk).
Unfortunately, like so many others it's gone down the lowest-common-denominator route with its voting mechanic. Rather than surfacing questions that are useful and interesting to me and my friends, it simply surfaces what is interesting to the greatest single number of people.

This risks creating peaks of high intensity around lowest common denominator subjects (and there's no plan for dealing with the wikipedia-style rows over right and wrong yet when these peaks emerge) while leaving barren deserts of low interest because the only mechanic for surfacing what's interesting to YOU is to select from broad interest categories OR make a specific search. - on your own.

In other words it's missing the trick of socialising the surfacing of what is interesting to you AND your peers (and let's be clear, Twitter's trends continue to make the same mistake).

Even without this Quora remains interesting. While Twitter may be very effective as a human search engine (ie a place I can ask questions of my peers) it's not good at organising the responses or making them available much beyond real time.

Quora seeks to create an aggregate of the best info and retaining it for future reference:
"One way you can think of it is as a cache for the research that people do looking things up on the web and asking other people. Eventually, when you see a link to a question page on Quora, your feeling should be: "Oh, great! That's going to have all the information I want about that." It's also a place where new stuff--that no one has written about yet--can get pulled onto the web."
The team at Quora think this is important because while the web is full of info, most of it is not in a format that makes it useful to most.

Which is why Quora makes an ideal acquisition target for Google. (You probably didn't hear that here first).

But it's also its achilles heel. The people best placed to put information in a way that is best formatted for you are people who know you - your friends, your peers. Indeed 'best formatted for you' is a fluid thing better enabled by the real time web than is potentially the case with the edifices of information Quora is creating.

The most valuable content of all is the information you need right now delivered to you in a way you can best make use of. 

I guess we'll soon discover which is best placed to deliver that: The real-time web or the new edifices of information.
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  1. David, I thought the 'curated search' space was occupied by Maholo [who despite paying a Xmas bonus has rather dropped off the radar].

    I like the idea of search curated by my trusted contacts - produce the answers I want. which will of course reinforce my prejudices and belief systems, which I'll enjoy.

    Did you read @freecloud blog post about the failing problems Google has with aggregated search? I think this is part of the solution/problem you identify with gaming the system of the Google search algorythm.

  2. Not sure I agree with this:
    "The people best placed to put information in a way that is best formatted for you are people who know you - your friends, your peers."
    I think the power of Q&A sites is in allowing you to exchange information with experts and enthusiasts on a topic of interest, irrespective of whether they're in your network or not. If I have a problem in my garden or want desperately to know about the early work of Kate Bush, there's every chance that no one in my immediate network will be of the slightest help.
    The trick is getting people to trust the information of strangers and to incentivise those strangers to share their knowledge in a clear, useful way. That will be Quora's big challenge as they scale...
    (And, imho, Yahoo! Answers already does meet Wikipedia - but I would say that, I work there)

  3. Hi Jon - I think it very much depends on the scale of ones network but there's can surely be little doubt that the entire information flow of the web is peer powered. As such we become the validators of what we pass on. If I pass on bum steers over and over you stop following me/unfriend me/direct my emails to the trash etc and I'm no longer able to pass information to you. The risk is the monkey-see-monkey-do factor of course

  4. Here's the blog post about the increasing uselessness of Google

  5. Hi David - I have a question that I'm afraid may make me sound dumb (but it's never stopped me before, so here goes anyway)...

    You wrote that questions are voted up by users, surfacing them to other folk. I may misunderstand you there, but it seems to me that there are at least five ways I discover questions (I'm thinking this is what you mean by 'surfacing' - if I'm wrong, skip the rest and let me know!):
    1. My friends vote up an answer to a question and it appears in the news feed
    2. New questions are asked by the people I'm following
    3. New answers appear on the questions I'm following
    4. New questions appear in the topics I'm following
    5. Questions are voted for under the topics they appear

    The first four seem similar to what you propose, don't they? Only the fifth way seems like what you wrote about. And I very much agree with you on this particular mechanic.

    It's this variety of ways information seeps in your direction (I haven't even mentioned the dubious trending of topics!) that I like about Quora. It seems to have the balance about right.

    Thanks for the post though - and it did make me wonder about the edifice... I wonder what it will be like once 90% of the information on Quora is static. Will it still feel as live as it does now? Or do they have a method of allowing static information to decay?

  6. No, you are quite right there are multiple and some peer-powered ways of surfacing. But i do wish they'd focus on the niche and network throughout. For example the editing and collapsing of questions (by the quora crew) immediately moves us from niche to lowest common denominator. That reduces the value it can offer.

    Right now though the most interesting thing to me about Quora is not what it does, but how it is being so effectively spread.

    Monkey see does mean monkey do and twitter helps accelerate that, but why Quora and why now?

    Fascinating to watch it develop


The rate of change is so rapid it's difficult for one person to keep up to speed. Let's pool our thoughts, share our reactions and, who knows, even reach some shared conclusions worth arriving at?