Yahoo Inc.s new Answers feature has a lofty goal: let Yahoo registered users assemble their own trusted, searchable source of online information.
But something far less noble is bubbling to the surface in the features first few days. Rather than a "Wikipedia for the masses", as Yahoo likens Answers, theres a lot of the same chest-beating, raunch and commentary just for the shock value that is common in online chat rooms.
A Yahoo registree screen-named Mark was wondering Friday "Do men wear tights?", so he posted his question at yahoo.answers.com. With all the bluster of a high schooler calling out some extreme lameness, Johnal4422006 replied "Use your eyes," and pointed out several obvious examples.
The rather mild exchange of last week and much, much cruder ones peppering the site highlight the pitfalls when Web interests introduce unfettered public soapboxes in order to mine a collective conscience for pearls of wisdom.
At first, people were willing to forgive the rough edges of such community-built information sources, brushing off the high school atmosphere, nonsensical entries or glaring errors as a charming part of an exciting new service.
But as community-built resources become more prominent, so does the questioning of the integrity of information thats available.
The pressure has increased dramatically because of the breakthrough popularity of Wikipedia, plus the introduction of similar efforts by Yahoo Inc., the Internets leading destination, Internet search giant Google Inc. and Microsoft Corp.
The Internet portals, as they are known, are motivated to do so in search of the almighty ad dollar. An estimated $12 billion is being spent on online advertising this year, which is a double-digit increase from last year. In 2006, analysts think online ad spending will reach $16 billion. To help grab more of this pool of cash, Microsoft, Google and Yahoo each plan to put advertising on their community-built references.
In its earliest days, Yahoos Answers (answers.yahoo.com) faces some integrity issues. Imagine pointing a Web browser to a site trumpeting itself as a serious source of information a la The Encyclopedia Britannica, and you see:
"What is the best position for sex?" The most prominently displayed answer begins "The reverse cowgirl" then goes onto describe an elaborate sexual ballet. Another entry asks "Where Is Dick?" and the answers oblige with many crude sexual suggestions.
Aside from homespun pornography, factual errors can be found.
Answers isnt the only one having problems meeting the new higher standard for community-built online resources. A few weeks ago, three community-building pioneers each had their integrity and ability to police contributors called into question.
A former presidential aide chastised Wikipedia in the pages of one of the largest U.S. newspapers. His bile was raised over an entry, later exposed as a hoax, which linked him to the assassination of two members of the politically prominent Kennedy family, including Pres. John F. Kennedy. Also, listings in Craigslist were linked to alleged San Francisco Bay Area prostitution ring.
A technology glitch in late November struck Google Base, populated by classified-advertising-like entries submitted by Google registered users. The glitch flooded some users with links to porn sites.
To be fair, its not all sex and bad puns at these sites. Theres also some serious help being doled out. Just take a peek into the Answers technology section for the geeks prattling on about organizing Trillian contacts, or Wikipedias arcana. Still, at each of these efforts, its very easy to spot more raucous, or even inappropriate entries.
"There may be chat-like interactions; its early in the ecosystem. Frankly, thats not such a bad thing" because of the attention it draws to the only days-old feature, Yahoo Vice President Eckhart Walther said. "But take a look at this site in a month or so. You have to invest into communities to build them."
Unruly users were expected, and Yahoo installed new safeguards in an effort to keep things tasteful and accurate. Yahoo limits Answers posting to fight against being spammed; users spotting abuse have an easy way to report it to Yahoo; and theres also a limit in place on entries by any one user, to fight spam entries. There are more dragnets to come.
Google Base users can trigger a filter to block some sites. But since the filter failed, Google is facing pressure to remove many of these links. A Google spokesman couldnt be reached Monday for comment.
Microsoft, which is testing a kind of Google Base of its own, has not divulged many details of the service, including what safeguards it might take.
All this activitys is helping to push "social engineering" technology behind the services to the mainstream brink.
Just recently, Yahoo purchased start-up company Delicious for an undisclosed sum. Some 300,000 registered users take to the companys feature, which lets users share their own collection of Internet bookmarks. Yahoo purchased Flickr, an online photo sharing site, a year ago.
"When a Yahoo or a Google (notices), I sit up and take notice because now its in front of my wife and my mother," said Danny Sullivan, editor of Searchenginewatch.com