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Something paradoxical is happening on the Web: just as digitization projects are making available terabytes of expert knowledge, previously tucked away in books and journals, more and more Web users are turning to each another instead of published sources for answers about everything.

In other words, the “social” Web is laying siege to traditional notions of authority and credibility. The editors of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, for instance, took a blow last year when a study in Nature purported to show that Britannica was only marginally more accurate than Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia cooperatively written and edited by almost 1.7 million registered users, who have created 4.7 million pages in dozens of languages and made 63 million edits.

Unlike Britannica articles, which are written by experts and thoroughly vetted, Wikipedia entries are reviewed only by other Wikipedia volunteers, which means there’s no guarantee of accuracy. Yet that doesn’t stop search engines such as Google from listing Wikipedia entries as the top search results for many factual queries. And it doesn’t stop millions of people from visiting the site – it’s the 16th-most trafficked destination on the Web, according to traffic-monitoring service Alexa, well ahead of news sites like CNN.com.

But who are the individuals contributing all this free content? And why do they do it? Although “user-generated content” is quickly becoming the mainstay of large Internet enterprises, from MySpace to Yahoo, the bulk of their content comes from people who often have no formal qualifications – and who don’t earn a dime in the process.

Yahoo Answers has its own fast-growing collection of user-contributed information on questions from the everyday to the arcane. The service, which became official in May, after months of beta-testing, lets registered users pose questions, post answers, search for previous answers, and vote for the best answers to some questions. As part of the Yahoo.com domain – the busiest on the entire Web – the service draws many visitors from other Yahoo properties, including search result pages, which often include links to top-rated answers (see “Yahoo’s Web 2.0 Overhaul”). Yahoo Answers had 9.1 million unique users as of May, according to Web tracking service Comscore/Hitwise, and featured 20 million answers in English and another 50 million in other languages.

To find out what motivates the most prolific contributors to social media sites like Yahoo Answers, Technology Review spoke with one of the site’s highest-rated writers, Emily Fontes. A contributor to the pregnancy and parenting category, Fontes teaches classes in the Seattle area on pregnancy and infant care during the early postpartum period. She’s also a “doula,” someone who provides mothers with emotional support and advice during childbirth. As of June 26, Fontes had authored 404 answers on Yahoo Answers, a high proportion of which were designated by other users as the best answer to a question.

Technology Review: How did you come across Yahoo Answers? What inspired you to start contributing, and what do you get out of it?

Emily Fontes: I started using the site in January. I’d been working at a pregnancy resource center for about three years. It’s one of my passions to work with pregnant women. I found [Yahoo Answers] to be another way to reach out to them. When I first found the site, I was immediately drawn to the “pregnancy and parenting” section. It’s hard to say that I get anything out of it other than helping people who need factual information I have.

TR: How much time do you spend answering questions at Yahoo Answers, and how do you choose which questions to answer?

EF: I’ve cut back a lot. I used to spend a whole lot of time, but now I probably spend about an hour in the evening. During that hour I usually only hit between four and five questions. I am not a “serial” answerer. I only take the time to answer questions that I’m really going to answer well. I don’t want to give one-sentence answers to 20 questions. I’d rather give two-paragraph answers to two questions. And if I come across a question that’s already been answered very well, I might not take the time to answer it. I’m really searching for a question that has not been answered well.

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