WEBINSITES

The Washington Post Sunday - - SUNDAY STYLE - by Melissa Bell bellm@wash­post.com

Got a ques­tion? Quora --a grow­ing Web site where iden­ti­fi­able peo­ple of­fer real ex­per­tise --might just be the an­swer.

What’s the mean­ing of life?

“ There’s no mean­ing of life. You have about 85 years to make the best of it.”

Okay, so the In­ter­net might not solve your ex­is­ten­tial cri­sis. But it will pro­vide al­most in­stant an­swers to just about any ques­tion you could have. (The one above comes from Ya­hoo! An­swers.)

And yet sort­ing through the clut­ter of sites to find the right an­swer of­ten means mak­ing do with “good enough.” That’s be­cause the sources are usu­ally in­dis­cernible or non-ex­pert.

Into this ca­coph­ony has come a ques­tion-and-an­swer Web site that has the po­ten­tial to do all the oth­ers one bet­ter. Launched last year by two for­mer Face­book de­vel­op­ers and now ex­pand­ing rapidly, Quora is sim­ple to use. Log on with­aFace­booko­rTwit­ter­ac­count and ask or an­swer a ques­tion. The ques­tions are tagged by topics, so peo­ple can search for in­for­ma­tion based on their in­ter­est ar­eas. Look­ing for cook­ing tips? There’s a topic for that. Nar­row it down to “ bar­be­cue” and you’ll find recipes for the best bar­be­cue sauce, a rec­om­men­da­tion for the great­est bar­be­cue res­tau­rant in Kansas City, Kan. (Ok­la­homa Joe’s, if you’re cu­ri­ous) an­daque­s­tion­about­car­cino­gens in smoked foods.

Sure, you can find these an­swers in a lot of places. Ask.com will give you a list of restau­rants in KansasCity. Twit­ter user­scanof­fer their sug­ges­tions for good sauces. Head over to WebMD for can­cer stud­ies linked to smoked foods.

But on Quora, ac­counts are linked to users’ iden­ti­ties via their so­cial net­work­ing sites and an­swers are more apt to come from peo­ple who ac­tu­ally know some­thing. They pro­vide their cre­den­tials and you de­cide whether to trust what they say. Users rate the best an­swers.

The can­cer and smoked-foods link? An­swered­bya sur­geon at the Uni­ver­sity of Cal­i­for­nia at Davis. Need tips on good books for chil­dren? A li­brar­ian and a school­teacher weigh in. Want to know how much AOL spent on mail­ing com­pact discs in the ’90s sopeo­ple could sign up? Five AOL ex­ec­u­tives, in­clud­ing co-founder Steve Case, an­swered that ques­tion (about $300 mil­lion).

An­drather than quick replies— on Twit­ter, limited to 140 char­ac­ters — Quora al­lows for deeper, long-form an­swers, which means it can some­times feel like a grad­u­ate school phi­los­o­phy class, as one user called it.

There’s a col­lec­tive at­tempt to get at both fac­tual and­meta­phys­i­cal truths. A user asked, “What’s it feel like to be stupid?” The an­swer, one of the most rec­om­mended on the site, came from a user whose heart dis­ease maimed his abil­ity to think. “Af­ter a year or so I am al­most as ‘clever’ as I used to be, al­though I tend to ig­nore dis­trac­tions more than I used to and fo­cus on a smaller num­ber of projects,” the writer said. “I’m still more laid back than I used to be, though, and have more pa­tience with peo­ple.” His in­sight el­e­vated the con­ver­sa­tion far above a sim­ple ques­tion and an­swer.

Quora was dubbed a promis­ing start-up by tech blogs early on, but it didn’t draw much at­ten­tion un­til De­cem­ber, when the site’s traf­ficbe­gan­growing­ex­po­nen­tially— dou­bling in one week, again the fol­low­ing week and yet again in the first week of Jan­uary. The pri­vate com­pany is not re­leas­ing num­bers, but users an­swer­ing a ques­tion on the site es­ti­mated about half a mil­lion peo­ple have signed up so far.

These newmem­bers clearly see some­thing to like in Quora, but the site still has more po­ten­tial than track record. Like Twit­ter, it could be­come over­run by jour­nal­ists, mar­ket­ing gu­rus and im­age­mak­ers. It, too, could grow noisy. And of course, in the per­pet­u­ally in­no­vat­ing world of the In­ter­net, there is never a fi­nal an­swer. This col­umn aims to an­swer your most press­ing ques­tions about the In­ter­net and de­mys­tify the on­line world. Let us know what you’re cu­ri­ous about. E-mail bellm@wash­post.com.

HARRY CAMP­BELL FOR THE WASHINGTON POST

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