Jacob Leibenluft at Slate recently wrote a piece about Yahoo Answers, summing up the entire service as a “ librarian’s worst nightmare“. My worst nightmare as a library professional is more along the lines of a crazy patron wreaking havoc at the library and jeopardizing my sanity, not one’s use of an unreliable source of information, but in stating that, what he was actually getting at was the unreliability and often inaccuracy found in the service that many use as an actual source for research.
Yahoo Answers is no more of a legitimate research tool than Wikipedia, but that hasn’t stopped students, educators and librarians from using it either. It’s full of inaccurate statements of fact, snarky and ignorant replies, and all-in-all is a poor reference tool. Yet despite that, Yahoo Answers has solicited more than 400 million answers, drawing in more 120 million users. That includes librarians who know better.
I suspect that the reason Yahoo Answers has become so widely used is due to its social nature, the fact that its answers often rank well in search engine queries, and that it’s just so easy and convenient. It’s popularity also represents a major cultural shift that is happening.
Information has never been more readily available than it is now. Never before did we have such vast amounts of information available literally at our fingertips. For centuries, much of the world’s knowledge was hidden away in books, journals, and magazines, whereby you had to actually look at the source, or view a copy of it. Now, there are millions and millions of websites online, and more cropping up each day, each filled with some kind of information.
Search engines derived out of a need to sort through the websites and information available online. But as websites continue to multiply, even those won’t always yield the precise results one is looking for. Which is where human recommendations come in. Instead of spending two hours searching for the exact information you want, why not ask millions of other people for their help? If someone’s already done the same search, what’s the point in doing it again? These are the philosophies and thoughts behind services such as Yahoo Answers.
While it is great in theory, the fact that you’ve thrown humans into the mix makes way for a great deal of errors, and breeds laziness. This is the inherent danger in social researching that strikes fear in the hearts of teachers and librarians around the world.
Knowing how to identify trustworthy information and reliable sources has never been a more important skill to master. That being said, Yahoo Answers is a wonderful tool for certain needs and situations.
Is it a place to go for research for your Civil War paper? Absolutely not, but it may provide you with some links to some good information. Keep in mind though, just because someone has linked it or cited it, it doesn’t mean its good or reliable.
Perhaps the best use that I have found for Yahoo Answers is to find the answer to weird, obscure questions that just aren’t coming up no matter how you formulate your search queries at the various search engines. It’s in this kind of situation that another’s experience in either finding the information themselves, or having first-hand experiencing with the subject matter, can come in handy. It’s also good for simple advice and recommendations, such as “What’s a good sushi restaurant in San Francisco?”
Admittedly, some librarians use it, but they do it with care and careful consideration, and would never recommend it for serious research. While we often get legitimate, serious questions, we are also often faced with odd, and off-the-wall questions that require some creative searching.
As technology progresses, we will continue to be faced with situations such as this. The key to combating the improper and incorrect use of such resources is through education. Teach students about proper research methods young, and continually reinforce these ideas as they get older.