Quora rorah ray

A new year, a new shiny toy to play with in the shape of Quora, the social question and answer service. Since Tuesday, Twitter - and Quora - has exploded with hype, counter-hype, naysayers and people somewhere in-between trying to work out if this is the next big thing in social media.

There's a few interesting points to be made around the bubbles around these services, which I'll come to in a bit, but to answer the Quora question, my initial thoughts are probably not, but it's an interesting and potentially very useful site that could gain a reasonable amount of traction.

Taking out the obvious self-publicising answers that appear on the site, the quality of the answers is very high and in-depth and there's a very knowledgeable crowd on there.

There's also potential for mainstream media and other companies to use it. For journalism, it seems like an excellent place to gauge opinion and reaction that's likely to be more considered than, say, Twitter, as well as cultivating potential contacts.

You can also see how this could be useful for specific radio or even TV shows, while it offers good opportunities for brands to enhance their profile if they're willing to engage with this community.

But - and I could be very wrong here - the strengths of Quora is also probably the reason why it probably won't go mainstream in the way that Twitter did (and Gigacom also has a few potential pitfalls as well).

Firstly, the more users Quora gets, the greater the potential for the quality of the questions and answers to go down. The voting element adds a safeguard of kind, but if, say, you see the sort of mass adoption in the style of Twitter, then the user base changes.

Secondly, would a mainstream audience necessarily want to become regular Quora users? If there's a lot of specialist knowledge there, will it discourage the average Twitter user from regular usage, if they just want to socialise?

Unsurprisingly, Quora is also very to-heavy with marketing, technology, PR, media and social media queries, which may put others off. The quality of answers is usually strong, and fascinating, for these topics, but stray away and the level of answers is somewhat hit and miss. Will this put off people who don't specialise in these areas?

I've asked two questions - and followed several others. One was on SEO, which had short, sharp, snappy, useful replies. The other was a question on managerial sackings in football, which I'd hoped would attract a couple of thoughtful responses.

So far, I've had no responses and a quick look through the other questions asked around football aren't exactly on a par with those in the social media section. That said, the growing food community on Quora is quite useful and interesting.

Perhaps the area, or social media site, that Quora could impact on the most is LinkedIn. The type of discussions are very similar to a lot of the groups I'm a member of and opening it up to a wider audience taps into even more expertise than individual LinkedIn groups can offer.

As with anything social media related, if the site, app or whatever is to break through into the mainstream it needs to reach out beyond the early adopters and those who rush to praise it off the back of this - normally the social media and tech community - without alienating those who have vocally supported it.

It's why I'm not rushing to hail it as the future of social media or the next big thing from this area, although the amount of use and the ease with which the new users are embracing the service suggests this isn't a flash in the pan. How far it can go is another question.

And this leads neatly onto a finishing tangent, which Quora neatly highlights. The big mainstream social media sites that are breaking through are few and far between now, despite everybody looking for them. But those, llike Qoura, that appeal to an informed niche will pick up a lot of traction.

Several years ago, I remember musing to colleagues that niche would be the next big thing. In hindsight, I was probably a bit too early but there's no reason to reverse that prediction. The problem with networks or sites that appeal to a nice audience are they will never become as big or as sexy as Facebook or Twitter, but they have the potential for decent growth and even a business model.

Other than niche, the other obvious areas for exploding in 2011 are mobile apps and social TV. In the former, smartphone usage is becoming more ubiquitous (about half the people on my bus today had an iPhone). All it needs now is a social mobile app that changes the game completely. Foursquare isn't quite it, though.

With the latter, you only have to tune into Twitter and Facebook during any TV show with a decent amount of viewers to see how important social media is as a backchannel. With Google and Apple moving into the TV market and a generation comfortable with social media as part of their everyday life coming into more disposable income, the potential for growth in this area is huge. When somebody makes the right product, that is.

Now, having said that, expect me to be shown up as the ignoramus I am as all these predictions turn out to be gubbins by December.

Additional: Vicky Chowney mirrors my thoughts on Quora in a much quicker, cleaner and more intelligent way.