TR: There’s an elaborate system on Yahoo Answers for askers and general readers to rate the quality of answers. For most questions, a “best answer” is eventually chosen, either by the asker or a vote from general readers, and the person who wrote it gets a certain number of points. Do you consciously write your answers aiming for them to become best answers?
EF: Absolutely. My goal is “Best Answer” every time. I’m not so much concerned about how many points I have, or how high I am on the leader board for my category. I’m more concerned about what my percentage of best answers is – the percentage of all of my answers that are chosen as the best answer. I’m at 75 percent right now, which is one of the highest I’ve seen.*
TR: With Yahoo Answers, as with Wikipedia, there are very few controls on who gets to contribute – which means that even someone who is totally misinformed about a subject can post an answer that might look authoritative. Do you ever find yourself writing answers that specifically challenge or correct other people’s answers?
EF: Yes, I do, especially when they are about things in pregnancy that could affect someone’s health. Sometimes people are just being really silly and flippant. Those, you can ignore. But when people are seriously giving an answer that is incorrect and could be construed as correct, I’m really careful not only to rebut them but to give sources that back up my rebuttal.
TR: What’s your overall impression of the accuracy of the answers on Yahoo Answers?
EF: For the most part, I think everything balances itself out really well. For the answers I see where there is incorrect information, I am usually not the only person who comes back and says “That is incorrect.” The people who give bad information are balanced out by people who are professionals who know what they’re talking about, and who give good sources. For the most part, the thing that makes a best answer best is that the answerer gives really good sources.
TR: Yahoo Answers is unlike Wikipedia in the sense that once you’ve written an answer, other people can rebut it, but they can’t rewrite it. On Wikipedia, however, anything you write can be edited or deleted by other contributors. Would you feel comfortable sharing your knowledge in that context?
EF: I’m not a big fan of Wikipedia. I like Yahoo Answers for the fact that what I write is permanent. I don’t want something I’ve written to be edited and then construed as my own opinion. I just think there’s too much margin for error there. But I can see where Wikipedia is a valuable part of the Web community as well. I like the fact that things are so well organized [on Wikipedia] – whereas Yahoo Answers is harder to search.
TR: Being a health-care expert and provider, do you ever worry about your legal liability if an answer you write happens to be inaccurate, and someone claims they’re harmed by that?
EF: It always is a concern. Because that is what I do in my professional life as well, I teach childbirth classes, it’s really important for me to give an answer that could not possibly be thrown into debate or show me in a negative light. Again, the best way to avoid that is to give solid resources.
* Correction, 12:00 pm 6/27/06: Due to a typographical error, Ms. Fontes’ “best answer” percentage was originally given as 7 percent. It is 75 percent.