That’s a great question. Quora is driven by topics, issues and interests, so in the simple dichotomy of “Networks” v “Forums”, it seems to fall on the forum side of the equation. Quora mission statement seems to reinforce this characterization.
Quora’s mission is to share and grow the world’s knowledge … The heart of Quora is questions … Quora has content you will feel good about having read … Quora’s answers come from people who really understand the issues and have first-hand knowledge
Interestingly, if you read Facebook’s mission statement, you will find some similar language
Facebook’s mission is to give people the power to share and make the world more open and connected
Every ambitious tech company seems to articulate their business goal in terms of world impact. However the real core of Facebook, the reason they’re approaching 2 billion users, is
People use Facebook to stay connected with friends and family
Your mum isn’t on Facebook to change the world, or even to understand it better. She’s on Facebook to see what you’re up to when she’s not around. Which is fine (or not fine depending on what your mum is like). But it’s important to acknowledge that, despite the fact that people use Facebook to discuss issues/interests/topics and despite the fact that Facebook plays an important role in civic life by sheer virtue of its size, it’s built around networks much more than around issues, interests and topics.
Of course, people, or perhaps more accurately ‘personalities’, still matter a lot on Quora. When I read about the mathematical explanation for the entanglement of the earphones I’m told that what I’m reading is coming from a chap with a Ph.D who has been up-voted by another Ph.D in ‘condensed matter theory’ (sounds relevant right?).
People also matter on a taxonomic cousin to Quora, the Granddaddy of the QA category, Stack Overflow. Interestingly, according to Alexa, SO (technically Stack Exchange in this instance) is at the top of the “Audience Overlap” list for Quora (you need a paid account to see this table in full).
Moreover, the way people typically engage with Quora is similar to SO. They search for an answer to a question and Quora is one of the top results (again, you need a paid subscription to see this in Alexa).
When you see a reputation number followed by a “k” on SO, you instantly feel more confident in what that person says, regardless of their formal qualifications. Despite their differences however, Quora and SO are trying to do similar things. Provide authoritative answers to questions.
So where does that leave us? The ‘QA’ category of sites does present a challenge to the simple taxonomy of ‘Networks’ v ‘Forums’ insofar as it suggests that ‘Forums’ is a very broad category. Perhaps overly broad to the point of losing any explanatory power. It definitely reminds us that any analytical lens we apply to the assessment of online communication has to be seen as just that: one lens to apply to continually developing and multi-various phenomena.
One might be tempted to say that when you look at some of the aspects of ‘QA’ category I’ve mentioned, like typical engagement patterns and the function of personalities and reputation, that they’re not a ‘Forums’ because they’re too transactional. People go there to find an authoritative answer and then leave. People don’t go there to be a part of a ‘community’.
However, I think that might be missing the wood from the trees, in that the role of a platform for authoritative knowledge can entail a very important communal role. The ‘tech’ community would not be what it is without Stack Overflow. It’s more than just a shared knowledge repository. It’s more than its online self. It’s an important aspect of how the tech community views itself and projects itself on the world.
From my, admittedly limited, perspective it seems that the same can’t be said for Quora. Quora is not a touchstone in a ‘real world’ (‘offline’ ?) community. No doubt it has a lot of great content, has some great people on it, and has its own sense of ‘online’ community. But it doesn’t seem to play an important role in any ‘offline’ communities. It may be a bit harsh, but one way to put it is that if Quora disappeared overnight, the effect would not be significant to any individual real world community. Mathematics Ph.Ds, as a group, would probably not be overly concerned.
Perhaps what I’m saying is that Quora’s scope is overly broad to be a communal touchstone. It’s a single platform that purports to be for all “Knowledge”. Yes Stack Exchange, as opposed to SO, seems to do the same, however it’s more a collection of platforms, rather than a single platform. It’s more a confederation, than a centralized federation.