Rhodri Marsden: Cyberman

Seek and ye shall find

All hail the search engine. Which other modern invention can direct you towards information on parking restrictions in Tooting, while also giving hints on how to make a battery out of 500lb of potatoes? But although incredibly useful, what you get out of them depends entirely on what you put in.

Some sites might encourage you to phrase your query as a question to make you feel as if you're interacting with some all-knowing guru, but you're merely battling against a crafty algorithm, and it can be difficult to coax the results you want out of the colossal amount of information that's contained in the index. The future, apparently, is "social-searching", where the search habits and general knowledge of the internet community are harnessed.

One of Microsoft's plans for 2006 is a site where visitors can pose questions and respond to others. A number of these sites are already established. You can browse through such topics as: "How many drops of water make a lake?", and if you'd like to help, you can add your contribution. The success of these sites, however, ultimately depends on the knowledge base of the community, and their willingness to help.

Ask MetaFilter - possibly the most successful example - has established itself as a thriving and fascinating community project. Other sites appoint teams of researchers who are paid per response; Google Answers, for example, requires you to nominate an amount that you are willing to pay when you submit each question. It's perhaps predictable that the eagerness of Google's researchers to earn $200 by "outlining Jungian personality types in stand-up comedy" is in stark contrast to their lack of interest in the person who offers $2 for proof that his local café is putting laxatives in his food.

cyber@timewasting.net

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