The sudden surge in popularity of the Q&A site Quora, and perhaps to a lesser extent the online community of experts being developed at Focus have once again led many to evaluate and assess the value and future of open, public, and community powered knowledge repositories.
Where other attempts have been made with varying degrees of success, (Yahoo! Answers, LinkedIn Answers), these new entrants, in particular Quora seem to have captured, at least for the moment, the interest and support of an influential subset of participants (most apparent in the technology space).
From many accounts, the quality of contributors and information found on Quora is unusually high, and in comparison to prior attempts at more broad Q & A sites like Yahoo!, the recent adoption and activity on Quora seem to have captured the attention of a well-connected and active user community.
Participation in open and public forums like Quora and LinkedIn Answers is often a recommendation made to job seekers, as their subject matter knowledge, reasoning ability, and the opportunity to be noticed and to forge connections with other industry or domain experts can all be seen as beneficial to a job search, or to the establishment of a professional identity or brand.
No doubt for many, the built in audience and reach of sites like Quora or LinkedIn offer individuals the chance to be seen and heard by large numbers of relevant people, much more so than can be reached by the launch of a new personal blog, or even by simply posting an online resume or professional profile.
But for others, in particular for established professionals in a given field, the motivation to participate and contribute to public knowledge portals seems quite a bit different. Some may feel obliged and happy to simply share their insights openly, and willingly; driven simply by the satisfaction derived from adding value to the larger community in which they operate. Some others might see these platforms in a kind of competitive manner; seeking to leverage them to establish their place in a virtual pecking order of sorts, a process made more acute and apparent when their specific contributions can be compared and contrasted against other well and lesser-known experts.
Most online professional community and networking effort is either directly ('please hire me', 'buy my company's stuff', or 'book me for a speaking gig'); or indirectly ('check out my new post on leadership', 'here's a great piece on productivity apps'), aimed at convincing or at least influencing the intended audience to do or feel something positive towards the contributor. And that makes perfect sense. We all need to get paid, whether or not that payment is in hard dollars, or in the more amorphous currency of reputation and influence. Either way, the check always comes.
And I suppose that is the problem I get with sites like Quora or even on LinkedIn. I find it hard to read the individual contributions without thinking about the 'sell side' motivations, (or potential motivations) of the contributors. Maybe that is just a weakness in my ability to distinguish the 'sell' from the content, but either way, these sites can easily degrade into the geek version of the high school homecoming queen contest. A few popular, good looking, and well connected people trying to convince the rest of us how fantastic they are.
I suppose at the end of the day, if you really want to contribute to the body of knowledge, you'd write or contribute to a Wikipedia page. Everyone reads those, and no one knows who writes them.