I will preface this post by saying that I know how close I am skating to social media douchebaggery by writing a post on a new Facebook feature, but I was reading about Facebook Questions today in a post from Dan Patterson, and as I began to pen my response I realized that I had more to say than what could be reasonably considered a comment. Fair warning, this piece is opinion only, and is based upon my initial reactions to the new features, as opposed to detailed analysis.
If you want some background on what Facebook Questions is, I highly encourage you to take a look at Dan’s post, as he provides a great summary of the new features along with his commentary. Also, he has screenshots, which I will not be able to provide.
Go ahead and read his post first. I’ll wait.
Done? Awesome, let’s move forward.
You may have noticed that Dan has included a link to a Mashable post that explains a number of ways that Facebook Questions can be improved. As the service is not rolled out to me yet, I can’t comment on that aspect of it, but in principle the ideas outlined in that post make a lot of sense. It would behoove Facebook to follow up on those suggestions, particularly the integration into a user’s profile and wall. To be honest, I am a little shocked they did not integrate it that way in the first place. I’m sure most – or all – of the suggested functionality will be incorporated to future versions of the feature as development continues, especially if Facebook wants to be able to effectively capitalize on their user base to make FQ a success.
Now, if your interest in Facebook Questions was totally confined to UX and playing with your social graph – there’s a dirty euphemism in there somewhere, but of course I am too classy to make such a vulgar insinuation – that would be the end of the matter. However, I don’t think the features or success measured in number of users is the real test of a Q&A site.
I think the real test of a service like this is how useful the answers actually end up being to the end users. FQ is a publicly available feature, covering any topic under the sun, which is a bold move aimed at leveraging the diversity of knowledge available among its 500 million users. This answers-for-anything approach is a tantalizing path for any company that would like to start seriously monetizing based on search, but ultimately it can become more of a weakness than a strength for this type of service. There are a number of general purpose Q&A services on the web, and the consistent trait among all of them is that the quality of answers vary radically, with most of the answers being pretty useless, e.g. most of Yahoo! Answers. The general rule – at least in my experience – is that quality answers to questions typically are best found by visiting niche Q&A sites – such Stack Overflow when I have a programming question – or hitting up forums dedicated to the specific topics I am asking about. These types of niche communities tend to have more experienced participants, and also tend to be more rigorous when it comes to community management, with the aforementioned Stack Overflow being a stellar example.
That’s not to say there haven’t been some unique approaches to trying to solve this problem in general purpose Q&A sites. Mahalo’s approach involves incenting users to provide good answers by providing a way for the asker to set up a cash bounty for the best answer. Now, I don’t have enough information to gauge how effective this has been for them overall, but a quick browse reveals a number of good answers to questions when a “tip” or cash reward is offered, but the quality of questions – and respective answers if there are any – seems to drop otherwise. Although, I must say, that I’m surprised at the number of cash bounties being offered for opinion/discussion based questions. It’s an interesting model, and it certainly seems to have built up an engaged community.
It’s clear that FQ has a significant advantage just from the raw user base available to them, and I don’t have any doubt that the product launch will be successful. Although, if Facebook does not quickly integrate FQ deeply into the social experience on Facebook, it’s going to be treated as separate service by it’s users, which diminishes the likelihood of prolonged interaction with the Q&A aspects of the site. Further, if they don’t provide some incentive for users to produce great answers, it is in danger of becoming yet another of the worthless general purpose Q&A sites littering the search results in the SEO-dominated wastelands of the Internet.
It’s only fitting that I conclude this piece by asking you all a question: Will Facebook Questions become a useful service, or will it only add to the noise?
That’s up to you. I’d love to hear your answer.