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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat


    Yahoo! answers a questionable obsession

    Courtney Smithwire editor
    Courtney Smith
    wire editor


    tephen Hawking got me curious. Chuck Norris got me hooked.

    Last Tuesday, renowned British astrophysicist Steven Hawking posted a question on the Yahoo Answers Web site: “”In a world that is in chaos politically, socially and environmentally, how can the human race sustain another 100 years?””

    As of Tuesday, over 22,700 people had provided Hawking with an answer.

    This past Friday, U2’s lead singer Bono closed a celebrity series on the Yahoo Answers site by asking a question of his own: “”What can we do to make poverty history?””

    Before learning about these celebrity postings, I had never even heard about Yahoo! Answers. Yahoo! Answers is a relatively new Web site that has joined the ranks of other Web sites, including MySpace, Facebook and YouTube, that have collectively become a social interacting phenomenon. Yahoo! Answers allows users to ask questions and get answers from real people. You can also help out others by answering their questions. The Web site, like one from Google Inc. and one planned by Microsoft Corp., is based on the premise that humans can do a better job at finding information than a machine or single person can do.

    Launched only last December, the Web site has not only far surpassed the popularity of Google Answer, but it has also hit its 10-million-answers-posted mark only five months after its debut, according to Search Engine Watch.

    After learning of Hawking’s post, I decided to check it out. My infatuation with this site started out as an innocent curiosity. I read through a few questions and the answers that people posted, familiarized myself with the site, and eventually created an account in order to log in.

    But once I jumped in, there was no turning back. I started off slowly, shyly answering a few simple questions. But before I knew it, I had explained laissez-faire economics and Adam Smith’s “”invisible hand”” concept to a random stranger. I had reminded someone of Joey’s catch phrase from the early 90’s TV show “”Blossom.”” I even ventured so far as to put in my two cents about the true meaning of life.

    I knew my once coy curiosity had evolved into full-on obsession when I couldn’t stop thinking about Chuck Norris. I had just answered a question asking for people’s favorite Chuck Norris jokes, with the obvious answer: Chuck Norris isn’t afraid of the dark. The darkness is afraid of Chuck Norris. After hurriedly posting my answer, I tore myself away from my computer to make a belated appearance at a friend’s house for dinner. While everyone was arguing over what music should be played, the theme song to “”The Adventures of Pete and Pete”” or the Talking Heads, I stole away to secretly use my friend’s computer. You know it is obsession when you interrupt party time in order to see whose response was rated best: yours or that worthy adversary who recognizes that there is no theory of evolution – only a list of animals Chuck Norris has allowed to live.

    Fortunately, I am not alone. I took solace in discovering a Web site for Answerholics Anonymous. Perhaps I will follow their 12-step guide aimed at helping those of us who must take a poll before deciding what we are going to eat for dinner.

    Obsession aside, there are some real questions that this, along with other user-dependent Web sites, raise. Although Yahoo! will eventually implement a user-rating system aimed at controlling the quality of responses, currently anyone can ask and answer questions. As a result, the Web site is replete with questionable questions and inappropriate answers.

    Wikipedia, another Web site that also taps into collective intelligence, contains mechanisms to increase quality and organization by organizing the relevant topics on the same page. With a lack of the control these other Web sites seem to possess, is the usefulness or credibility of Yahoo! Answers compromised? Or perhaps the one-off question format of Yahoo!’s Web site allows those who would not normally participate or even think for that matter to become active in a social discourse?

    After spending hours (literally) asking and answering, I began to wonder if Yahoo! Answers is really helpful or just horseplay; did I mention you get points for every question you answer in order to get to a higher level? So, obviously, I posted my question for the masses to answer (which is still posted).

    “”Do you think Yahoo Answers, in attempting to tap into collective intelligence, is a useful tool or merely fun?””

    Within five minutes of asking my question, I had received five answers. The turnaround rate was fast (but not as fast as Chuck Norris). The majority of the responders agreed that the site is both educational and entertaining. To quote one of my responders, “”This site has really helped me with some questions I had, and I learn from others’ questions and answers as well.””

    Others did not agree. One person thought the site was a tool to “”Big Brother”” Internet users. “”I think this is just part of a plot to encourage the computing public to freely admit their sins against the government. I don’t know why revolution has not yet come, but those of us who resist will be snuffed out for our beliefs. Viva la revolutione!””

    One woman responded, “”It’s a little bit of both. And add a touch of crap … kind of like life in general …””

    The result of my poll concluded that, generally speaking, Yahoo! Answers is fun (to the point of addiction) and can be educational too.

    If you were wondering how many cheerios people think your Syrian hamster can fit into his cheeks, have a serious response for Hawking’s question, or are just curious like I was, I suggest you check out the Web site. Regardless of your intention, there is plenty to be learned from the Web site.

    I learned that the age-old adage is wrong – there is such a thing as a stupid question. I also learned that while the site’s attempt to utilize collective intelligence is admirable and even useful at times, its current lack of control has left much to be desired in terms of credibility as a resource – it plays like a game. And lastly, I have learned that the quickest way into a man’s heart is with Chuck Norris’ fist.

    Courtney Smith is a senior majoring in molecular and cellular biology and
    anthropology. You can respond to her Yahoo question by going to She can be reached at

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