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

Rhodri Marsden
Thursday 10 February 2011 01:00

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...

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