A long time ago, there was an online service called Aardvark. I was one of the early (and only?) users of Aardvark, which was an instant message-based tool that would help you find answers to your questions. You would ask Aardvark a question and it would try to find another person who might know the answer to your question. Once two people were matched up, they could chat with each other through Aardvark. I spent quite a bit of time answering questions, and not too much time asking questions. In 2010. Google acquired Aardvark and promptly discontinued the service.
Since then, a number of online solutions have popped up to help people get answers to their questions. On Quora you can ask about anything, and you can often get an authority on the topic to answer your question. On Stack Overflow and other Stack Exchange sites, questions are centered around a specific field or topic, and experts tend to congregate there. On both services, the quality of questions and answers tends to be surprisingly high, especially when compared to other Q&A sites like Yahoo! Answers. I believe that quality is attributable to two features present in both services: reputation and moderation. Good questions and answers are voted up while bad ones are voted down and hidden. Up-votes get you points, and everyone loves points, so you’re motivated to keep quality high. Moderators can curate the questions and answers, removing the ones that are of low quality. This is a pretty great system, and (as I’ve said before) Stack Overflow is one of my favorite services.
But recently I found myself wanting more. I tend to answer far more questions than I ask on Stack Overflow, but it’s not because I feel like I have nothing left to learn. In fact, I probably ask more questions than I answer at work, and on Stack Overflow I spend a lot of time searching for questions that other people have already asked. Clearly I have questions, so why don’t I ask them on Stack Overflow or Quora?
Questions Must Be Too Specific
I have to know exactly what I want to ask, and the tools available don’t allow for follow up. Some problems require a few broad questions that will be followed up by more specific questions. For instance, I want to learn how to build wood lockers for the mudroom in my house. I really have no idea how to do that. I don’t know what tools I need, what wood to use, or how to measure properly. But most importantly, I don’t even know if I’m asking the right questions. What I really want to ask is, “I want to make builtin mudroom lockers; how do I get started?” If I were to ask this question on http://woodworking.stackexchange.com/, a site full of woodworking experts and enthusiasts, I would not likely get any answers. The experts are there, but they won’t answer because the question does not fit the format of the service. Questions have to be very specific.
Questions Must Be Too General
Ironically, while questions have to be very specific to the problem, they cannot be specific to the situation. The questions and answers on Quora and Stack Exchange are used as reference material for people coming later, so if your question is too specific to your situation, it won’t be useful as reference material and is therefore viewed as a “bad” question on the site. Bring on the down-votes. To be fair, the solve-my-exact-problem questions really aren’t too helpful in a public Q&A forum, but that doesn’t mean that they aren’t good questions. The public forum is just not the right place to ask them.
Too Much Work for the Responder
The model used by Stack Exchange is, in my mind, a bit backwards. The person asking the question does nothing more than articulate the question (which, admittedly, isn’t too easy), then send it out into the ether(net) and wait. The people answering questions have to search through the questions, trying to find those that are both relevant and not yet sufficiently answered. This isn’t necessarily a huge task, but the reward is nothing more than the hope of digital badges and a few more points for their online, nontransferable reputation score. The process should be as effortless as possible for those giving answers.
Ask Me About …
The current Q&A services available online are so much better than the forums and Q&A websites of yesteryear. And still, I find myself wanting more. I want a way to start a conversation about my question, instead of the single question-then-answer transaction that is the status quo. I want to know if anyone I know and trust can answer my question before I ask the general public. Finally, I want an easy way for my network to be able to come to me with questions on topics I know well.
My solution is in a very rough stage, but I call it “Ask Me About” (not to be confused with Ask Me Anything). I want a way to list the topics about which I think I am qualified to answer questions. I want that list to be connected to my online identity (i.e. LinkedIn, Google, Facebook, Twitter, etc.), I want the list to be searchable by my friends, and I want my friends to make similar lists. I don’t know if this is just a feature of existing social networks, or a standalone product. I don’t know if “Ask Me About” would be the medium through which the questions and answers would be sent, or simply a way of connecting people. What I know is that I want Aardvark back, but I want it to be more personal.
Until that day comes, I will be adding an Ask Me About page to this site. If you have questions about any of those topics, you are welcome to “Ask Me About” them.