Gene Weingarten: Yahoo? Big whoop.


(by Eric Shansby)
January 12, 2012

Are you familiar with “Yahoo! Answers”? Me, too. It’s unavoidable. Seems like every time you ask the Web a question, the first set of responses comes from “Yahoo! Answers,” the user-generated arm of the Yahoo! search engine.

In theory, “Yahoo! Answers” is the bright, bold future of mass communication: As the traditional media are frantically re-trenching like a World War I soldier (and writing bad analogies), they are supposedly being replaced by “crowdsourcing,” which taps the potent voice of the people the way “Yahoo! Answers” does. In theory, what crowdsourcing lacks in professional rigor, it more than makes up in sheer numbers — the collective, inexhaustible intelligence of the masses, honed to perfection by the process of self-editing, so only the best will rise to the top. That’s how “Yahoo! Answers” is supposed to work, in theory.

So, if you ask it, “How do computers work?” as I just did, Yahoo’s crowdsourcing apparatus leaps on the job, putting out the question, sifting the responses and then declaring a “Best Answer.” So, here’s the Best Answer, the best explanation for how computers work:

“Its got something to do with electricity and chips. Source(s): my computer class at school.”

Yep, further research confirmed that as a tool, “Yahoo! Answers” is as flimsy as a twist-tie, as dignified as a spork. There are vastly more competent crowdsourcing enterprises out there — Wikipedia, for example — but I have been fascinated by “Yahoo! Answers” for its sheer ubiquity. There is no question too weighty or too frivolous for it, no ethnic stereotype so appalling that Yahoo! users won’t weigh in with their thoughts. Then, for some reason probably related to the evil genies of Search Engine Optimization, the “Yahoo! Answers” rise to the top, like bubbles in a septic tank.

For example, from the “Yahoo! Answer” that was declared best — it’s right at the top of the Google search results — I learned that the reason mankind so often resorts to war is ... “I don’t know.”

How to solve starvation around the world? Best answer: “Send some work for them to do we also have to work to make money to buy food.”

Why is math important? Best answer: “Math is basically the basis for all other knowledge. It comes in handy in life, but I really don’t see the point to geometry.”

In theory, crowdsourcing is supposed to act by intelligently tasking an enormous population, the way China once supposedly solved a fly infestation by issuing fly swatters to a billion people, with a daily kill quota. Thinking about this, I asked “Yahoo! Answers” why there are so many people in China.

Best answer: “Because before they had the one child law, people would have many children to take care of them when they got older.” (The original asker of this question responds to the answerer: “I can see this as the reason definately. Thank you.”

Altogether, I spent three hours asking the Internet questions of all types, from the huge and unanswerable (Is there a God?) to the dumb and trivial (Is there a name for fear of fat people?), and every single time some Yahooer somewhere offered a definitive answer, often uninfluenced by actual knowledge. (“Why do our stomachs growl?” Best answer: “The ‘growling’ is your intestines scraping each other. ...”)

I didn’t stop until I finally found a question to which “Yahoo! Answers” offers no answer. This was it:

Why are “Yahoo! Answers” so stupid?

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