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Posted at 11:22 AM ET, 01/22/2011

Questions? Quora might have the answers

By Melissa Bell

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The Post has launched a redesigned Sunday newspaper with an increase coverage of arts, culture and business. I'll be writing a weekly column on the latest Web trends, with a special emphasis on sites and services. This is my first column, cross-posted from Style.

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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.

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 with a Facebook or Twitter account 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) and a question about carcinogens in smoked foods.

Sure, you can find these answers in a lot of places. Ask.com will give you a list of restaurants in Kansas City. Twitter users can offer 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? Answered by a 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 so people could sign up? Five AOL executives, including co-founder Steve Case, answered that question (about $300 million).

And rather 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 and metaphysical 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 traffic began growing exponentially - 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 new members 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.

By Melissa Bell  | January 22, 2011; 11:22 AM ET
Categories:  The Daily Catch  
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