Cyberclinic: If Quora's the answer, what's the question?

A friend recently attended an event run by a polling company where our response to the Big Society was analysed. Apparently the majority think that more of us should do voluntary work, but far fewer thought that they themselves should be the ones doing it. Not surprising, really; getting something for nothing is amazing, but giving something for nothing? What's the point? I'm not suggesting we're morally bankrupt – it's just human nature – but it helps illustrate why a new bunch of websites where your questions are answered by strangers, for free, are far from guaranteed to succeed.

We love to appear knowledgable. The web wouldn't exist without facts on golf, Lindsay Lohan or the moon landings that we've put up there. But answering specific questions from people is different. It's more time-consuming and frustrating; it's basically a hand-holding exercise as opposed to simply slinging information out there, lecture-style. And, after all, "lecturing" can work brilliantly.

If I had an urge to clean my oven, for example, I'd go to to watch a tutorial on the best way of doing it, rather than solicit bad advice from a friend. Part of our reluctance to reply to questions on the web is that, in most cases, the answer is already out there. You're merely a contact point for a lazy person who can't be bothered to search the web. This is nicely pilloried by the website (Let Me Google That For You) where you can direct people if you're frustrated by their questions.

Such questions stack up in depressingly large numbers on the two biggest Q&A sites, WikiAnswers and Yahoo Answers; the latter is particularly renowned, its most infamous question is "how is babby formed? How girl get pragnent?" Enquiries are then treated with either withering contempt, furious derision or an equal dose of cluelessness ("they need to do way instain mother"). Thanks. Pointless questions and unreliable answers do not a good website make, but they both remain inexplicably popular, probably thanks to boredom and stupidity.

Meanwhile, alternatives that look better on paper, such as Aardvark, bob out of sight over the horizon. A lot of fuss was made last month about Quora, a new Q&A site launched by a former Facebook executive. The site was quickly colonised by technology experts, ensuring coverage by technology writers and thence the mainstream media. As a result, other Q&A startups such asStack Exchange, VYou and Hipster are now garnering similar levels of interest. But while these sites stress the value of community in sourcing high-quality answers, what exactly is a online community that only exists to ask questions? I don't think I'd have enough questions. Or answers. And what prompts people to hang around waiting to be asked a question? They'd either have to be bored (Yahoo Answers), paid (Experts Exchange) or already connected with you online and invested in some small way in your relationship (Twitter, Facebook).

It's on those two where questions are already being answered in their millions, daily; a few followers or friends, plus a couple of degrees of separation, will get you the lowdown on most issues in a matter of minutes. So who needs a dedicated site? Facebook are rumoured to be launching a Q&A facility in the near future, and while part of me is loath to see more power handed to them , it's clear why they're best placed to deliver As to our Qs.

Stories like this don't inspire much faith in the internet as a storage medium, and make you want to revert to scratching stuff on to vellum with a quill and hiding it up the chimney instead. Mirco Wilhelm accumulated 4,000 photos on the website Flickr. But one day last week he suddenly discovered that his account didn't exist. He had emailed the service to report another user, but someone at Flickr, in a moment of almost beautiful human error, deleted Wilhelm's account instead. Apologetic emails rained down, humbly explaining that the pictures may have disappeared for ever. Flickr worked desperately to find backups; fortunately they succeeded, and his account was restored – with 25 years of free Flickr Pro membership. A result, I suppose, but I'm sure Mirco could have done without the stress...

Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebookA delicious collection of 50 meaty main courses
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Gadgets & Tech

    Recruitment Genius: IT Support Engineer - 2nd & 3rd Line

    £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The IT Support Engineer is needed to ass...

    Recruitment Genius: Junior / Mid Software Developer

    £22000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

    Recruitment Genius: IT Service Desk Manager

    £35000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A great opportunity to join a p...

    Recruitment Genius: Graphic and Motion Designer

    Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: Do you get a buzz from thinking up new ideas a...

    Day In a Page

    The long walk west: they fled war in Syria, only to get held up in Hungary – now hundreds of refugees have set off on foot for Austria

    They fled war in Syria...

    ...only to get stuck and sidetracked in Hungary
    From The Prisoner to Mad Men, elaborate title sequences are one of the keys to a great TV series

    Title sequences: From The Prisoner to Mad Men

    Elaborate title sequences are one of the keys to a great TV series. But why does the art form have such a chequered history?
    Giorgio Armani Beauty's fabric-inspired foundations: Get back to basics this autumn

    Giorgio Armani Beauty's foundations

    Sumptuous fabrics meet luscious cosmetics for this elegant look
    From stowaways to Operation Stack: Life in a transcontinental lorry cab

    Life from the inside of a trucker's cab

    From stowaways to Operation Stack, it's a challenging time to be a trucker heading to and from the Continent
    Kelis interview: The songwriter and sauce-maker on cooking for Pharrell and crying over potatoes

    Kelis interview

    The singer and sauce-maker on cooking for Pharrell
    Refugee crisis: David Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia - will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi?

    Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia...

    But will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi, asks Robert Fisk
    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Humanity must be at the heart of politics, says Jeremy Corbyn
    Joe Biden's 'tease tour': Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?

    Joe Biden's 'tease tour'

    Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?
    Britain's 24-hour culture: With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever

    Britain's 24-hour culture

    With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever
    Diplomacy board game: Treachery is the way to win - which makes it just like the real thing

    The addictive nature of Diplomacy

    Bullying, betrayal, aggression – it may be just a board game, but the family that plays Diplomacy may never look at each other in the same way again
    Lady Chatterley's Lover: Racy underwear for fans of DH Lawrence's equally racy tome

    Fashion: Ooh, Lady Chatterley!

    Take inspiration from DH Lawrence's racy tome with equally racy underwear
    8 best children's clocks

    Tick-tock: 8 best children's clocks

    Whether you’re teaching them to tell the time or putting the finishing touches to a nursery, there’s a ticker for that
    Charlie Austin: Queens Park Rangers striker says ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

    Charlie Austin: ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

    After hitting 18 goals in the Premier League last season, the QPR striker was the great non-deal of transfer deadline day. But he says he'd preferred another shot at promotion
    Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

    How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

    Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
    Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

    'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

    In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea