Quora: An online learning economy

Introduction to Quora

We are swamped these days with a variety of social networking sites and applications, all vying for our limited attention and time. Facebook, Twitter, Google+, Tumblr, LinkedIn, Pinterest, Reddit. Given this reality, people might groan a bit to have yet another one hoisted on them. Nevertheless, I want to introduce you however to another, not so well known social network and online community, Quora, that I think is well worth your time.

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How does it work?

The basic mechanics of Quora are pretty simple.

People post questions. The questions typically consist of a short one sentence statement of the question, a more detailed description that establishes the question context, and user-added topic meta tags.

People see the questions, and can edit questions to improve them or they can provide answers.

Users upvote or downvote answers, and get credits for good answers.

You can choose to follow certain general topics. This will customize what sorts of content you want to see questions for, so that personally interesting content pops up to the top of your stream when you open the site or the mobile app.

follow_quoraThere is a social aspect where you can follow people’s posts or be followed, as well as exchange messages. You will initially discover interesting people through what surfaces on your main feed from your chosen topics. Some person has an interesting or insightful answer on a topic that interests you. You can check out their profile and see their other activity, including their questions and answers, what questions they are following, and which answers they have liked from other people. In this way you discover interesting people. When you follow them, the activity of these people also surfaces on your main feed, which can further point you toward interesting people, topics, and questions.

Quora also hosts very basic blogs where you can write longer form content that followers or other members of the Quora community might like.

A knowledge economy with reputation as currency

What makes Quora particularly fascinating to me as someone in the learning and training industry is that Quora is not just a vibrant learning community, but also a sort of “learning economy” with intellectual reputation as a sort of alternative virtual currency. (I recommend the book “Rethinking Money” for a fascinating take on the history, and potential future, of alternative currencies.)

This reputation currency is tracked in the form of credits. You can build these up by providing good answers that peoplequora_credits like. People can upvote answers they like, or downvote those they don’t. This gives you credits, ten for each time someone votes you up. This serves a number of purposes. First, it gives some reinforcement to encourage people to contribute quality posts, which benefits the community as a whole. Second, it also serves as a sort of “market signal” from the community giving you feedback that the particular post was appreciated by the community. You can analyze your post, see what sorts of answers work well. By learning what sorts of answers are in demand, you can supply more and earn more credits. But perhaps the most interesting thing, and what sets Quora apart for me, is what you can do with these credits.

These credits become a virtual currency within the site. You can then use, or “spend” these credits for different personally or altruistically useful things within the system:

  • You can pay to promote a question, whether your own or someone elses, to other Quorans. 1000 points, for example, will promote a question or answer to a few hundred people. This helps to get exposure for your question or answer, and also gives you a chance to promote someone else who is deserving of attention.
  • Paying a notable expert to answer a question, either your own or someone else’s. All users can set “prices” in credits to answer. Most users you can ask for free, but the pay to ask feature lets the more prominent and distinguished community members who would otherwise be inundated with question set a virtual price for their time. Often these prices are just to filter silly or trivial questions. Many users are pretty cool about this, and have a stated policy of refunding the price afterwards for legitimate questions.
  • Transfer credits to another person as a generalized gift or reward

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Related to all this, Quora is also a wonderful networking opportunity, a way to make serendipitous contact with smart, interesting, accomplished people from all over the world. You can discover interesting people when they vote up your content and vice versa. You can trade follows. You can make initial contact with people, for example by posting an interesting question and asking specific people to answer. You can also privately message people when appropriate. This can lead to conversations and possible referrals to new opportunities or contacts in your field of work.

It is a useful personal branding or promotions tool. You can invest credits to promote people seeing your questions. You can invest credits to get knowledgeable people to answer your questions and gain visibility.

Tips for use

As with any tool, it takes some time to get familiar with how to use it. While I am by no means an expert at using Quora, I’ve discovered a few things from poking around with it and from tips others on the site have shared.

  • Follow a lot of topics, and a diverse mix. When you initially sign up, you can select from a basic list of topics, and can also search for particular topics. You can also add new topics to follow at any time.
  • Actively read a lot of questions and answers. You’ll learn a lot, discover fascinating people, and get a sense of how to write a good answer.
  • Actively vote up good answers that meet a certain level of quality you find high. This encourages good answers.
  • Follow interesting people you come across.
  • Reciprocate by following interesting people that follow you.
  • Ask good quality questions! That is, after all, the lifeblood of the community. Just make sure to run a search first to make sure it wasn’t already asked. That way you build the site rather than adding repetition. This can also perhaps help to resurface a question someone posed before, but which wasn’t answered.
  • Add topic meta tags when you submit your answer. Quora will automatically suggest some tags and you can add your own. This helps to assure that the question will be seen by people who will find it interesting.
  • Make sure to come back and fill out a detailed description for the question after submitting the one sentence question itself. The short form of the question is what will appear in people’s feeds, so work on making it brief but compelling. But the detailed description gives you more room to clarify the context and background for those who click through to see your question and perhaps answer.
  • Use @ mentions in answers to crosslink to other questions, answers, topics, or other people
  • Use the blogging feature to post longer form expressions of your views
  • Fill out your profile fully, and include links to any of your websites, to your LinkedIn, to your Facebook (so that they can read your public posts)/ Twitter/Tumblr. Tell people some background about yourself, to humanize you a bit, so that people get a sense of where you’re coming from. This helps people in making decisions as to whether to follow you.
  • Also, as you build up a good bank of answers, you can get “long tail” effects on your answers by curating a short list of what you feel are your best answers, and link to those top 5 say in your profile.
  • Consider injecting elements of your personal background and story into your answers.
  • Combine approaches with skilled timing. Ask a good and novel question in a topic, and at the same time, post up a longer form blog post about a related topic in the same general subject area. And then invest some credits for someone with influence and reputation to answer the question.
  • Be respectful and judicious with private direct messages. Some of the more prominent users (this does not include me, so please feel free to fire away) are swamped with ask to answer requests and other notifications. If someone has 10 000 followers, for example, probably better to start off with less direct contacts like upvotes, following, asking to answer, and then direct messages only if a conversation naturally develops.

Here is the link, by the way, to my Quora profile:

http://www.quora.com/Cyril-Anderson

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