How should a White House Quora Work?

Summary: The White House is looking to build a web community to get its questions answered, sort of their own Quora, and they’re trying to do it the right way. They’re asking those who would participate to help shape how the community itself works. They’re not trying to create a network from scratch, but instead trying to connect to networks that already exist. And they’re not just making a community for the hell of it — they’re trying to build one with purpose.

But they’ve asked for our help, from those of us who build, and know, and love web communities. We’re being asked to share our expertise in what does, and doesn’t work on successful web communities. Our deadline for participating is on Monday Sunday. Giving them insights into our hard-earned lessons will only take 15 minutes of your time this weekend, and will keep us from having to wonder, “Why wasn’t I consulted?”

You can go get started, or read on to find out more.


The White House is advancing this project under the working title “ExpertNet”. (There’s no official link between ExpertNet and Expert Labs, except that we at Expert Labs are trying to help in the effort, too.) In short, ExpertNet as it stands right now is a spec for a platform for getting questions answered by experts, similar to what sites like Quora and Stack Overflow do. The project was announced in December, and the deadline for responding was extended for two more weeks, but those two weeks are up on Monday Sunday, and we’re running out of time.

Submitting ideas to ExpertNet is as easy as editing a wiki. Many of the key questions they’re trying to address are straightforward:

  • Decisions around participation: How do you tap in to existing networks of experts?
  • Should there be leaderboards for things like a Top Ten? I don’t happen to think so, but if not, then what are the right motivational methods?
  • How do you get people with the right expertise and knowledge to know about, and use, this network?
  • What’s the best way to demonstrate the qualifications of people who submit ideas on such a network?
  • And, from a purely tech standpoint, what tools exist to already perform some or all of these functions? Are they free/open source? (Obviously, at Expert Labs, we think ThinkUp is a great answer for many of these questions, since it was meant to address many of these particular requirements.)

We Have The Information They Need

The community of people who care about web communities have a responsibility to share what we know. We know what works on Quora or StackOverflow, and what goes wrong on Yahoo Answers. We’ve learned for years from Ask MetaFilter. Andy Baio collected a short list of links to best practices just today. But none of those lessons are obvious to people who’ve been busy defining policy — they haven’t been in the trenches like we have.

And it’s important to remember that perspective, because even if we don’t help, this thing is going to get built. And if we don’t help, it’s going to be broken or wrong or weird or a failure. The White House has already done one amazing thing, by defining the budget for the technology as zero. The official notice in the Federal Register says:

To be clear, there is currently no funding identified for building this platform nor is it clear if future funding will be available. Hence, respondents should be sure that feedback, when possible, addresses opportunities for implementing solutions at little to no cost, including multi-sector partnerships.

That’s government-speak for “if you’re just reading this to see what you can sell to the Federal government, bug off.” They’ve reduced the chance of vendors getting in and taking control of the process, which reduces the chance that we end up with some sort of National SharePoint Network. In short, they’ve met us more than half way and avoided a major pitfall, and now all we have to do is guide them to the tech they should use.

If you care about web communities, and think the right web community with the proper design could positively impact the way our elected officials work, then dive in. I’ll make note of some of the people making valuable contributions to the effort, so that we can track this as it evolves. You can get started by following these few simple steps:

  • Register for an account on the wiki
  • Find one of the relevant topic pages and contribute your insights. Simply adding relevant links could be very valuable here, and of course writing out longer ideas would be great too.
  • Tweet or blog with mention that you are participating in helping with ExpertNet, so that we can let people know what you did, and prompt them to respond. We’ve been using the #expertnet hashtag.

My Agenda

Obviously, there are some disclaimers to throw in here. I’m an unabashed fan of the ideas behind ExpertNet, and it aligns very closely with the mission of Expert Labs, so we’re hoping our work and our tech is a big part of the solution. We’re a non-profit and all our work is free, so we’re not motivated by anything except the desire to see our efforts go to their best possible use. And one of the sites I’ve mentioned learning from is Stack Overflow, where I’m an advisor. But I think anyone who cares about these things can clearly see that they are succeeding in getting highly technical questions answered by expert responders, and I hope our government can learn from that as well.

I urge you to join the folks who are participating in ExpertNet, whether it’s working on building a platform, or simply coming up with a better name for the project. They’re asking for our help, and it’s our fault if we don’t give it to them.