Quora vs. StackExchange

Quora vs. StackExchange

The Q&A land rush is on.

Quora, of course, has been hyped to the moon, and not without reason. Fortune magazine recently profiled five more Q&A sites, and three new ones just launched: Cloudy, where your friends answer your questions via SMS; InboxQ, Q&A on Twitter; and Setlr1, which is like Twitter for yes/no questions. Is this a bubble full of copycats doomed to wither into Yahoo Answers Redux? Maybe – but I don’t think so. I think there’s something important going on here, and it’s more than just questions and answers. I think these are the first skirmishes in the reputation wars.

The identity wars are already over. Facebook won, Twitter snagged the silver medal, andOpenID lost. Log In With Facebook and their associated Open Graph have succeeded so thoroughly that Facebook increasingly defines users’ online identities across a whole panoply of sites. But who will define and codify our online reputations? That’s a question whose answer will matter – a lot.

Right now we only have ad-hoc measures to determine online reputations: LinkedIn’s recommendations, Twitter users’ following:followers ratio, third-party influence measurements a la Topsy, and raw friend/follower/connection counts. That last is the crudest and least useful, which is why Facebook itself isn’t really built for reputation measurement. Quora, however, is a serious contender, if they get their PeopleRank algorithm right.

But there’s another massively successful Q&A site out there, one whose reputation measurement already has significant effects: StackOverflow, a problem-solving-for-programmers site cofounded by Joel Spolsky of Fog Creek Software. While Quora gets all the hype, StackOverflow quietly racks up sixteen million unique visitors a month. It’s by far the most professionally useful site on the Internet. Like many if not most developers, I use it every single workday. One of my complaints about Google is that it should, but doesn’t, catapult StackOverflow into its top five search results for almost every software topic. I like Quora a lot, but if I had to choose between the two, it’d be no choice at all. Quora is interesting; StackOverflow is important.

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