Why Do People Answer Questions on Q&A Sites? Ask.com Users Speak Up

11/16/11Follow @wroush

Today’s main infotech feature on Xconomy San Francisco is about Ask.com, the Oakland, CA-based search company that has been busy transforming itself into a question-and-answer service powered by an army of community members. If you can’t find an instant answer through Ask.com’s Web search tool, you can easily pose it to other Ask.com users. Depending on the subject, you might get multiple answers within minutes.

As I was writing that piece, there was one nagging thing I couldn’t figure out. Why do people bother to answer the questions? Nobody at Ask.com gets paid actual cash, as the “guides” at human search site ChaCha do. There’s no system of points and levels, like the one at Yahoo Answers. There’s no credit mechanism like the one at Quora.

There is one way to earn concrete rewards at Ask.com—but the money goes to breast cancer research, not to you. If you volunteer to support the Susan G. Komen For The Cure Foundation, Ask.com will donate 25 cents to the foundation every time you post an answer. As far as I can tell, something like half of the active users at Ask.com are signed up for this program.

But the question remains: why spend your leisure time contributing free content to Ask.com—a unit of media giant IAC/InterActiveCorp—when you don’t see a penny of the revenue the company earns by showing ads on the site? It’s the exact opposite of the “free rider” problem in economics, where people consume resources without paying for them. In this case, people are adding resources without asking to be paid.

Of course, you could ask the same question about Wikipedia or any of the Web’s many crowdsourced sites. And you could venture all sorts of hypotheses—maybe people are just killing time, or burnishing their online reputations. But I finally got the brilliant idea of asking Ask.com users themselves why they contribute.

Within an hour of posting my question, I’d received more than 25 responses. I quoted a few of them in the feature article, and in this space I wanted to show you the whole set (minus a couple of trollish ones). The answers are pretty illuminating for anyone interested in community dynamics on the Web—especially the longer ones from “Dozy,” “VirginiaL,” and “Barbarabliss.” The bottom line seems to be that people just want to help.

My personal thanks to everyone who contributed answers.

The Question:

Why do people answer questions on Ask.com? I’m not asking in a snarky or ironic way — I’m genuinely curious about what motivates you to answer questions here, especially given that Ask.com doesn’t use points, badges, rankings, or other systems for rewarding or recognizing your contributions.

The Answers:

GuardGirl: i guess we’re just curious to see what other people are thinking and i personally like to help people:)

TheHelpFinder: They want to be helpful, that’s all.

pumpkinman: i guess just to help people with what they need thats all

Daisy46: It’s fun! and i like to give people accurate information that will actually help them. It makes me feel like I am making a tiny positive difference in that persons life.

666_Maggots: to have a purpose in life…

bellydncr: I guess some of us still enjoy trying to help even if we don’t get gold stars.

persiancat: I like to answer questions to help people…. Especially if I have personal experience

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Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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