I have a question… Wikipedia, Quora and Ask.com

Waaay back when computer games were all text, as in: you typed in commands and were rewarded with a description of what happened, and had no graphics, epic music or life-like characters that become pseudo friends.  During this dark and primitive time in our computer lives there was a question and answer game (I can’t remember what it was called). It was supposed to a precursor to futuristic computer programs we were all promised to have access to someday. The way this game worked, you typed in a question, any question at all, and you got an answer straight from the mind of the computer. Simple as that.

I remember being stunned and amazed, as I typed an entire string of questions like, “Where does the US President live?” and it would respond, “The White House.” Or “What is a German Shepherd?” and it would answer a paragraph, much like something from an encyclopedia, about them being herding dogs, used for police work, easy to train, so on and so forth. Absolutely weirded out, I remember reasoning out loud, with my 8 year old brain, how a computer could possibly recognize a question and then figure out the information to answer it with. My Dad overheard me and gave me my first lesson in keywords, collating, and the vast amounts of ways computers can sort data and connect it based on which words go in which patterns. He said one day we would be able to ask literally anything from a computer, and we’d have the answers to even the most complex medical problems or scientific data, because people were constantly plugging this stuff into computers and when it was finally all there, we’d have this super answer machine

We all know how this went. Eventually there was Google. Other search engines being in existence as well, people figured out how to make them work efficiently and how to make them direct traffic to their products. You began to see information databases like Wikipedia and such, desperately trying to organize the massive amounts of data being entered from all directions. Now, we are in the future of my childhood. Now, you can literally go to Google and say “I have a headache with a pounding at the nape of the neck, what is wrong with me?” and all the information you could ever want is right at your fingertips. You’ll usually discover you are now dying and must go to the emergency room ASAP, but you are assured of finding out anything you could ever wish to know about headaches exhibiting your particular symptoms.

What are the question answering sites consistently pulled up at the top of the list by Google? Let’s explore three of them, and go a little bit into what makes them unique.

Wikipedia: The peoples’ encyclopedia, Wikipedia, was begun in 2001 as a mega database that anyone could access, edit, use content from for free, and organize the entire world’s internet data. It’s pretty hard to come up with something that isn’t in Wikipedia. Many people go right to Wikipedia, bypassing even Google, and look up the subject in question that way. Some users feel that the option for anyone to edit information on the site leaves the credibility of the information up in the air, but as the years have gone by, the site has become more and more trusted. There are too many checks and balances in the form of millions of other readers and editors.

Quora: Invented by former Facebook employees, having gone live in June of 2010, the creators of Quora wanted to have an efficient question and answer site, cutting through the fluff that you get when you ask a question on Google or similar search engines. It is unique in that there are many people logged onto Quora at any given time of the day (usually via Facebook, as it works mainly as a Facebook app) to whom you can posit your question. Actual people will answer your queries, and it’s up to you to figure out if the answers are correct or not.

Ask.com is another community centric question and answer site, with a couple different ways for you to ask a question. You can submit one through their search engine and get the same run of popular to less popular topics that match the keywords in your query, or you can join their community of people and blurt questions out to them. It’s only a matter of seconds before a helpful, even if slightly erroneous, answer comes through just for you.

The biggest problem in this age of infinite data, micro-organized information, and online citadels of all-knowing question answerers is, how could you ever know for sure that this stuff is spot on? Trusting the answers you are given is a chance you have to take, and that hasn’t changed much from the old days of hanging around the old timers, wondering if they were pulling your leg, to accessing immense information, and… wondering if it’s pulling your leg.

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