Should Twitter Do A Quora And Let You Follow Topics (As Well As People)?

Over the past week or so I’ve been spending a lot of time on Quora – and if I’m honest, totally at the expense of Twitter. More on that in a moment.

Quora, in case you haven’t heard, is “a continually improving collection of questions and answers created, edited, and organized by everyone who uses it.” It’s kind of like a really smart Yahoo Answers meets Wikipedia, with a big dollop of Twitter-ness thrown in. It works really well.

I registered my name on Quora (the site insists on real names, as opposed to aliases, corporations or silliness, which I think is a very smart move) quite a while ago but have only begun to get into it seriously in the past few days. I’ve submitted a couple of questions, weighed in with answers on many more, and I’m having a blast. So much so, in fact, that I’ve been spending a lot less time on Twitter. This got me thinking: how, and why, did this happen?

On Quora, you can follow and be followed by other users much like on Twitter. But you can also follow topics – I’m currently following 72 topics, including broader subjects like Twitter, Facebook and Social Networks, as well as more specific stuff such as Facebook Pages, the television series Being Human, inspiration, web marketing and journalism.

You can see all the topics I follow here. It’s worth a look, as Quora has something for essentially everybody. Yes, it’s true that in these fairly early days most of the action, if you will, is in the tech topics, but that’s absolutely normal for pretty much any network on the internet. It’s always early adopters who get the ball rolling, and by definition early adopters are interested in and like to talk about tech.

But they like to talk about things, too, and as Quora grows (it has about 400,000 users at the time of writing) the level of activity in pretty much all subjects will also rise exponentially.*

(* A word on this: Quora works really well at the moment partly because it’s small and the community is enthusiastic and well-educated and, I hate to say it, perhaps a little elitist. And by that I mean they know what they want to ask questions about, know the answers to the questions of others, and treat the system and the users with respect. The Q&As are intelligent and with folks like ex-AOL chief Steve Case, TechCrunch’s Mike Arrington and Tweetmeme’s Nick Halstead actively answering questions (Twitter’s Biz Stone also recently signed up) Quora has quickly become a reliable source of expertise.

Suffice to say, the risk is that as the userbase expands the collective will ‘dumb down’ and the overall quality will suffer. This is almost certainly an inevitably, but hopefully Quora will implement measures to insure this doesn’t happen. The site is already well-moderated, with edits and removals made on a frequent basis, much like Wikipedia. Hopefully a similar team of dedicated Wiki-like editors will be formed on Quora. At the very least it will also need to grow exponentially with the overall membership. They still have a ways to go, however – Yahoo Answers has an estimated 200 million users, so the horror of that is still some distance away.)

It’s this ability to follow topics that has kept me coming back to the platform many times throughout the day. I love loading up the front page and seeing discussions that are probably 90 per cent relative to all the things I am interested in. Contrast this with Twitter, where at any given time probably less than 10 per cent of the just-loaded tweets on are things that are likely to get me even a little excited.

This isn’t a reflection on my network (it’s optimised, thank you) nor on the people therein – it’s simply a reality of using Twitter. Nobody can be interesting to all people all of the time, and this truism applies in multiples to the collective. This is why people love to carve up Twitter with columns and lists – if we were forced to observe or ‘mark as read’ all of those tweets all of the time, very few people would care. Twitter would be just a lousy, character-expensive alternative to email.

Following people is important, but if Twitter allowed me to follow topics as well I think the experience could be enriched considerably. I mean, they place a huge emphasis on trending topics, going as far as giving them a great piece of real estate on the homepage, so why not let me do something with that data, and grab on to it?

Tweets could be tagged and/or categorised (by the tweeter and community) and delivered accordingly.

And like any other relationship on Twitter, this wouldn’t have to be for life. You could dip in and out of following topics depending on your mood or what was going on in the world.

(Yeah, I know you can already follow Quora topics on Twitter, but that’s not the same thing at all.)

Okay, I know what you’re thinking. Quora is new and small, and Twitter is almost a veteran (in internet years, at least) and adds about as many users each day that Quora has in total. Which means if you follow a topic, it will inevitably be full of spam, idiots asking why that topic is being followed, and other such nonsense.

But this is Twitter’s problem – not ours – and it’s one that they need to fix. As it is now, often venturing too deeply into trending topics is like taking the wrong turn on your way to the country club and ending up in a warzone. When you get down far enough, it’s insane. What Twitter needs to give us is a better filter system, as well as the ability to mark tweets (and users) as junk, not as they do now but more akin to the way Gmail manages (and learns from) it. That way, it becomes my Twitter – and yours, too. A truly personalised experience.

Add these elements, and following topics would be a breeze.

I’m not suggesting Twitter needs to take on Quora – they’re two different platforms offering two different services – but directly following information is always going to be provide a better signal-to-noise ratio than following individuals, as even the most dedicated niche blogger and journalist veers off course once-in-a-while. In fact, the opposite of this is true – it’s once-in-a-while that they stay on-topic. You want proof? Just follow the personal feeds of most of the tech bloggers – the actual tweets about their areas of expertise are decidedly fleeting.

And I include myself in that group, too. After all, we humans are a mixed bag of nuts, and (good as they are) you can only hand out so many pistachios. But if pistachios are all you want, even if it’s just for the rest of the day, it might be nice if Twitter gave you that option.