Facebook Isn't Trying to Kill Quora, It's Just Taking Things Personally

Last Updated Jun 23, 2010 6:29 PM EDT

Facebook is trying hard to get its "friends" to feel more real. The company's push for intimacy started with a simple action: the ability to "Like" any comment on the site. The ensuing data will allow developers (and Facebook engineers) to know who your favorite folks are, and might soon allow you to filter your News Feed to only hear from them.

Now the Big Blue Network's longer-term plans for intimacy are beginning to come into starker relief. In the process, it's being accused of trying to stamp out Quora, a small question-and-answer site. But Facebook has its eye on a much bigger problem: its value to users.

The newest piece of evidence for the intimacy push is a smaller, tighter News Feed. The company has reportedly been piloting a new kind of Feed for "people with very few friends on Facebook," as it was described by a Facebook rep to BusinessInsider. And while it's certainly smart to try to keep fledgling users active, that's also a bogus answer. Facebook, which is poised to reach a billion users this year, obviously doesn't have a problem enfranchising its users. Perhaps the real reason behind the "small group" News Feed is to test out an environment where a user's long-tail friends -- the ones that are only acquaintances -- don't enter into the stream at all, but remain a kind of idle inventory.

VentureBeat makes a good summary of this revision, harkening back to the original idea for the News Feed: the newspaper. Chris Cox, Facebook's VP of product, said last year:

When we started working on the news feed, we had a metaphor of the newspaper. It was a way to pull in a bunch of sources and find what the reader found interesting. But it wasn't just the newspaper, because that wouldn't fully work... It's the right balance between a newspaper and a stream.
As VentureBeat says, the move towards the "small circle" News Feed is, in effect, an attempt at a filtering mechanism that pulls in less total data but makes that data higher quality. ("With these subtle changes," VB summarizes, "it looks like Facebook might be tipping its balance toward the newspaper and away from the stream.") You can see that quality is the priority by the visual design of the new stream: it uses bigger images and an "upper deck" style layout that puts more emphasis on each story (screencap pictured above).

Facebook is also working on a question-and-answer service much like Aardvark or Quora, which would allow users to ask questions and get answers voted up from the crowd. In fact, it's rumored to be so much like Quora that some media outlets like BusinessInsider have asked the obvious question: why would Facebook get into the business of competing with a company that was founded by a former Facebook employee, and one of CEO Mark Zuckerberg's best friends? As it turns out, someone posted that very question on Quora, and the top-rated answer was from none other than Facebook's director of product. He said that Facebook had no intention of "'killing' someone else's baby." SFGate called that response "exactly what you'd expect from a self-decieving [sic], California cool business exec," but maybe he's speaking earnestly. Maybe Facebook's service isn't going to compete with Quora.

Quora, after all, asks questions of the entire Quora community. Facebook's already plenty good at mass-blasting a thousand friends -- just post a status update -- so it doesn't need new frameworks for that. What's more likely is that Facebook's internal Q&A service is just for intimate friends, perhaps with a distribution system that throws questions to certain friends based on the content of their profiles.

At this point, everything Facebook does is so massive in scale that it can easily be misinterpreted as monopolistic. Sure, Facebook has enormous ambitions, and the leverage it has in the technology world is staggering, if not frightening. But assuming that Zuckerberg's goal is to stamp out tiny competitors is to miss what's really at work: a team of 1,600 employees trying to steer a juggernaut network into a fast-changing future full of more agile competitors.

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