The site that answers life's big questions

  • @jerometaylor

If academic journals, with their annotated footnotes, bibliographies and peer review checks, are the F1 cars of the information world, the internet can often seem like an old banger.

The web has brought vast amounts of knowledge into our lives, but the quality of the information can be notoriously hit and miss. Enter Quora, the web company tipped to be the next big social networking phenomenon.

The peer-reviewed question and answer website was set up by Adam D'Angelo and Charlie Cheever, former Facebook staffers. It is being lauded by the tech community as 2011's next big thing by giving us decent answers to the questions we ask. In the space of just over a year, the San Francisco-based company has gone from being a little-known beta test site for geeks to a web forum that is so popular it has struggled to keep itself functioning online. It currently has some 500,000 users, but membership is expected to balloon.

Question and answer websites are not a new phenomenon. Yahoo, Google, Facebook and LinkedIn have invested considerable sums in providing people with answers. But users have often complained that the quality of the responses vary dramatically – from authoritative facts to poorly-researched nonsense.

Quora has won plaudits for the quality of information it gives out. Describing itself as "a continually improving collection of questions and answers created, edited and organised by everyone who uses it", the website disrobes the cloak of anonymity which is often used by the internet's more troublesome contributors by insisting that anyone asking or answering a question reveal their identity – typically by linking their Quora account to websites such as Facebook or Twitter.

Chris Lake, from digital marketing analyst firm Econsultancy, said: "We've seen this kind of thing before with sites like Yahoo Answers, but Yahoo fundamentally failed to help people connect, whereas Quora has in-built networking by default. It can be used by anybody who wants to help, to influence, to find answers."

Quora has become the place where academics, PhD students, professionals and experts gather to impart wisdom. When one user pondered what Facebook co-founder Dustin Moskowitz thought of the recently released film The Social Network, Mr Moskowitz himself answered the question (he wasn't a fan).

Critics suggest Quora will inevitably become less authoritative the bigger it becomes, especially if the type of people that often dominate rivals like Yahoo! Answers start using it.

"Maintaining the integrity of our system is really important to us," D'Angelo recently told the technology website TechCrunch. "So we're going to invest a lot in it as we grow."

In the meantime, the numbers keep growing – the website received 10 times more traffic in December 2010 than it usually does.

Quora quizzed

How do I make myself taller? "Avoid foods and drugs that stunt your growth, eat well, and let nature take its course." (Jeremy Bruce)

If a tree falls in the woods and nobody is there to see it, does it make a sound? "No. Sound is a mechanical wave created by an oscillation of pressure that creates a sensation by vibrating an organ. Both the mechanical wave and the vibrating organ are necessary. Assuming there is no vibrating organ present in this scenario then no sound is created." (Parveen Kaler, director of development, AppSocial Media)

Why don't men like overweight women? "This is culture-bound. In places like Mauritania, where obesity is seen as a marker of wealth, women are forced to eat to attract husbands. In places like the US, where the cheapest foods are the most fattening and you have to be rich to afford a good diet... heavy women are considered unattractive." (Naomi Perl Saphra, Carnegie Mellon University)

Why is the sky blue? "The dominant scattering process is Rayleigh scattering – the limit where the wavelength of the light is much shorter than the size of the scatterer." (Leo C. Sten, PhD candidate, MIT)