It wasn’t until someone much more tapped into pop culture than I am told me that the Yahoo! Answers product was cool that I considered it to be true. I didn’t get it at first. I wondered, “What’s the incentive to contribute? Maybe it works for kids. And when was the last time Yahoo! launched a cool product of its own anyway?”
I still don’t understand the incentive to answer questions, but despite that I’m amazed at the responses to the questions people post.
First, I love some of the philosophical dialog in the system. Deepak Chopra appeared in Answers with a question, and the answers were fantastic:
Q: “What do you think the role of individual transformation is in manifesting world peace?”
A: “…The question to me is not the role of individual transformation in manifesting world peace; but can mankind agree upon what the symbol of peace represents and if so, how might this further or progress all mankind’s evolution of the psychobiotic self.”
Second, it’s very social in a new kind of way. It’s like walking through a festival where you jump into a conversation with totally random people without any awkward formalitites. You ask a question, hear what people have to say and move on having a new perspective to take with you.
I asked one question about the need for our educational system to teach personal responsibility in the online world, and the responses were primarily from what appeared to be teens. I have no connection to the universe that is teenage but with this question I suddenly found myself in a very brief but relevant dialog with the people who are affected by the question.
Third, and I guess this shouldn’t be a surprise, you can get better information from people in this world than you can from your limited scope of offline friends.
I was watching Prince perform on American Idol and kept asking myself, “What is it with this guy? Why is Prince such a big deal?” I started asking friends the same question, even people who are big Prince fans, and I couldn’t get a good answer. So, I posted a question on Answers. I figured that if someone could tell me why Prince matters then maybe it was actually useful in addition to being cool.
Sure enough, I got a couple of funny answers within a few minutes, but within about half an hour somebody convinced me that Prince was worth caring about:
“Prince is able to play multitude of instruments and genres. He mastered the piano at seven, and 6 instruments by 12. He is the youngest to ever produce his own albums at the age of 19. He takes risks and help define the sounds of the 80′s. He was the first black artist to appear on MTV. Not Michael Jackson.”
But there are a few things I’d love to see Answers do better. It’s so random and dense that I need some kind of UI for surfacing stuff that might matter to me. I like that when I post a question it tries to point me to similar questions that have already been answered.
I also want to have some kind of natural incentive for answering other people’s questions. Points won’t do it. Maybe I don’t get it still, but I don’t have any desire to add my knowledge into the pool, yet.
Lastly, I’d love to see the back end opened up as a service…completely. Community sites of all types including publishers should be able to skin the service for their users which would then contribute more data to the wider knowledge pool. I can imagine a site like PCWorld.com using Answers to help their users help each other answer laptop fix-it types of questions or maybe storage device shopping advice.
Obviously, my comments have to be taken with a grain of salt since I share the same employer as the Answers team. But the purpose in writing this was less about promotion and more about exploring social incentives online with a new real world example. There’s more to learn from Answers, I’m sure, but there’s lots to be emulated, as well.