Using technology to get answers to your questions: better or just quicker?

In my opinion, one of the most wonderful things about the Internet is the sheer glut of information available. Of course, you (nearly) always have to take a “buyer beware” approach to information you find online, especially when moving beyond organizational websites (and sometimes even when you are on those sites). What makes all of this information even more valuable, however, is the ability to query the system, to ask a question on any conceivable topic and receive feedback from other individuals. Sometimes, on “friend”-based sites such as Facebook, you can pose a query to a given set of people, i.e., your Friend network. In other cases, queries shoot across the intertubes and can be answered by a complete stranger.

Obviously, there are pros and cons to employing technology for your question-based needs. One of the points we stress in our research again and again is that social network sites like Facebook are especially well-suited when it comes to bridging social capital. Social capital(1) is a construct similar to that of other forms of capital (e.g., financial, human) that describes the benefits accrued from one’s social network, and bridging social capital (as coined by Robert Putnam) is concerned with benefits that are found in a diverse network of weak ties, such as access to novel information. Since Facebook opened its network to everyone, we have seen a great diversification of network composition to include family, friends, colleagues, acquaintances, and more. As the average Facebook Friend network includes 130 people (according to Facebook, at least), it is pretty clear that these networks include a number of weak ties who, consequently, are different from us in terms of knowledge, experience, etc. By creating features that allow users to easily communicate with the network, users are able to tap into that diverse knowledge when they have questions, especially when no one within their core of connections has an answer.

Sociologist Mark Granovetter–who is probably cited in just about everything I ever write these days–wrote about the various benefits we receive from different types of network ties and argued that the strength of weak ties is that they can access individuals and networks that we are not immediately connected to by bridging the gaps between networks (what Ron Burt refers to as structural holes). Granovetter applied this to the process of getting a job: within your strong tie network, most of the information is redundant; however, by accessing your weak ties, you are likely to hear about more opportunities.

Search technology has fueled the ability to get answers to questions fast. For example, if I type “How much wood can a woodchuck chuck” into Google, I get 28,000+ results (and learn the answer is about 700 pounds). The benefit to using a search engine such as Google over your online or offline social network can be found in speed and diversity. Oftentimes, you cannot immediately reach a member of your social network (or a known expert on the topic) immediately. Furthermore, no matter how diverse your network is, they probably don’t have an answer for everything (if they do, I’d like to met you).

At the same time, however, there are a number of drawbacks to using more global-based services to find answers to questions. First, as much useful information as the Internet contains, it contains far more worthless–and potentially dangerous–information (boo!). The ease with which content can be posted to the Internet is certainly a two-edged sword; anyone can post to the Internet (yay!) but those people may be ignorant of some of the facts or–worse–malicious in their intent. Sometimes, weeding through all the trash to find an answer is not worth the time or effort. Even more importantly, I feel that we sometimes ignore the fact that humans are extremely complex individuals, and many of the questions we ask cannot be answered by entering some keywords into the searchbar.

This last point reveals one way in which social networks can be more beneficial than search engines. If I pose a question to my Facebook Friends, many of them can incorporate information they already know about me into their response. This is certainly beneficial when I am asking advice-based questions, such as if I should go see a specific movie this weekend, vs. a more fact-based question. So therefore, one could suggest that I use Google for all my objective questions and Facebook for all my subjective questions. However, there is another issue to consider when using a SNS for question asking: in order for me to receive answers from my network, I must make certain disclosures. But what if it’s a sensitive subject (e.g., health-related)? What if is a question about a specific subgroup of my network (e.g., dealing with an annoying coworker) and there are members of the group in my network? I could post these questions to an online discussion forum, shrouded in pseudonumity, but then I run into the same problem of asking more personal questions of people who don’t have the benefit of my background to help them provide the best response.

The main reason I’ve been thinking about this today is because I just received access to the (still in beta) Facebook Questions feature. The basic breakdown is this: you post a question and tag it. Anyone on Facebook (to my knowledge) will be able to view your question and respond to it. Your name does not appear to be listed with your question, although the names of responders are linked to their comments. You also have the ability to send a question to a friend, even if it’s not your question. So basically it’s just like many of the other question-based sites (e.g., WikiAnswers, Yahoo! Questions) but with real identities tied to responses.

I find a few things really interesting about this. First, not identifying the question asker appears to be an attempt to encourage posting of more sensitive questions. Second, identifying responders may be an attempt to legitimize responses and discourage “bad” responses. One thing I’m curious about is if there will be a way to tie the question to your network, so you can pose a question to both your friends (and be identified so they know they’re responding to you) and the 500 million other Facebook users (and remain anonymous). Of course, this could be done by posting the question as a status update and through the feature, but everyone knows that humans are lazy.

So what is the benefit of using Facebook Questions over a Google search? I’m very interested to see if my second point regarding legitimacy actually has an effect on increasing question posters’ trust in responses. I’m also really curious to see what kinds of questions come to dominate Questions, as the feature falls somewhere between asking your network and using a search engine. In addition, will the decision to link real identities to responses discourage some users from posting comments, even when the topic is innocuous? For me personally, I struggle with the idea of having my real name linked to posts that will be forever written in the annals of the Internet. Only recently have I created a public Twitter account attached to my full name, and even now the only place you see my full name on this site is if you download my CV. But maybe I’m hyper-sensitive about this and normal people won’t care (based on some of the things I real on Lamebook and Failbook, it seems that many people don’t care if their friends and everyone else sees all their dirty laundry).

How do you feel about the Questions feature? Would you use it? What kinds of questions do you think are best asked to your online social network? What kinds of questions should never be asked on Facebook?

Note:

(1) For a discussion of different forms of capital, see Bourdieu’s seminal piece [pdf], which was published in “The sociology of economic life” (2001).

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