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

killermonkey: because the reason for me is im bored and i like to share my thoughts and might learn somthing or idk

btaylor2010: Because we have no life

samanthajune: Those of us with the pink star under our profile picture answer questions to help the Susan G. Koman for the cure. Ask donates 25 cents to breast cancer research for each question we answer.

dinogurliee: Cause we like helping people:)

fakebirds: To be helpful. Or just to have fun and mess with people. Why are you on Ask.com?

ashu90: because we can help…

NYsunshine: Because we want to<3<3

nadarkins: I don’t really know why but it’s kind of addicting. I guess it’s a fun thing to do if you have a little bit of down time

samanthakellie: Well I like to get people to follow me, thumbs ups, & I just like helping people.

TammyLaVonne: Man’s natural God Given, curiousness…

BrewersFan4Ever: I like to help people out, unless they are trying to get an answer for their homework. By my answers, i donate 25 cents each answer to the Susan G Komen Cure (helping find the cure of breast cancer)

FormerGlory: It’s therapeutic to help people, make friends, and make people laugh.

Dozy: Lots of reasons, Wade — and just possibly as many different reasons as there are different members. Yes, it’s good to be able to help, and sometimes you get the chance actually to do that. Sometimes I help most by keeping my mouth shut and my fingers off the keyboard. Ask will also pay 25c per answer to the Komen Foundation for cancer research. So you can help there. I enjoy writing, so many of my answers push that 1200 character limit. I’m not sure how many people actually read the stuff, but I have fun writing it. Then, I like to be creative so I often pull a question out of context and answer it from a different point of view — like today’s question about the Richter scale. But mostly it’s for the brilliance of the comments threads. A lot of us are pretty average but some of the people on this site are brilliant, and I enjoy their input. There’s a great deal of interaction and a lot of humour in the comments threads and I’ve had the pleasure of exchanging ideas with some of our people on Facebook. I see you’re not following anybody yet. Pick out a few people whose answers you like and add them to your list. It’s the quickest way into the site’s entertainment.

VirginiaL: Hi WadeRoush, Welcome to Ask! I came late last December, and was intrigued by this amazing, interactive software that is so immediately responsive…you can post your question, and within minutes or hours responses come in from all over the world. It is a wonderful sense of very high-quality social connection with people everywhere, and you never need to leave home. The questions, answers, and discussions really help you develop your power of reason and insight. Also, there have been times when this website has very possibly saved a life…someone comes on in deep despair, asking for suggestions, opinions or resources…and a dozen people respond in support… There have been (and still are) problems, mostly as the software continues to be refined, but those of us who hang in there have definitely felt it is worth it. So hope you stay a long time…

HaeinKim: To help. What If people didn’t answer your questions?

Jebidiahcrackercorn: For me, it addicting! If I don’t stop, I’ll have to start an AA group! Get it? : D

barbarabliss: Many times I have a real question that I need an answer or opinion on. I actually have participated on Ask. com for years + (as long as they’ve been online I think, even though my profile shows only Oct. 2011.) I love the fun and camaraderie I’ve experienced with the good-humored give and take with like minds. Truthfully, I don’t even mind opposite views, that’s part of the give and take. But, I do mind disrespect. Possibly I’m from the wrong generation, having come over here on the Mayflower. :-) The recent question I asked the moderators about what I thought should not have appeared on Ask.com caused quite a ruckus. I am sorry about that. I quite innocently found those questions on the rt. side of the screen while checking on questions I thought I could answer. I wish the moderators would have just removed it. I don’t understand what their purpose was to keep it going; but I’m heading into seven decades, still got a lot to learn.

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

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