the value of social Q&A

As someone who participates in many “social Q&A” sites and who runs one, I’m always interested in seeing people talking about them. I’m much more interested in this whole phenomenon than I am in Library 2.0 generally, even though I think they’re package and parcel of the same thing: computer-mediated and -assisted interaction between people who are geographically dispersed but share other common interests. As librarians we think about this a lot. Our patron base is becoming more dispersed even as our funding basis remains, in most cases, local.

First Monday has an article this month about these sites with some hard data, “Exploring characteristics and effects of user participation in online social Q&A sites” They use data from 55,000 Yahoo Answers questions (as an aside, Ask MetaFilter just reached its 100,000th question which was sort of exciting) and do a good survey of the existing literature. It’s an enjoyable read and really comes down to an elucidation of one of the first things I learned in library school: people ask their friends to help them with their information needs before they ask experts or professionals. Getting more granular about why this may be, and shifting the arena slightly to encompass the online world, this paper examines why.

Gazan (2006) divided questioners into Specialists and Synthesists. Specialists are more like knowledge experts who provide answers without referencing other sources, while Synthesists are the ones who do not claim any expertise and provide answers with references. Gazan (2007) identified two roles of answerers as Seekers and Sloths, depending on whether they have continuous conversation/interaction with other members after posting questions. Seekers demonstrate active engagement with the community and pursue communication regarding their questions. Sloths do not pursue further interaction with community members after receiving answers to their questions.

The article also looks into the Google Answers model for some insight into why it failed while Yahoo Answers succeeded.

Overall, it appears that Yahoo! Answers has developed a responsive community in which users voluntarily participate as both consumers and contributors. In comparison, Google Answers featured many one–time consumers and a small number of contributors who could only cover one–third of questions. Based on these observations, we suppose that Google’s approach of controlling the quality of answers, by not allowing users other than pre–approved ‘researchers’ to answer queries, led to a failure of the service. Yahoo! Answers’ open participatory model, on the other hand, appears to be successful, with a strong community in place.

Meanwhile, remember ChaCha? Apparently it’s not doing so well.