Quora, creative generators and interestingness

A design researcher named Jane Darke did some research where she interviewed some well-known British architects about a project they were doing. She found that relatively early on in the process, the architects came up with some sort of constraint or goal, say, to leave as much open space as possible, that they then used to generate ideas around. Much of the issue in design, of course, is picking the "right" primary generator on which to ideate. Picking the "right" primary generator is picking something that is crucial to the problem at hand, that will closely match up with the needs of whomever the project is aimed at.

There are many fascinating implications of this for the design process, but that's not what we're going to talk about today. This idea of a generative focus is something that's very powerful, and based on my own ad-hoc understanding of creativity, the one skill I think all creatives have managed to master - if you are an artist, your style develops not because of what you can do, but based on a set of "interests" that you might develop. If I am Andy Warhol, my interest in color and popular culture generates a wealth of unique ideas. If I'm Picasso, that looks like a different set of ideas.

As a blogger, you get good at this: finding inspiration from the things you observe elsewhere in the world and turning that into a unique and captivating blog post. Like getting good at anything, however, this takes time, effort and patience. Three things most people have very little of to dedicate to a pursuit like blogging. This is why, the biggest problem is blogging is the "big white box problem." What, exactly, are you supposed to put in that big white text box when you start on your blog post? What topic should you even begin with? What topic will readers find interesting? It's an intimidating thing to the newly initiated and even the old hands, and particularly to do it well.

Which leads me to the recent success of Quora. Many people have compared Quora to a microblogging platform. What's the difference between Quora and other microblogging platforms? I believe it to be Quora's generative content. Finding a "big white box problem" on Quora is difficult. For the average user, they never encounter a big white box without knowing exactly what to put into it. More specifically, every time a typical Quora user sees a text box, they know exactly what to put into it: an answer to the question they are reading, a comment in response to the answer they've just read.


Quora's "White box"


Twitter's "White box"

This is the crucial difference: there is no longer a question of, "What should I be writing here?" but rather, "Do I have something to say about this topic?"

And if you don't have something to say? There's plenty of great content on Quora, and it incentivizes you to float around and check out the other content until you do happen to find something that stimulates a response from you. Luckily, there's also plenty of great questions on Quora as well, so it doesn't take a lot of surfing around before you find something that evokes an idea you're just dying to share with others.

Most people have never felt that they had anything interesting to say. Ask a random person to start a blog, and the response that you're most likely to get is, "What would I even write about?" Even a new-age friendly blogging service like Tumblr or Posterous still leaves users without any clue of what to write about, what they possibly could have to say that others would want to read. Each of these users is hitting that roadblock, the roadblock in even coming up with a primary generator to evoke a clever response. But users never run into this roadblock with Quora: they're just reading questions until a flash of brilliance strikes them, and then they know what they want to say. Since someone asked the question, they know other people want to hear what they have to say, too. Thus, Quora unwittingly pays its users a huge compliment: you have something interesting to say, and others want to hear it, too.

Who doesn't love being interesting? Who doesn't love finding tens of questions that bring out that interestingness? No wonder people get addicted to Quora... Being interesting is one of the bigger feats one can achieve on the public internet, aside from being straight up "popular" or "influential." And Quora makes it easy by telling you exactly what to talk about to be interesting - you just have to pick the question.