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Answers, Answers Everywhere, but Don't Eat the Peanut Butter

Magazine article Information Today

Answers, Answers Everywhere, but Don't Eat the Peanut Butter

Article excerpt

Alice Roosevelt Longworth, Teddy Roosevelt's daughter, was a prominent Washington hostess for decades. She was also a terror. Responding to critics about her caustic wit and fearless frankness--not to mention her outlandish behavior--the great president responded, "I can either run the country or I can attend to Alice, but I cannot possibly do both."

Longworth used to say, "If you don't have anything nice to say about someone, come sit right over here by me." Though I certainly can't aspire to anywhere near as towering a status as she--I am no terror (sigh)--I still have enough lust for battle to relish the opportunity that a nice, big controversy gives to us old warhorses. When it comes to a choice between excessive civility and chastising villainy, I echo the sentiments (if not the context) of one of my other idols, Mae West, who proudly proclaimed, "When I'm good, I'm very, very good, but when I'm bad, I'm better."

The Wisdom of Crowds?

So when I saw a recent press release by Answers.com announcing that it would begin integrating content from Yahoo! Answers, a service that accepts free replies from an estimated 65 million Yahoo! users and lets users vote on the quality of the "answer," I slipped on my helmet and reached for my bazooka. Voting to determine truth? Cry havoc and let slip the dogs of war! Community-generated answers! The wisdom of crowds! Pshaw.

A quick check of Yahoo! Answers (http://answers.yahoo.com) produced a Best Answers box at the top of the page. After two clicks, I found a question from someone wondering which of the dozen or so condiments she had opened belonged in the fridge. Someone who claimed to work in a cafeteria supplied an answer for each item. Peanut butter received an "OK" to store on a shelf; no refrigeration required.

Whoa. Stop the turnip truck and let me jump off. In my entire life, I have never, ever been sicker than the weekend I ate a peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich made from an opened jar of peanut butter from a cupboard. (Well, never say "never, ever," but as for that youthful indiscretion with an antique Easter egg, I was not even conscious through most of that experience.)

Now, here's what can happen when you use unauthoritative answers. Yahoo! Answers doesn't require a citable source. As I recall, the respondent didn't have a first name of distinguishing gender. Answers.com has always prided itself on using traditional reference sources. When I interviewed CEO Bob Rosenschein, he told me about the lengthy internal debate that preceded the addition of the semiauthoritative (by Web standards) Wikipedia. In November 2006, the company bought FAQ Farm, a growing Q&A database of about 280,000 unique questions and answers from more than 100,000 registered, contributing "FAQ Farmers." Answers.com will integrate those questions and answers into its own "library of licensed, branded, attributable reference titles" and also add its traditional content to the FAQ Farm service. The company already has a Google feed that supplies open Web search results for questions that its superauthoritative sources can't handle.

The Difference Between Peanut Butters

Oddly enough, when I went to Answers. com looking for "peanut butter refrigeration," I found myself in a Google search of the open Web. It turns out that Answers.com has three "pails" or "buckets" of data: its own highly sourced aggregation, a growing collection of user-generated Q&A content, and good old Google hitting up the good old Web. A quick tour of the Google Web section turned up more sites that recommended the nearly lethal practice, but it also provided sources such as http://busycooks. …

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