Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Today I'm gonna get some work done...

Honest! But first one more post....

This article on Slate (the microsoft-owned news magazine site) discusses the failings of Yahoo's Answers service. Yahoo Answers allows users to post a question to the site, which is then answered by other users. The idea is that this will allow a user to get answers to questions that aren't easily parsed by a search engine. The site hopes to tap its users' collective intelligence (that oft alluded to, "wisdom of crowds") by generating large numbers of answers and then allowing users to select the best answer by voting.

Practically, the site works. It has attracted some 120 million users and if you pose it a question you receive an answer (many answers) fairly promptly. Users vote on answers. The technology works.

The Slate article argues that the community enabled by the technology doesn't work as well. As an example, they provide this odd - and both factually and ethically incorrect - list of answers to the question "What beliefs and customs did Native Americans hold in common."

I'm skeptical about Yahoo Answers, for reasons I'll get to in a minute. But I'm MORE skeptical about this example. The question is terrible! It misleads readers from outside the U.S. for whom "Native American" doesn't necessarily carry the same meaning as it does for U.S. residents. In the U.S. we take "Native American" to mean "A descendant of one of the groups of people living in the Americas before the European conquest" but the use of this phrase is fairly recent, and not globally consistent. In Canada, for example, the term used is "First Nations person." A reading of the answers - including the answer voted to be the best, "Apple Pie," and a variety of other answers that criticized "Native Americans" for being fat, rude, and watching too much TV - suggests quite strongly to me that many global readers took "Native American" to mean "Native born citizen of the United States." Slate points out that Yahoo answers draws its users from "all over the world" but doesn't seem aware that worldwide differences in understanding could be affecting the site. If you take "Native American" to mean "Native born U.S. citizen," the answer that "Apple Pie" is a "belief or custom held in common by Native Americans" actually makes a fair amount of sense. It isn't a great answer, (the best answer to this essentialist question would be "nothing") but it isn't as laughably bad and nonsensical as Slate makes it seem.

The question is also misspelled, and invites the worst sorts of bigotry, mythologizing, and prejudice. Plenty of that is evident in the list of responses. The fact that the relatively benign "Apple Pie" beat out the more hateful (and sentimental) stuff actually says something good about the folks on Yahoo answers.

Still, I'm skeptical about the quality of content this system can provide. Yahoo has basically implemented an information plebiscite, drawing on users to select the "correct" answer from a list. This process is fast - which is clearly what Yahoo wants, it wants a human powered search engine - but has little else to recommend it. User bigotry and ignorance might easily win the day.

Wikipedia, which Slate compares positively to Yahoo Answers, is a different beast. The difference is not, however, best explained by Slate's assertion that "Wikipedia users work harder." The difference is best explained by the fact that, in contrast with Yahoo Answer's plebiscite, Wikipedia has implemented democracy (maybe even anarchy) where users deliberate, debate, discuss, and collaborate to produce content - rather than just voting it "up or down."

I'd love to play with the Yahoo site and see what I could find, but my diss is on Wikipedia! I need to work on that now! Yikes!

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