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Facebook’s earliest alums are founding new companies in what will hopefully kick off a long line of startups that influence the future of Silicon Valley. The company’s first chief technology officer Adam D’Angelo, who met Mark Zuckerberg a decade ago in prep school, launched his new startup Quora in beta testing last week. (Asana is another we’ve covered, from Facebook co-founder Dustin Moskovitz.)

dangelo051108Quora is kind of like a cross between Wikipedia and Yahoo Answers without anonymity. It’s a question-and-answer site with very refined incentives to get people to share specialist knowledge. When you log-in, you’ll see an activity stream of questions running down the page from friends and topics you follow. Quora uses Digg-like up- and down-votes to rank answers.

Actions in Quora are designed to be lightweight — you don’t necessarily have to write an long essay or restructure a 4,000-word Wikipedia article on a general topic. Instead you can answer a very specific question that you know a lot about or you can categorize questions by topic, e.g., “Where can I find a burrito?” is probably related to the topic “Food”. (Understanding how to set social norms in an online community is a skill D’Angelo brings from his experiences at Facebook.)

Quora uses Facebook Connect to port parts of your identity and friends to the site. You can follow friends to see what questions or answers they’ve add to the site or topics like ‘Entrepreneurship’, ‘China’ or ‘Time Travel’ to track questions and answers on those subjects. Quora has notifications like on Facebook, so you can be alerted to a question that matches your specialties, see a counter of new items from friends or new answers to questions you’ve asked, giving it a bit of an addictive quality. D’Angelo and Cheever are trying to grow the site slowly to maintain quality and a tone of seriousness. They’re seeding it with their friends, who are early Facebook employees, other well-known entrepreneurs and investors and graduate students at top-flight universities.

charlie-cheeverI sat down with both D’Angelo (pictured top-right) and his co-founder Charlie Cheever (pictured left) to learn more.

VentureBeat: Is this what you knew you wanted to do when you left Facebook?

D’Angelo: I knew I wanted to start a company and I spent a lot of time thinking about it. And after several ideas, I thought that this one was the one with the most potential.

When you look at Google, its job is to find you the perfect web page. There are a lot of cases when you want to know something and a list of websites isn’t ideal. For example, If you’re looking for an overview, Wikipedia usually has a good, edited aggregation of content. So one way of solving these cases is to pull all of this information out of people’s heads and get it into a useful format that can be shared.

Cheever: We’re really focused on the re-use of content. We de-emphasize who has asked the question, and for every future answer, we want to build a canonical consensus. We also wanted to use people’s real identities because they tend to be better behaved under those circumstances. Quora can probably address a lot of niche topics where there isn’t a lot of content available.

VB: How are you going to make sure that the quality stays high when you allow the public to join?

D’Angelo: When you look at Yahoo Answers, there can be a lot of garbage. But if you’re careful about the rules and supporting good contributions, over time you can get better and better, like Wikipedia. We want to promote people who write consistently good answers, judging by votes from others.

There are also lots of different roles you can set up in a community. People can answer questions or they can categorize them by topic, which doesn’t require a lot of effort. You don’t need to good grammar to handle that.

VB: Are you going to make the answers on the site public, like Yahoo Answers?

D’Angelo: Probably, but we haven’t decided for sure yet.

VB: If you do, then people’s identities alongside their questions and answers will be public as well, right?

D’Angelo: We haven’t worked out the details but there might be an option to delete questions or remove your identity on public pages.

VB: What if you’re the subject of a topic? You’re a topic on Quora. [Cheever’s a topic on Quora with more than 100 followers. People have asked questions like what he wanted for Christmas and what car he drives.]

Cheever: If you’re a topic, then we’d probably say you own all the questions about you on the site. And you’d have the option of editing or deleting them.

VB: How would you compare Quora to other startups like Hunch, Formspring and Aardvark that also use the question-and-answer format to surface knowledge?

D’Angelo: We’re trying to not make it into too much of a game. We want our incentives to support the right behaviors and quality. Questions and answers is a big space and there are lots of possible systems that you can create for different goals. We’re trying to build a knowledge database that gets better over time.

Cheever: Game systems often use incentives like blue ribbons or badges. We have our own kind through endorsements. We want most of the feedback to come from other users in the system. We hope it’s an honest signal.

We’d like to get the highest-quality and best-sourced answers. There’s a trend if you look back over the past 10 years — there’s a latent desire for people to share what they know. There’s this sleeping giant of all the stuff that you have a lot of knowledge about but don’t necessarily share.

D’Angelo: For example, someone asked a question about why room service was so expensive. And someone else, who is a graduate student in economics linked to a paper that basically explained why according to behavioral economics. You wouldn’t have known about that otherwise and it probably wouldn’t have turned up in a search.

VB: And Quora is some sort of variation on the word ‘Quorum’?

Cheever: Yeah. A quorum is a group of people coming together and reaching a consensus. It also rhymed with ‘Flora’ which is about being healthy and alive. It was also the only name idea where the guy would actually sell us the domain.

VB: This is your second startup?

D’Angelo: If you count Facebook as a startup.

VB: But it was when you joined, right? Why did you leave?

D’Angelo: When companies get big, they slow down. They’re not as exciting. If you want to get something done, it takes a lot of time and a lot of meetings. With Quora, there’s just four of us sitting around four desks. There are no meetings. We just make a decision.

VB: Are you funded?

D’Angelo: No, we’ve funded this ourselves.

VB: Any idea on when you might look for funding?

D’Angelo: Probably in the next year.

VB: You’ve been getting lots of interest?

D’Angelo: Oh yeah.

Here’s a screenshot of the main page:

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Here’s an example page with answers to a specific question:

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