Research help from the masses

| July 13, 2010

Google gets a lot of questions. Just try typing one of the five Ws (and one H) into Google and seeing what auto-completes.

I think most of us, like Scotty in San Francisco circa 1986 (see right), wish we could just ask our computers a question and get an answer, no browsing of web pages required on our part.

We’re getting closer. Technology has certainly come a long way from Ask Jeeves, an answers service that sounded exciting when it was released in 1996, but is actually just another search engine that displays web page hits (don’t let the butler fool you). Wolfram Alpha is a computational search engine that came out in 2009 and has improved since. The user asks a question, and Wolfram Alpha accesses files of structured data to provide your answer, or an explanation of why no answer can be provided. For example, here’s the results for a question that may be one of the world’s greatest unanswered questions (fig. 1).

Fig. 1

It can solve math equations, do Morse codes, calculate carbon footprints, provide magazine circulation statistics, etc. What Wolfram Alpha can’t help with are the more detailed, sometimes peculiar dilemmas plaguing us all. This is where Yahoo Answers and Ask Metafilter come in, where we all can tap the knowledge of the collective mind.

As my great aunt used to say, “if you can think of it, somebody’s done it.” In this case, if you can think of a question there’s a really good chance someone else has asked the same question, sometimes, eerily, down to the last detail, like this question I recently had. Need homework help? Many practice problems directly from popular textbooks have been posted by other students out there, and answered–quickly. One of the most recent requests for help with a Chemistry problem was answered thoroughly and correctly in a very respectable 5 minutes. Answers like this often include an explanation of how the problem was worked out, making it educational, too.

Of course, like MySpace photos, you should take these answers with a grain of salt. Not everyone can provide correct or even useful information, but there’s a system that allows the person asking the question to rate the best answer on Yahoo Answers and this answer will show up first; there are top contributors with subject specialties who have thousands of answers under their belt, and in my experience you can usually trust the information they give. Even Stephen Hawking has an account.

Ask Metafilter has a more mature feel than Yahoo Answers, most likely a combination of the site’s simple design, the required $5 fee to use the site, and the statement of trust:

I give you the ability to do this because I trust you. I trust that you’ll act in a civilized manner, that you’ll treat others with opposing viewpoints with absolute respect and that you’ll contribute in a positive way to the intelligent discussions that take place here every day.

As of this post, the 5 most recent Ask MeFi questions have as much variety as Yahoo offers: on iPhone apps, making a cocktail, appraisal of an antique globe, database programming and health care legislation. What’s more, all of them already have a few responses. The cocktail question has 22.

While I’d never discourage a visit with your friendly neighborhood reference librarian, sometimes you just want to ask a really bizarre question from the privacy of your own home. It might be an interesting social and cultural study to compare Yahoo Answers and Ask MeFi to the questions from 1992’s Book of Answers: The New York Public Library Telephone Reference Service’s Most Unusual and Entertaining Questions. I just did a quick check in Metafilter for one of the 1992 NYPL questions listed on Amazon: “Who really designed the American flag?”. Here’s a match on the subject matter, from 2010: “I want an American flag made of other, smaller American flags. I need an awesome graphic for my 4th of July BBQ invite. Something along the lines of Chuck Norris riding a fire-breathing eagle attacking a bear army with an American flag background (for instance).” Truly, this is a question that only the hive mind could answer.