Ask The Internet? Um, No Thanks.

Illustration for article titled Ask The Internet? Um, No Thanks.

Yesterday, in her Erma Bombeck-meets-"Circuits" New York Times column "Cyberfamilias," Michelle Slatalla takes on the not-so-thorny issue of internet advice sites. Quoth she: "the Internet has evolved into an avuncular, all-knowing presence that offers soothing suggestions from everyone in the world on how to fix anything." So popular an oracle is the internet - or the millions of random know-it-alls who provide answers on these sites - that "comScore Inc., which measures Internet traffic, that the number of visitors at has increased by 73 percent in the last year, jumping to 316,000 last month, up from 183,000 in July 2007. Or that Yahoo Answers, the category leader, had 34.6 million visitors last month."Sites like Askville, Wiki.Answers, Funadvice and many others do indeed play host to a multitude of queries on anything from emotional problems to pet care to home repair -all, of course, best answered by strangers without technical expertise. Slatalla emphasizes the importance of weeding through the morass of information: "If somebody posts something that's wrong, sooner or later someone else will write ‘That's wrong and here's the right answer,' " she said. "It's a self-policing community." So, how come some of us never use them? Here are the latest questions on Yahoo Anwers: "Need help in anatomy plz ?" ,"What should i name my crested gecko breeding company and i need some names for the babies?", "What is a good new school mascot idea?" "Any Vodafone users in India??? plz help me?" So, yeah, obviously people use these sites. But, like, is this their main resource? Are they just checking these sites as a kind of additional "ask the crowd" consensus? And what is this a substitute for? The library? Or, in the case of the more personal questions - are these sites taking the place of human interaction or serving as a source of connection for people who otherwise would have none? All of the above, probably. And even for those of us who read these sites more out of idle curiosity than for information, it's probably a comfort we're not even aware of to know that answers are literally at our fingertips. And maybe the accuracy of the answers isn't even the point; I remember in a very low moment searching "cures for heartbreak" and although the answers were trite and not terribly helpful, it was somehow comforting to see how many others had searched the same thing, and kind of heartwarming that people had cared enough to share the strategies they'd found helpful. But as to "the internet" as a personality? Far from some kind of all-knowing presence, most of us see the Internet as that windbag crackpot everybody knows with theories on everything. It's useful, obviously, as a compendium of information - having all the journals and recipes and actual experts' advice in one place. And maybe that's a fundamental divide: those of us who see the internet primarily as a technological resource, and those who see it as something more living, warmer, and personal - even if we aren't conscious of these attitudes. Do you go to an "answers" source with a question and get a flawed, human perspective, or hit the search engines for a compendium of more official information? If I wanted to be cute, I'd pose this question to a bunch of the info sites and see what people said. But 'consensus philosophy' seems like a good place for the buck to stop. Dear Stranger: It's 4 a.m. Help! [NYT]


Stranger Bird

My boss and I used to shout "THE POWER OF THE INTERNET WILL TELL US!" whenever neither of us knew the answer to something. But yes, sometimes what the internet tells us is pretty stupid.