As I pen this likely masterpiece, I contemplate two things: (a) why in Heaven’s name was a blog post due on a Saturday night*, and (b) how well is humankind doing in its quest to semantically structure the world’s information?
Being more within the scope of point (b), I’ll start with a bit of reminiscing. The year was 1995: the Nation was falling more in-love with future President Hillary Clinton every day, one Orenthal James “The Juice” Simpson was just starting his long descent into ill-repute, and the domestication of the dog continued unabated**.
Your humble author was visiting a neighbor who’d just gotten an internet connection. The first order of business, of course, was to pore over this so-called “Yahoo,” in search of, er, ‘information,’ on our beloved Detective Dana Scully (of X-Files fame). The suspense we felt as our search results came in, 28.8 grueling kilobits at a time, nearly killed us that day. But what made it worse was the sheer scarcity of reliable info.
Being a hair too young to invent my own Google, I took the role of informed on-looker, watching with excitement as the world took step-after-step towards information singularity: that point at which all beings have unfettered access to all information.
Suffice it to say we’re still a bit off of the mark, but there’ve been big steps. And there’ve been big missteps. Take, for example, the Yahoo Answers epoch***. In perhaps the first large-scale use of crowdsourcing, Yahoo built a platform wherein users could ask questions about nearly anything, and the crowd could share some of its precious wisdom.
Different permutations of this model emerged, some involving ‘bounties’ for answers and other incentive strategies, but by-and-large, nearly every effort in the area struck-out. Time-and-time again, absurdity and misinformation brought Yahoo Answers a reputation of a less-dirty Urban Dictionary, good only for finding poorly-spelled streams-of-consciousness; the flotsam & jetsam of the internet.
Several of Yahoo Answers’ mechanisms withstood the test of time: Reddit cashed-in on the up/down-voting buttons that Yahoo used. Stackexchange created an empire of technical information using the wisdom-of-the-crowds model, eventually becoming the internet age’s equivalent of the Library of Alexandria*^.
The most notable descendant of Yahoo Answers, though, might be Quora. Founded by Facebook’s former CTO, Quora was like Yahoo Answers, but backwards. Instead of users building their reputations by answering questions and receiving up-votes, Quora users listed bona fides upon registration. This subtlety made all the difference, with users attaching their e-reputations to the information they provided, upping the ante considerably for careless or intentional misinformation.
Part of the success of this strategy stems from a right-place/right-time phenomenon: when Yahoo Answers sought to disrupt the paradigm, etc., many internet users were still getting over the reluctance so many felt about identifying themselves on the internet. This was only a few years after the AOL chatroom era, wherein, as the news suggested, every internet user was either a pervert, or an FBI agent trying to catch a pervert. Further, a person’s professional success wasn’t tied to their e-presence. Whereas Quora answer-providers are often engaging in outbound-marketing, many Yahoo Answers users were just killing time during commercial-breaks of “American Idol.” If Quora had launched in 2005, it may have met with the same fate.
But maybe not. Yahoo may have fallen victim to its own success. While the goal of Answers was a logical extension of Yahoo’s work in search, many of its other offerings brought dramatically different demographics into the company’s ecosystem. Perhaps the internet user interested in playing ‘Hearts’ on Yahoo for 6 hours a day might not be the best candidate for answering pressing questions in a reliable way.
Whatever the reason, Answers never gained the air of credibility Quora enjoys, thus never reaching the point of self-correction. This tipping-point for a crowd-sourced platform comes when the users’ conception of their platform is so strong, they engage in rigorous self-policing. Try asking a coding question on Stackoverflow without Googling it extensively and see what I mean. I’ve even had users edit my formatting in questions on that particular forum, for no other reason than to maintain the integrity of the platform’s corpus of wisdom.
We might not be at the point yet where Google can understand not just what I’m telling it, but what I’m trying to find^, but using crowds as synthesizers of the world’s knowledge isn’t a terrible stepping-stone. If I was 14 years old today, I could just post my Det. Scully questions on Quora. And maybe she’d be the one to answer.
* Mea culpa: I ought to have marked my calendar.
**This joke was stolen from the Simpsons.
***Google even tried their hand!
*^A notably more fireproof version.
^For a gander at how close (and how far) we are, ask Siri about Wolfram Alpha.