The power of the internet at your fingertips! I don't think it's just me but I'm an information fiend. We all devour information at such a quick pace these days that it's so hard to keep track of it all. If only I had eidetic memory..
What are the different phases of the moon? What is the definition of syzygy? What is the King's Indian Attack in chess? What is the value of Z in scrabble? Yes, I have looked up each and every one of these recently. While Google (or another search engine like Bing) can help you out with these answers, there are times where the problem's solution can't be found simply by asking a search engine the question.
What kind of questions am I talking about?
- I'm visiting Calgary and need to figure out what places to go to and what restaurants to see. Can any locals recommend some to me?
- What are the best investments for a household to make when starting a garden in a yard in Portland, OR?
- What is your favorite chicken recipe?
The questions could be searched on the internet. Yes, you may even find an answer, but how do you know that its a valid source? Yes, you can see reviews of restaurants in Calgary but I think we've all had times where we listened to reviews and found out that they were wrong. Just because a collective has decided that the restaurant is the best does not mean it's the best for you.
The difference between these questions and the other ones are that the other ones are questions that have a definite answer. The second set of questions really do not - they depend on your own preferences, budget, or whatever is the case for your situation. For these set of questions, rather than doing a ton of work going through the search engines, looking up articles and synthesizing the information together to form an answer, why not ask someone who has done it before?
That's where the next two sites I'm going to talk about come in.
Image from pbs.org
Aardvark was my first foray into Q & A sites. You sign up and then tell Aardvark what subjects and topic areas that you'd be comfortable being asked questions about. For instance, when I signed up, I was pretty comfortable with mathematics, computer science (my two degrees in university), logic puzzles, chess, scrabble and food.
The next thing that Aardvark does is it searches for any friends that you might have on your network(s). For instance, you can tap into Facebook and MSN. If you do have friends on your networks, you're allowed to add them to your network in Aardvark.
Once you have your subject areas defined and your networks searched, you can begin asking and answering questions.
What Aardvark does is it taps into your networks and taps into real people that can answer your questions. Whenever you ask a question, you make sure that it contains enough information so that someone an answer it properly. You tag it with subject areas and Aardvark sends out the question to people that have those subjects areas defined as their areas of 'expertise'.
You also have the ability to not only use the web interface, but also the IM client as well. You can add Aardvark as a 'friend' on your MSN and you can both ask questions to Aardvark (in which it will seek out answers from other people and send it to you) or you can answer questions that Aardvark will send to you by IM. Pretty neat!
My thoughts about Aardvark: I'm surprised at the quality of answers that I can get on Aardvark. People are answering questions on their own time in order to help out everyone on the network. I have such limited time these days due to all my commitments that it's hard to put in a lot of time on Aardvark. I've also added Aardvark into my msn - any time there's a question that it thinks I know the answer to, it will IM me and I can communicate with the asker (either by answering the question or getting more clarification). I think that's one of the coolest features of Aardvark.
Here are a few questions I've asked on Aardvark and the answers I've gotten (names have been removed):
Q: I'm interested in how standup comics, or anybody who is an expert in comedy comes up with the material that they do. I've come up with a few things but I want to increase my output of funny stuff - is it just about coming up with ideas (not just the funny ones) ie. quantity not quality?
A: "Go quantity. If you just produce content constantly some of it will be good. Eventually, you'll start to notice patterns that you, personally, can use to increase the amount of good material you produce. To start with just free associate with concepts and see if you can see i any connections."
A: "I don't personally do stand-up, but I am an avid fan (my favorites are Patton Oswalt and David Cross). And what I can suggest is don't be afraid to stretch one topic. Some of the greatest comedians can rant about something as simple as a texting error for 10 minutes.
It's all about trial and error once you do get on stage. Not everything is going to do well when you first get on stage. But keep track of what does, and work with the diction and delivery of things that don't."
Q: What are some great ways you've found to increase your writing creativity and overcome writer's block?
A: "you just have to sit down and purge. whatever comes to mind, write it down without self-editing, without thinking about it. whatever it is, it's gotta be jotted down on the page. fill a page, fill several pages with whatever garbage comes to mind. imagine all that junk clogging up your creative center and that by spilling it all on some random page you're doing yourself a service
plus, all of that filled page feels a hell of a lot better than one gaping blank one. try it! :)"
A: "there is no royal method used to sift through material. the idea of sifting ought not even enter your mind until you've exhausted yourself of mental flotsam. afterward, read through what you've written down - aloud. that seems to work the best for me. if it's not content that strikes the ear happily, it's a tone, or a feeling. that alone ought to be enough to drive some fiction. just create a document titled "freewriting" and let loose. use punctuation - or not. probably some of the stuff that you let out will represent very old thoughts or feelings, or observations about the room you're sitting in. any of those could be rabbit holes, and who knows where they might end? sometimes simply taking a walk and naming every single thing that i see helps jumpstart the ol' noggin. what is your current method?"
Image from http://ronmartin.net/
Another interesting Q & A site that I've recently checked out is Mahalo. Mahalo works a little differently than Aardvark: it is a Q & A site but it uses something called Mahalo dollars in order to provide incentives for good answers.
Unlike Aardvark however, they don't have subject areas which you can say you're an expert in (although they tell me that they will have that functionality in the near future). Instead, you're able to ask and answer any question in the community. Questions again, must be detailed enough for the people answering and they can be tagged but the tagging right now works as a way to both categorize the question as well as a way for users to sift through and find related questions and answers that they might be interested in.
In Mahalo, everyone starts off as a white belt. You gain points for answering questions or performing certain tasks, for instance, joining Mahalo earns you 50 points and logging in to Mahalo earns you 1 point. The Mahalo points is sort of like experience in an RPG game; you reach certain point levels and you can then earn a new Mahalo belt. The Mahalo belts then allow you to do more tasks (for instance, answer or ask more questions or to be the manager of different pages).
While the points and the mahalo dollars aren't directly related, they are indirectly related. By gaining more points and being allowed to do more tasks, you're able to earn Mahalo dollars faster. Once you reach $150 Mahalo dollars, you can then transfer those funds to a Paypal account (the conversion rate is 0.75 real dollars to 1 mahalo dollar).
Mahalo also has how-to pages - similar to sites like ehow.com or instructable. As I mentioned before, these pages are maintained by page managers who earn mahalo dollars from the number of page views it gets (there are ads on the pages).
My thoughts about Mahalo:
I like the concept of Mahalo and it's Mahalo dollars. Again, because of my limited time, I haven't been able to spend a ton of time on it but like Aardvark, I've been trying my best to answer questions that I have a good answer to.During my short time, I've quickly upgraded my belt a few times and am now wondering whats in store for the next belt levels.
One thing is for sure, it's not really easy to make a lot of money on the site (unless you're some of the top Mahalo users). I certainly haven't got there yet but some of the top users are making thousands of dollars a month. To get there though, you need to put in a tremendous amount of time to get to the appropriate belt levels and then create and maintain great content that people are prone to view.
Compared to Aardvark, I feel the quality of answers are about the same however, I also feel that there's a lot of noise on Mahalo as well. On Mahalo, you are allowed to ask questions anonymously and let's just say that many users take advantage of that anonymity to ask inappropriate questions or questions that involve spam. Sometimes you get that on Aardvark as well but Aardvark does a pretty good job of filtering out those questions by analyzing the language and removing anything with inappropriate words.
How about you? Have you tried Aardvark? Mahalo? Maybe you've tried other Q & A sites like Hunch? Lunch? Where do you get your answers when you have tough questions that can't simply be answered by search engines?