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Quora And The Quest To Answer Every Question

Adam D’Angelo wants the world to share its knowledge on the Internet. But can Quora grow beyond Silicon Valley and convince every human to do just that?

Larry Wong

In 2009, Adam D'Angelo and Charlie Cheever — two former early Facebook employees — were planning to build something new. They had not told anyone about the project, but word about the pair's activity spread — and that got the attention of Keith Rabois, an early PayPal executive.

“I knew both of them back when they were at Facebook,” Rabois told BuzzFeed News. “When I heard they were gonna do a company together, I told both of them I wanted to invest. They said 'we aren't telling what we're doing yet,' and I said I don't care.”

The site they created, Quora, is now at an important juncture. It has built a large and loyal following within Silicon Valley. And it attracts some of the world's best software engineering and data science talent, outmaneuvering prominent technology companies to get the best young brains into its offices, industry sources have told BuzzFeed News. Once there, they are put to work solving one of the trickiest challenges in computer science: how to train machines to understand the nuance and complexities of human language, and apply that understanding to a giant pool of data to build heavily personalized user experiences.

“We're basically building this map of who the experts are in every given topic of knowledge,” D'Angelo said in an interview with BuzzFeed News. “So it's this technical challenge around building out this map of areas of knowledge, and this database of who the experts are, and automatically updating that over time.”

But while the technical challenge is great, the company must also solve an equally vexing growth problem. To become truly huge — like, internet-in-2014 huge — it needs to break out of its core market of techies and become a mainstream site, as popular among NFL fans as it is among software developers. It's a challenge many Silicon Valley companies have faced in their lifetimes. Facebook eventually had to move away from college campuses. Twitter had to find an audience outside of media and technologists.

The trick for Quora, however, is that it has to ensure that the quality of its content remains high, because the network effects built into a site like Facebook — it's where all your friends are — don't necessarily exist to keep people on the site. To keep people coming back, Quora relies on the strength of its questions and answers and its overall pool of knowledge and experts. D'Angelo's bet is that people's curiosity and desire for knowledge — and desire to share their knowledge — will be just as valuable as the need to connect with friends or stream music.

“Most content startups just accept a reality where Google search or Facebook [News Feed] deliver traffic, and try to play by their rules and optimize their content for search, or for click-bait in your news feed,” Josh Hannah, a general partner at Matrix Partners, which has invested in Quora, told BuzzFeed News. “Quora is willing to invest significant time and money on the bet that the best content and the ability to show you just the content you want — both very hard problems to solve — can in the long run build a giant, independent destination.”

Historically known as a well of knowledge about Silicon Valley and technology, Quora has since extracted information on more than 500,00 topics from unexpected experts around the world. The list includes former astronauts, NBA statistic nuts, and even an early painter for Walt Disney films. Within the Valley, Quora is considered one of the quietest technology companies, keeping a low profile that is somewhat of a deviation from the industry norm.

D'Angelo and his team of a little more than 100, tucked away on two floors of a small office in Mountain View, Calif., are still in the early days of their site's mission. Quora, in their eyes, has still only amassed a fraction of a fraction of every possible question that needs answering. It has to battle a perception that it's primarily a question-and-answer service focused on the Silicon Valley crowd. And if it's going to become a lasting and vital part of the online landscape, much in the same way D'Angelo's previous company Facebook did, it's going to have to build a business.

With a sizable war chest of financing ($ 80 million from a round earlier this year), and the ability to potentially tap D'Angelo as an investor if needed (he's personally invested in the previous two rounds and generated a small fortune from his time at Facebook), Quora has risen to become nearly a billion-dollar company, without selling a single ad.

Quora has raised more than $ 150 million in financing overall, and its investors will say the company isn't as pressured for a sale or initial public offering, and can devote itself to very long-term goals and objectives without having to make money in the near term. Indeed, the board of directors of Quora consists only of D'Angelo and Matt Cohler — a partner at Benchmark, which invested in Quora, who was also an early Facebook and LinkedIn employee.

“The fundamental property is that the same person usually knows about a bunch of different topics,” D'Angelo said. “Because people know about lots of different areas of knowledge, it does end up with this natural diffusion process. At this point a very small percentage of Quora is Silicon Valley, and I think it can still spread much further.”

Jeanne DePolo

As Quora has grown, the challenge is ensuring that the community — often more diverse than what might be found on Wikipedia — adheres to a similar principle of ensuring questions and answers are high quality. “We want the content to last forever,” D'Angelo said, with each question finding the perfect answer that will remain evergreen for the life of the site. Other question and answer sites like Yahoo Answers have cropped up, but have become a well of generally useless and low quality answers. (One of the most prominent examples of this is Yahoo Answers' infamous “how is babby formed” thread.)

Quora is often compared to Wikipedia, one of the largest sources of information on the Internet. Despite becoming as large as it has — the English Wikipedia alone generates nearly 10 billion page views a month — Wikipedia is considered a generally reliable source of information thanks to rigorous policing by its community.

“If you look at all these other efforts before Quora, to get knowledge onto the Internet, a lot of them suffered from quality [issues], so that's a big problem,” D'Angelo said. “We need to build systems that can automatically figure out what's high quality and what's not, and encourage users to contribute high quality content.”

There might seem to be some overlap with Wikipedia, but D'Angelo still considers Quora a source of knowledge for an even longer tail of information on the Internet. Instead of a broad topic — like the International Space Station — Quora's information is by design intended to be more directed and nuanced. Each answer has a real name attached to it — such as when Clayton Anderson, who spent several months on the International Space Station, replied to a question of what it smells like on the ISS. Quora has focused its design on making sure its users are accountable, which in theory drives higher-quality questions and answers.

“A lot of way Quora works is not luck or magic, it's by design,” Quora director of design David Cole told BuzzFeed News. “The effect of [requiring a real name] is, all the things that happen you associate with real life, all the things about accountability are then brought into the product itself. I can see that you are a real person, you've had this real experience. I give this example, there's this comment where this guy said, this is an amazing answer, thank you so much for writing this. If you look at YouTube, you would never see something so sincere.”

Jimmy Wales, the CEO of Wikipedia, is an avid Quora user. He is also an investor in the company, a signal often seen within Silicon Valley that the services aren't in direct competition. If online commenting on some news stories was representative of the Internet as a whole, readers would “weep for the future of the species,” Wales told BuzzFeed News in an interview.

“It's just idiots yelling at each other, so you might think from that kind of a world, 'it's hopeless,'” he said. “And then you go to Wikipedia and say this is amazing, it's this gift from this great group of people. And if you go to Quora, you ask a question and get a lot of thoughtful answers. Any time you can find a way to harness those people, to get the nice people on board with what you are doing, I think it's always interesting.”

Getting those people on board and contributing to the site is at the heart of one of Quora's most important technical challenges: ensuring every question finds the user best equipped to answer it. When those two pieces come together, Quora ideally creates a virtuous cycle — both the questioner and the respondent feel satisfied and engaged — and creates content that attracts new readers. Those readers will then, ideally, join the cycle, asking and answering more questions.

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