I fell in love with Quora right quick. Crazy in love, as Beyonce might say.Unfair though it may be, it's impossible to look at something like Quora in 2010 without immediately comparing it to Twitter. At it's best, when you're following a manageable few hundred people or so (anybody following more than that is on meth or just isn't listening), Twitter gives off the energy of a (mostly) benevolent mob.
Twitter is the agora. Quora is the agora with Socrates present.
Quora is a Q-&-A site. Sign up for an account (or link your Facebook/Twitter accounts) and you can ask questions of Quora's users, who follow question categories that are of interest to them. This is well-travelled territory, populated by Ask MetaFilter, Yahoo Answers, Fluther, and others. But Quora has learned lessons from Twitter that others have not.
Ask MetaFillter and Yahoo Answers are artifacts of a time before the "social" Internet, when nerds like me ran this place. Fluther isn't that old, but feels like it is - a place where people operate behind anonymous handles like joon1986 and MissAnthrope.* These sites aren't about getting answers from anyone in particular, but about polling the mob. Fluther bills itself as "tapping the collective". AskMetaFilter's tagline is "querying the hivemind".
Quora insists on asking you for your given name when you sign up. This means that Quora, to a great degree, is going to be about access to notable people. It's a bit like what Google tried to do by making old-Web anonymous Wikipedia into new-Web Knol. Except it isn't soul-crushingly boring.
Twitter got its start with the thousands of social media sycophants who joined to get access to Robert Scoble, and its ascension to the mainstream came from the millions who joined to get access to Ashton Kutcher and Lady Gaga. It's easy to take for granted now, but it was a lot harder to directly communicate with Roger Ebert or Neil Gaiman before Twitter.
By insisting on given names, Quora does this, too, but in a way that keeps the dialogue in one place. Ask Kevin Rose a question. Or Mike Sippey. Or ask a question about AdMob to everyone - maybe someone from Admob will answer it. Twitter is a frantic amnesiac - you often only see one contextless side of a multi-lateral Twitter conversation. That doesn't happen on Quora.
As a result, you see fascinating conversations that often include noted experts, or even the subject of the question. Watch the CEO of Mozilla and Firefox's co-founder present different points of view about the future of that browser. See Jon Abrams himself answering why he lost control of Friendster. Quora is just full of stuff like this. I've learned something every day from Quora, and I keep coming back. And adding tags to categorize the Unorganized Questions lightly scratches the same itch that editing Wikipedia used to.
The downside to Quora (and this might be my own information horizon) is that right now it skews hard towards SF-area tech people. There are, for example, 9170 people following the startup category versus 121 following baseball. But, hey - show me an exciting Web platform that wasn't a Silicon Valley playground when it started out. Give it 6 months and the user base should broaden significantly.
Quora is also awash in fervent naval-gazing. There's hundreds of self-important questions about the Quora community, but we know by now that this is unavoidable. There's nothing Twitter users prefer to talking about Twitter, etc. But I accept these flaws. I'm in love.
I think Quora has a bright future. It's not only useful, but it lends itself to branding and monetization. It's easy to imagine a brand posting a celebrity or executive expert onto Quora, or for all questions in a particular category to be sponsored. Savvy companies will charge external relations and PR folks to watch Quora for questions about them. This is the kind of thing that venerable MetaFilter has always eschewed out of principle and that Yahoo Answers is too anarchic and noisy to properly support.
If I haven't sold you on trying Quora yet, I'll leave you with "Why do 'foodies' avoid ordering chicken"? Off you go.
*This post by my friend Michael Cohn is the finest summation of the difference between the old anonymous Net and the current age of social and "personal branding".