Informational Crowdsourcing Takes Off

The Yahoo! Answers green smiley.
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To find the best answers, digital services are turning to actual humans.

The Internet is an overwhelmingly powerful source of information, but the technology for harnessing that information, for getting it filtered and delivered how and when we want it, is still in its infancy. If you don’t believe it, see what kind of useful information you get when you Google “What kind of harmonica should I get for my 10-year-old?”

Recently, though, a flock of new services have cropped up to deliver highly targeted answers by passing your queries on to a sea of strangers. Call it informational crowdsourcing.

Some are simple Web sites where you can post a question for all to see, then wait for random Web users to reply. That’s how Yahoo Answers and work. “What’s a good starter beer?” “Do you believe spanking is a good form of discipline?” “Is it cheating if I have chat-room sex?”

It’s a rather crude form of crowdsourcing. You have no control over who answers your questions, it’s all anonymous, and the answers may take days or weeks to arrive. Still, it’s fascinating to see what the world thinks.

If you want your answers faster, you can try a phone-based service like ChaCha. Call 800-2CHACHA and speak your question. In about a minute, a text message appears on your phone, usually with a clear, succinct answer.

“What’s that word that means when the sun, moon and earth are all in a straight line?” you might ask. And the text message comes in: “The straight-line configuration of 3 celestial bodies (as the sun, moon and earth during a solar or lunar eclipse) is a syzygy.”

Actual humans are on the other end—your personal army of research assistants. The members of this freelance army are paid 20 cents per answer, and they use Google and whatever other research tools they need. A one-line ad at the bottom of the text message pays for the whole thing.

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