Everyone knows a lot about something, whether it’s quasars, quilting, or crayons. But the converse is also true: there are a lot of things that most people know nothing about. And unfortunately, that doesn’t seem to stop them from sharing their opinions.
That’s one lesson I took away from my recent survey of the growing collection of social question-and-answer websites, where members can post questions, answer other members’ questions, and rate other members’ answers to their questions–all for free. The Wikipedia-like, quintessentially Web 2.0 premise of these ventures–which include Yahoo Answers, Microsoft’s Live QnA, AnswerBag, Yedda, Wondir, and Amazon’s new Askville–is that the average citizen is an untapped well of wisdom.
But it takes a lot of sifting to get truly useful information from these sites. Each boasts a core of devoted members who leave thorough and well-documented answers to the questions they deem worthy. And most of the sites have systems for rating the performance or experience of answerers, which makes it easier to assess their reliability, while also inspiring members to compete with one another to give the best answers. But not all of the Q&A sites do this equally well; after all, the companies that run these sites are selling advertising space, not information.
In an attempt to flush out the best of the bunch, I’ve spent the past few days trying to identify what unique advantages each one offers. I also devised a diabolically difficult, two-part test. First, I searched each site’s archive for existing answers to the question “Is there any truth to the five-second rule?” (I meant the rule about not eating food after it’s been on the floor for more than five seconds, not the basketball rule about holding.)
Second, I posted the same two original questions at each site: “Why did the Mormons settle in Utah?” and “What is the best way to make a grilled cheese sandwich?” The first question called for factual, historical answers, while the second simply invited people to share their favorite sandwich-making methods and recipes. I awarded each site up to three points for the richness and originality of its features, and up to three points for the quality of the answers to my three questions, for a total of 12 possible points.
Features: Launched in 2003, AnswerBag is one of the oldest Q&A sites. Members get points for asking and answering questions as well as for rating other members’ questions and answers. After earning a certain number of points, members “level up” from Beginner to Novice, Contributor, Wiz, Authority, Expert, and ultimately Professor. Bloggers or webmasters can embed customized AnswerBag “widgets” in their own pages, so that visitors to a site about restoring antiques, for example, can ask AnswerBag members questions about restoration. Points: 1
Is there any truth to the five-second rule? All of AnswerBag’s answers about the five-second rule pertained to basketball. Points: 0
Why did the Mormons settle in Utah? By press time–two and a half days after I posted the question–I had received only one answer at AnswerBag. Here it is, edited for brevity (like all the answers quoted here): “The church believes that God directed Brigham Young, Joseph Smith’s successor as President of the Church, to call for the Mormons to organize and migrate west, beyond the western frontier of the United States to start their own community away from traditional American society.” That’s more or less in line with the best answers to this question at other sites. Points: 1
What is the best way to make a grilled cheese sandwich? I rated the answers to this question purely according to their mouthwateringness. The best AnswerBag answer, out of six: “Grate cheddar cheese or similiar [sic] and then add about a quarter of the same amount of Lancashire, cheshire or similiar [sic] crumbly white cheese. Mix them together with a couple of spoonfuls of milk until the consistency goes like thick cottage cheese. Add lots of black pepper. Spread on lightly toasted buttered bread and put back under the grill until the cheese melts and is golden brown. Delish.” Points: 2
Total points: 4
Features: Launched December 8, 2006, by Amazon.com, Askville is the newest Q&A site and one of the most intriguing. Among its unusual features: to keep people from cribbing from other people’s answers just for points, answers remain invisible to everyone but the questioner for seven days, at which point the question is closed to new answers. Askville tries to ensure that every legitimate question receives at least one good answer during this seven-day period; if answers aren’t forthcoming from members, Askville posts the question at Amazon Mechanical Turk, which pays participants nominal amounts for help with tasks that computers can’t do (see “Pennies for Web Jobs,” March 6, 2006). The site also offers several widgets that help answerers embed multimedia content in their answers, including videos from Google and YouTube, maps from Google Maps, and (of course) product listings from Amazon.
Finally, Askville uses an entertaining point system seemingly drawn from the medieval-adventure-game genre. By answering a question, a member earns (and potentially loses) “experience points” that elevate him or her to higher and higher levels. That’s similar to AnswerBag’s system–except that the higher the level a member attains, the more bonus points he or she can earn for each answer. There is also a parallel system that awards members with “quest coins” whenever they log on to the site, ask or answer, vote on a question, use a widget in an answer, or give an answer that the questioner rates “Best,” “Great,” “Good,” or “Okay.” Eventually, according to Askville, quest coins will be redeemable for rewards at a website called Questville.com, set to open sometime in 2007. Points: 3
Is there any truth to the five-second rule? I was not able to find an answer to this question in Askville’s archive, possibly because the site is so new. But more disappointingly, searching the archive was extremely tedious: the site seems to be set up for browsing by topic or tag. Askville needs a decent search engine. Points: 0.
Why did the Mormons settle in Utah? Askville members provided four answers to this question. Two were lame, amounting to “Joseph Smith and/or Brigham Young told them to stop there.” The other two were more informative, explaining that the small band of settlers was looking for a place where they could be free from religious persecution. One answer cited a quote from Brigham Young: “If there is a place on this earth that nobody else wants, that’s the place I am hunting for.” Points: 2
What is the best way to make a grilled cheese sandwich? I got four answers at Askville. Three provided just the basics: butter two pieces of bread, put a piece of cheese in between, grill in a frying pan. I was really looking for interesting variations. One person pasted in a couple of cool recipes from a site called grilledcheese-contest.com. Clever–I never would have found that site on my own–but not very original. Points: 1
Total points: 6
Features: Microsoft launched Live QnA in August 2006 as part of its “Live” Web 2.0 initiative. It’s extremely straightforward, restricting users to asking questions, answering questions, and voting for the best answer to each question. Unlike most of the other Q&A sites, QnA doesn’t have a browse-by-category function; instead, it relies on tags applied to each question by the questioners. QnA’s reputation system revolves around a little unnamed glyph that resembles a Q. Collecting these glyphs raises users to higher levels, but there are no other rewards. As with the other Q&A systems, when someone answers a question you posed, QnA can inform you via e-mail, but in addition, it can activate a pop-up window on your screen called a Windows Live Alert. Points: 1
Is there any truth to the five-second rule? I found two instances of this question in the QnA archive. (The five-second rule, of course, says that if you drop a food item on the floor but pick it up within five seconds, it’s still safe to eat, since bacteria supposedly haven’t had time to move in.) The best answer: “Of course not. Does it take 5 seconds for the oil of a puddle to stain your shoe? It belongs to the birds & critters the moment it hits the ground.” The funniest answers: “It’s a guy thing” and “The big thing about picking it up quickly is more about that it didn’t sit on the ‘dirty surface’ for a long enough period of time for other people to judge them as ‘being gross.’” Points: 2
Why did the Mormons settle in Utah? Three answers. One offered a factoid I hadn’t heard elsewhere: that Brigham Young reportedly saw the Great Salt Lake area in a vision. Another answer was more down-to-earth: “Like any other settlers, they picked what was available at the time, told people it was a great promised land and got them to invest money to go there in mass … They only had a rough idea of what the Western states would be like. They made the best of where they were.” Points: 2
What is the best way to make a grilled cheese sandwich? Again, I got three answers. One was quite amusing: “The way Johhny [sic] Depp made them in the film Benny & Joon … with a hot iron on the ironing board.” Another sounded delicious: Dice onions, capsicums, green chilies, and coriander. Mix and add salt and ground black pepper. Grease grill with butter or margarine. Place one bread slice on grill and top with onion mixture. Add your favorite cheese, grated, then another slice of bread. Grill. Points: 2
Total points: 7
Features: In the works since 2002, Wondir is perhaps the oldest and most high-minded of the social Q&A services. The original idea of the site’s founders, all search-industry veterans, was to index and organize content from the online reference services provided by libraries around the world. But the site evolved into a classic question-and-answer service, with more than a million questions and answers from beta users by the time of its official launch in April 2005. Wondir may have been the first to offer a Q&A widget, a ticker that can be embedded in other sites. (CarTalk.com has one that has proved popular among the NPR radio show’s fans.) But the site’s interface is clumsy and unattractive. The site was recently acquired by Revolution Health Group, an online health-care publisher, and most of the new questions and answers on the site seem to focus on medical issues, especially pregnancy. Points: 1
Is there any truth to the five-second rule? I couldn’t tell whether Wondir contained an answer to this question. Frustratingly, the site provides no way to search for answers to previously posed questions: you have to sift through page after page of questions, which are shown in reverse chronological order. Points: 0
Why did the Mormons settle in Utah? Despite the site’s turn to medical issues, Wondir does seem to have an active community of people answering questions in most areas. I got six answers to this question, three of which were useful, including this one: “They picked Utah because it was a place no one else would want!! Desolate, barren, hoping to be left alone to live their lives the way they wanted to live.” Points: 2
What is the best way to make a grilled cheese sandwich? Because of Wondir’s health orientation, I reworded this question as “What is the healthiest way to make a grilled cheese sandwich?” I got three answers, all of which were brief and fairly obvious: “Use wheat bread and low fat cheese and margarine instead of butter,” “Leaving the cheese off is healthy,” and “Margarine makes the bread soggy. Just put the bread directly on the griddle.” Points: 1
Total points: 4
Features: Yahoo Answers goes into the social Q&A competition with one huge advantage: it’s heavily promoted elsewhere on Yahoo.com sites, which collectively attract more visitors every day than any Web destination except MySpace. The site, which is only one year old, has become the second most popular reference site after Wikipedia. It has 60 million unique users, as well as the largest collection of answers of any Q&A site: more than 160 million as of late November 2006, up from 70 million in June 2006 (see “Answers By the People, For the People,” June 27, 2006). Some 60 million of those answers are in English; the rest are in a mix of world languages.
The site has a clean, attractive, and simple interface. The point system is nothing out of the ordinary, but there is a very convenient “My Q&A” page where users can track their points as well as the questions they’ve asked and answered. One fun twist: users can choose and customize their own cartoon self-portraits, which appear alongside their questions and answers and give the site a surprisingly jaunty feel. Points: 3
Is there any truth to the five-second rule? Other Yahoo Answers users had asked this question no fewer than 11 times, eliciting more than 160 answers. Most were on the strictly sanitary side. One of my favorites: “No!! I watched this on the Science Channel the other day, some guy tested it out, dropping food in various places for 5 sec. and then testing it for microbiological growth. The bacteria was transferred immediately upon the food hitting the ground.” (Upon further investigation, it seems that this answerer was likely referring to an experiment actually carried out during a 2005 episode of “Mythbusters” on the Discovery Channel.) Points: 3
Why did the Mormons settle in Utah? At Yahoo Answers, I added the following note to my question: “Wouldn’t they have been happier if they’d pushed on to a less desolate place like California?” Users provided six answers. One was offensive and four were cursory. The best answer: “It was a place [where] they could be left alone. Although they were persecuted and killed by those in the east, California wasn’t exactly a safe haven, either. The Sacramento Bee, a popular newspaper at the time, frequently printed articles suggesting that the Mormons should be exterminated. By settling in the middle of the desert they at least had some breathing space from all of their enemies. And evidently it was the right place; Mormons are still around today and have created a vibrant community in Utah.” Points: 2
What is the best way to make a grilled cheese sandwich? I didn’t bother to post this question on Yahoo Answers, since the site already contains more than 100 questions and thousands of answers relating to grilled cheese sandwiches. I can’t begin to list them all; just go to http://answers.yahoo.com and type “grilled cheese sandwich” into the “Search for questions” box. Points: 3
Total points: 11
Features: Israeli startup Yedda emerged from stealth mode in August 2006. (Yedda is the Hebrew word for knowledge. Originally, the company was to be called Yadda, as in “yadda, yadda, yadda,” but the domain name was taken.) In appearance and function, Yedda is pretty much the same as AnswerBag and Live QnA, but because it’s new, it has a smaller database of questions and answers. There’s one feature, however, that makes Yedda different from the other Q&A services: the site encourages members to name the topics they know best, such as travel or electronics. They can then elect to receive e-mails, instant messages, or RSS feeds notifying them about new questions tagged with those topics. Theoretically, this system draws in the best-qualified answerers for each question. In practice, however, I couldn’t see much difference between the answers at Yedda and those at Live QnA, Yahoo Answers, or the other sites. Points: 2
Is there any truth to the five-second rule? Yedda had no wisdom to share on this urgent public-health matter. Points: 0
Why did the Mormons settle in Utah? I received one answer to this question at Yedda. But it focused on why the settlers left their original homes, not on why they picked Utah. Points: 1
What is the best way to make a grilled cheese sandwich? Only one Yedda user tackled this question. Her answer was charming: “There is no BEST way. It’s the cheese that makes the difference. I’d use sharp colby or similar … My daughter puts sliced tomatoes inside … As for me, I like to use 2 slices of bread. Spread feta cheese on each, put yellow cheese on top of the one and cover with the other. Enjoy and use your imagination.” Points: 1
Total points: 4
Can any site in the social Q&A space catch up with my clear winner, Yahoo Answers? Not as long as so many Yahoo users hang around the site answering questions from complete strangers. It’s important to realize that the social Q&A sites are intended as much for the entertainment and aggrandizement of the answerers as for the education of the questioners. The site that gives answerers the most exposure, therefore, is likely to be the one that thrives the longest.