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Can Quora Become a Useful Tool for Journalists?

Quora logoThere's been a lot of talk lately about Quora, the startup founded by former Facebook executives which raised $14 million last year and recently claimed a valuation of $86 million. If you haven't yet visited, Quora is a social network built to help find quality answers to hard questions through crowdsourcing. From their FAQ:

Quora is a continually improving collection of questions and answers created, edited, and organized by everyone who uses it. The most important thing is to have each question page become the best possible resource for someone who wants to know about the question.

Programmers quickly recognized the site's up/down-voting model as similar to the incredibly successful (and useful) StackOverflow. But the world of programming may be more amenable to right and wrong answers than the universe of general questions. The big question for journalists, of course, is whether Quora can become a reliable way to source story ideas, or to locate experts on various topics.

Several things separate Quora from other social networks: The tenor of conversation (even among strangers) is generally civilized (always a plus :), the site is focused more on knowledge gathering than on socializing, it includes mechanisms for bringing the best answers to the surface, it doesn't have privacy walls like Facebook (most of the data in Facebook is hard to access), and it doesn't suffer from Twitter's 140-character limit. The fact that users are required to use real names adds a measure of accountability over responses found at sites like Yahoo! Answers.

The community of journalists on Quora is growing quickly, but it's not yet clear how many of them consider the site an essential tool. There are numerous topics on Quora itself asking questions like:

Not to mention bloggers asking similar questions:

Poynter's "Six Ways" piece provides an excellent summary of the possibilities. The condensed version:

  1. Use questions as opportunities for localized content.
  2. Find story ideas, sources.
  3. Shape your interview questions.
  4. Explore buzz, interest surrounding a topic you’re covering.
  5. Monitor what people are saying about your news organization.
  6. Share your expertise, give feedback.

To this list I'd add:

  • Another way to locate experts on a given topic
  • A starting point for general research (either by searching or asking)
  • A good way to "subscribe" to topics related to your beat

Even CNN has gotten in on the action, directly quoting Quora threads in stories.

But how well does it work? Technology news site TechCrunch.com sources articles from Quora on a regular basis. One piece that's gotten a lot of attention started with the Quora thread How Much Did It Cost AOL To Send Us Those CDs In The 90s?. Amazingly, Steve Case himself jumped in to provide an authoritative answer, which MG Siegler then synthesized into a popular piece on TechCrunch. But what if Steve Case hadn't jumped in? Could a crowd-sourced response have surfaced an accurate answer? It depends on the question, of course, and on serendipity - a qualified expert on a given topic may or may not happen upon any given Quora question.

A personal success story: I wanted to plan a hot air balloon trip for the family, but my wife had safety concerns. I had trouble finding authoritative info about the relative safety of hot air ballooning, so I asked on Quora. Within hours, a total stranger came up with hard data that I had missed, putting the family safety question to bed. In that case, the answerer may or may not be a ballooning safety expert, but he was a better web searcher than me, and that's valuable in and of itself.

The quality of responses found at the site seems to be mixed. Some journalists are finding Quora to be a goldmine of rich knowledge, while others complain that they just aren't getting useful answers. As the site evolves out of the tech-savvy early adopter phase and gains traction with the general public, the quality of the site will probably change too.

There's no doubt that Quora is worth having in your tool belt, but of course you'll want to keep your journalism hat on and apply the same critical rules you use when dealing with any source. Just remember - if you get something out of Quora, consider giving back to the community by answering questions that fall in your area of expertise - make it a two-way street.

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