Monday, November 27, 2006

Answer Me!

One day, we were curious about what some professions could make in terms of an annual salary. After a bit of surfing around, and some wide-spectrum answers, I decided to try yahoo answers. A friend had mentioned that it was interesting, and I needed to take a look at how it worked.

Well, Yahoo Answers turns out to be a place where you can ask anything, in free-form text, and it's routed to everyone online on that site. They can answer you, which then, in turn, gets moderated by other viewers to a most/least favorable answer. In the end a single best answer matches each question. The entire process takes about 3 weeks from question asked to best answer decided.

After setting up my account, I asked my question and instantly became bored with waiting for an answer. So, I began to look over the questions other people were asking. Most, as it turns out, are mundane.

Folks ask baiting questions regarding debates long-since abandoned in their real lives. Religion, Politics, flame wars, etc. Every old misconception is put back into the mix with a stream of questions usually left to chat-room fodder.

As with most things Yahoo, Answers categorizes things into rough topic that help narrow your viewing down to just a subset of all questions/answers. So, you can view the "Computers->Security" or "Relationships->Dating" topics and wade through nonsense of your desired flavor.

Such nonsense! Yahoo Answers seem in reality to be an interface catering to web surfers that don't want to deal with Google keywords, lists of relevant web pages, or skimming information out of web sites' forum discussions, new articles, etc. They don't want to research an answer, they want it done for them. For the most part, if the question isn't too poorly constructed or heavily opinionated, they get one.

Homework answers appear, paste-jobs from wikipedia, repeat answers from prior yahoo questions. People even go through the effort to answer "I don't know" to many questions, believing this to be more informative than no answer at all(?) But shouldn't we expect the web to get closer to this level of interaction? isn't everyone hoping for the Star Trek "computer, beam me a beer" interface? Sure, but this is not a step in that direction.

So, is this the next layer of web? Has the web gotten any closer to being able to converse with you in natural language, with well-thought-out answers to your questions?

No. It is interesting, since a human layer is taking over the "last mile" of parsing information already on the web into a specific answer for your question, but the level of intelligence is distinctly human. Gone is the wikipedia "just the facts" tone, and for popular subjects (celebrities, politics, religion, sports - rivalries of almost any kind) you are going to get a squabbling mass of deluded neophytes. Even technical questions are answered with "Duh! you need to do this..." or sly commercials for tangential products or probably best, no answer at all.

But if the answers are bad, the questions do not lack for innane content and delivery. Questions such as "Apple/Microsoft? Which, um is like, the best" (not made up) indicate indeed, the questioners and answerers are in fact the same social group.

Lest you think this is a snap judgement, I've gone on to answer almost 150 questions, creating the "voted best answer" 38% of the time, over the period of about a month.

I cannot say the population isn't diverse, it is. There are professionals, students, young, old, smart asses and serious teacher-types. But for all the "buzz" of having a live person answer your burning question, you get more often than not, a random, average person's opinion, not an expert's direction. For that, Yahoo may have to build yet another layer.

That's my final answer.

1 comment:

Ryan said...

Wow. I, Uhm, have no idea! :-)

Seriously though. That extra human layer is also one rife with laziness. Far too many people are simply unwilling to take the one (or two) extra steps necessary to try and make at least an honest effort to figure something out for themselves. I tend to respond a lot more favorably to well thought out questions that are backed up by a reasonable amount of investigation. It's as if when I read about the issue I myself become intrigued and attempt to roll up my sleeves and divine some kind of solution out of the quagmire. If I learn the answer then we're both the better for it.