Future Tense

How Can This Possibly Be the End of Yahoo Answers????

A light-up question mark on its side.
Yahoo Answers will be unplugged officially on May 4. Jon Tyson /Unsplash

In middle school, Alex Fong would spend 15 hours a week on Yahoo Answers, helping strangers sort through their aquarium conundrums. He answered questions like: “Why are my fish sick?” “What can I do with this 10-gallon tank?” “What fish can live together?” To address the tougher questions, he poured over aquarium books. He tried to make his answers detailed and long. After a month of posting, he earned the “top contributor” designation—with 477 points and a 79 percent best answer rate. “I saw a lot of people who had questions that were valid, that I would have had as a beginner too. So I wanted to help them,” Fong says. “I felt bad for people, honestly. They were asking for help. And they weren’t getting it.” So Fong joined the ranks of millions just like him and took it upon himself to bring clarity to the clueless.

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And now, it seems, clueless is just how many will have to remain. This week, Yahoo Answers announced that it is shutting down its operations. Beginning April 20, people won’t be able to post any more questions or answers. Then on May 4, Yahoo Answers will be rendered completely extinct.

Yahoo Answers launched in 2005 and quickly ascended to internet stardom. Chirag Shah, a professor of Computer and Information Science at the University of Washington thinks that, by 2008, Yahoo Answers was not only the biggest online question and answering service, but actually the biggest website on the internet.

That’s the year Shah began to study the site in an attempt to understand people’s motivation for using it. Why would millions of people rather post on Yahoo Answers—and wait days for a non-fact checked response to materialize—instead of just typing a question into Google and getting an answer within seconds? The appeal, he discovered, is manifold. Obviously there’s the entertainment value—a simple scroll will surface many a hilarious and outrageous post. “Is it illegal to kill an ant????????” “Do you think humans will ever walk on the sun?” “What did my dad just say to me?”  But mostly, the popularity of Yahoo Answers stemmed from its humanity and community.

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People posted on the site for two main reasons: confirmation and social support. The fact that there were other people out there answering your question mattered way more than the accuracy of the answer itself, Shah explains. “The best answers weren’t necessarily the content-quality best, but they were the ones that connected with the question and the asker,” Shah says. “For a lot of these things, people just want the human element. To see that there are other people facing the same things or going through the same issues.”

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Although other question-and-answering services exist, like WikiAnswers (which Shah says is good for fact-based questions) and Quora (where experts answer questions), Yahoo Answers was singular in the way it cultivated a chorus of diverse opinions and responses. Fong says he would see the same top contributors answering the questions and felt a sort of kinship with them. He also felt a responsibility towards the askers of Yahoo Answers—a wider, more estranged network—and aimed to make sure that they were receiving the right information. If he saw a wrong answer, he would write a counterpoint to it. Shah noticed this pattern of flagging misinformation among top contributors. “People at the highest level almost become moderators of this community. They would feel that it’s their community and they have to take care of it,” Shah says.

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The loyalty of top contributors stemmed from the sense of accomplishment they feel on the site. Shah says that Yahoo Answers had a point system that kept users hooked. The more questions answered, the more points received—providing psychological incentive to keep going and earn the “top contributor” badge. Fong echoed that the gamification of Yahoo Answers stoked his devotion to the site—and prevented him from using WikiAnswers or any other service. “It was like a game, but none of the rules were written down.”

Fong isn’t even quite sure how he became a top contributor—he thinks it’s because he tried to pick the unpopular questions, so his answer would be more readily voted the “best answer.” There weren’t many perks to his title, but he did notice that once he snagged the badge, his answers would be filtered to the top on a post—much like the comments of verified users on Twitter or Instagram.

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And sites like Twitter and Instagram are the very places that caused the answer service’s decline. Shah says he felt like the site lost its standing around 2011, when social media services were growing in fame. Fong’s posting waned in mid-high school, and now Twitter has replaced Yahoo Answers for him. It provides a similar freedom to post, comment, or ask anything. Others seem to have been feeling similarly for a while now too—many posts on Yahoo Answers are from “a decade ago,” he notes.

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But even if much of Yahoo Answers was long ago rendered obsolete—replaced by more modern social media technology—people are still mourning its loss. Some are even comparing the site’s death to the burning of the Library of Alexandria. It’s the only place on the internet, Shah explained, where the misspelled, imperfect questions were the ones rewarded with more answers. “The human touch was very much of a selling point to people,” Shah says, “And so I think we are definitely losing a great resource.”

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Yahoo Answers says that users who want to preserve their posts will be able to download and keep their personal archive of questions and answers. Since hearing of the impending shutdown, Fong has taken some screenshots of his old posts and profile. “I definitely feel nostalgic because that was a long position of my growing up.” He says looking back at his Yahoo Answers phase, he even feels shocked at himself: “Wow, I was so motivated that I went on Yahoo Answers and spent time answering questions. It kind of warms my heart. That was a part of my life. I am sad to see it go.”

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.

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