Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Better than Google

You may not have even noticed that it, but you already prefer ways of finding out the answers to questions other than using Google. If you're scratching your head and thinking, "Wikipedia?" you're wrong. If you think the answer is a trip to the public library, you're wrong. (Though the library is still a great place to get answers!) If you think that the best place is one of the other terrific reference or news websites such as www.nytimes.com, www.infoplease.com, or www.britannica.com -- you're not even close. If you think it's your mom, because she always knows best -- then you're actually close to being right.

At times --maybe most of the time-- asking a question of another human being is better, because it's more accurate than Google.

And we already do. The Cleveland Park Listserv is a great example of tapping into the collective wisdom of over 8,800 neighbors. Google "plumber washington dc" and you'll get plumber listings. But Google won't necessarily tell you if that plumber is prompt, creative, and pleasant to have in your home. The Cleveland Park Listserv is an example of an online forum that taps into the richness of human experience and knowledge.

There are hundreds of thousands of specialized forums that also let you tap into other people's wisdom. YahooGroups is the world's leader in online forums. When I have a problem with my computer, I search for a specific YahooGroup that deals with the issue I'm having, be it with Microsoft Outlook, an aging Windows XP computer, or my iPhone. There are forums on YahooGroups about health, fitness, travel, parenting, language learning, nature -- everything.

Not everyone on these forums is imbued with expertise, however. So you have to use your own brain power to figure out if the answer makes sense. Or ask your question in another place, too. It's also the case that the answers to questions that come from Googling, Wikipedia, or other static online sources aren't necessarily right. (The only two online sources that I trust with my life are the New York Times and Encyclopedia Britannica.)

What if the question that you're looking to answer doesn't lend itself well to a particular online forum, or you can't find a forum? For those problems, there are answer services. Yahoo has its own service called Yahoo Answers: http://answers.yahoo.com . Post a question and somebody will answer it, usually very quickly. Perhaps the best online answer service is Aardvark, http://vark.com. Anyone can ask a question. If you sign up to offer your expertise, you can tell Aardvark what subjects you'd like to answer questions about. The questions are then sent to you by email or IM. There's an Aardvark application for the iPhone so you have access to experts in almost every subject, wherever you are. I've used Aardvark to get answers to obscure foreign language grammar questions and to try and figure out what kind of animal was finding its way onto our kitchen counter and shredding the wrappers of Perugina Baci chocolates without eating the candy. Aardvark's uses are limitless: Imagine -- you're standing in line at the airport and see somebody wearing a type of outfit you've never seen before. Fire up your Aardvark app, describe what you see, and within minutes somebody will tell you what country that person is from. I like Aardvark so much that I created a Cleveland Park Listserv Network on Aardvark: http://vark.com/g/39fd04.

What about those questions that require an opinion, not a precise answer? For that there's Instant Jury, http://instantjury.com. Instant Jury members decide cases that people submit to the Instant Jury website. I was recently a juror in a case that tried to settle the question of whether or not emailed holiday cards are okay to send instead of paper cards. (The eCards side lost.) There's a case currently pending between a husband and wife about whether they should let their kids to crawl into bed with them in early in the morning before school.

Google is great. But people are even greater.

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