Over the past few weeks, I’ve reduced the amount of time I spend on Quora and have found myself visiting a fairly young link-sharing community called Quibb every day. The change wasn’t a conscious choice, and the realization that it happened surprised me; I used to be very active on Quora, where I enjoyed writing thorough answers to questions about statistics and mobile gaming.
The two services aren’t mutually exclusive; in fact, they complement each other well. But blogging and extensive Quora use are mutually exclusive, as time spent on Quora is time I am not spending writing for my blog. For some reason I had subconsciously shifted the distribution of my time away from Quora and in favor of a new service, and after giving the change some thought, I realized that it has to do with the virtues of knowledge transfer versus those of information transfer.
I’ll define knowledge in the context of professional expertise as the mastery of some set of fundamental principals that can be applied to a specific class of problems with the goal of achieving a desirable results. In my field, quantitative marketing, I’d denote my corpus of professional knowledge as statistical methods, functional programming, and data visualization. A software engineer might identify her corpus of knowledge as algorithmic optimization and operating system design, and a business development professional might define his knowledge as game theoretical negotiation tactics and financial modeling.
This is in contrast to information – specific, time-sensitive descriptive data, such the price of a stock, the number of active smart phone users in China, or the GDP of Brazil. In a professional context, a person utilizes her knowledge to process information to make decisions or build products.
Both knowledge and information have value, and one is not more fundamentally valuable than the other. But knowledge is harder to disseminate than information because knowledge features hierarchical dependencies: I can easily ascertain the weight of a Boeing 747 (information), but in order to understand how a Boeing 747 stays airborne in flight (knowledge), I’d have to first understand the Bernoulli principal, which requires some knowledge of physics, which requires some knowledge of algebra, etc. Transferring this knowledge to me would take a long time; that time would come at a sizable opportunity cost to the knowledge transferrer.
So the opportunity cost of disseminating knowledge is higher than the opportunity cost of disseminating information. Knowledge transfer is expensive; information transfer is cheap.
But why transfer knowledge or information at all? For two reasons:
Conceptual solidification: The exercise of conceptually exploring some specific subject is intellectually rigorous. By exhaustively considering a topic, one strengthens his grasp of it.
Professional credibility: In sharing knowledge or information publicly, a person associates his or her name with some minimal level of expertise on that subject matter and develops professional credibility in that field.
The opportunity cost of knowledge transfer is recouped through conceptual solidification and professional credibility, whereas information transfer can yield only professional credibility.
Quora’s CEO recently articulated the company’s very noble mission statement: to become a digital Library of Alexandria; a storehouse for the world’s knowledge. But I believe this goal will not be easily achieved, given the high opportunity cost of knowledge transfer. Conceptual solidification can be achieved through a free, collaborative knowledge transfer network like Quora, but the professional credibility dividend is diluted relative to a personal blog. Quora provides a knowledge transferrer with a large audience, but the association between knowledge and its transferrer is difficult to establish.
Which brings me to Quibb. Quibb is a collaborative, free information transfer network: users share the links they’re reading with a sizable community of professionals and can participate in discussions about those links. Quibb provides limited opportunities through which to gain from conceptual solidification but many opportunities to establish professional credibility. The service suffers from the same attribution dilution that Quora does (people associate the great articles they read with Quibb, not with the people that shared them), but sharing on Quibb (information transfer) requires a significantly smaller time commitment and yields roughly the same benefit.
I’m not trying to pick on Quora; as I said, I enjoy participating in discussions on the service. My point isn’t that I like one particular service more than the other, but that from a professional productivity standpoint, the combination of blogging and using an information transfer network like Quibb to build domain credibility (and to discover interesting articles) is more effective than any alternative combination. Other collaborative knowledge transfer networks, such as Stack Exchange or Wikipedia, suffer from the same problems that Quora does: contributing to them assists with conceptual solidification and builds some credibility, but not as much as a blog would given the same time commitment.