Quora: Lessons in community development

My trial-by-fire in online community management came just over 10 years ago, when we launched SmallBusiness.com. I’ve thought about that experience a lot in the past few weeks, as Quora has exploded among the tech community. [Find me on Quora here.]

When we were preparing for the real launch of SmallBusiness.com, we spent weeks scouring web forums for people who were talking about small business online. There were lots and lots of them…but there weren’t easy ways to find, organize or communicate with them. So we found most of the people we invited to beta test our site by hand, searching one by one through web forums.

Long before CAN-SPAM or marketing protocols, we were very careful about how we approached prospective testers, because we were long-time web users, even then. We knew that all communities have their own etiquette and customs, and to violate those is to risk death.

At the same time, we spent a lot of time and effort figuring out how to seed the community with content so there’d be SOMETHING there when the first beta testers logged in. It was important to us to be transparent — to be real about who we were, but still to provide value to our soon-to-be customers.

And so it is difficult in some ways for me to watch the birth of Quora, because I feel a lot of it in a personal way. The people complaining on Twitter about getting dozens of emails in an hour when all their friends join. [Oh, for there to have been Twitter when we launched SmallBusiness.com!] The people wandering around saying, “What’s the point of all this? I can’t find anything on there!” And the endless critiques of its design and usability.

Welcome to website launching, 2011-style.

The really interesting part to me is the question-and-answer format, though, because SmallBusiness.com was also a question-and-answer site. It worked a little differently from Quora, but the similarities are many.  [It’s no longer the same format — SmallBusiness.com lives on today as a great wiki for small business owners, managed by “head helper” Rex Hammock.]

What I wonder now, and I don’t remember wondering 10 years ago, is whether the literal format of Q-and-A is really the best way to answer questions.

That may sound silly on the face of it, but much of what many of us are doing online is trying to both ask and answer questions. And now, after almost 20 years of working on the format of information, we’re still offering the questions and answers literally.

I’m cheered by the increasing discussions about structured content and the semantic web. But the depth of structure truly available remains small, compared to what we need. Don’t get me wrong — I’m not sneezing on the vast amounts of location information we’re using now, for instance. Or XML. But most of the value on the web is really still locked in text.

“Locked in” sounds funny when you consider how much you can find with your favorite search engine. But what you can’t do with much of the information is re-purpose it easily.

Quora doesn’t advance us down that road, but I’ll be curious to see how it fares, both as an information source and as a community.