The Yahoo! Answers Edition

On questions, puppies, and the endless challenges of online communities

Noah here. When you adopt a puppy in New York City you’ve got to wait until they have all their shots to take them out on the street. This isn’t a problem in most other places because the odds of your dog running into another one in your yard in the suburbs are pretty small. But New York City sidewalks are hardly the cleanest surfaces, and there’s some risk to puppies who haven’t gotten their full round of preventative treatments. 

So what do you do when they need to go to the bathroom? Pads.

It’s an unfortunate side effect of city living, but a decade ago when we first got our dog she was only 8 weeks old and not quite ready for her full round shots. So we bought a bunch of doggy pee pads, set up a gate in our kitchen, and made that her bathroom for a few weeks until she could safely venture on the sidewalk. We got used to cleaning it up—except what we called the “poo and run,” which was exactly as gross as it sounds—and when she did go to the vet for her appointment, I was excited to finally get this dog to go outside the house.

After returning home I got her all ready for her first big walk out of the house, expecting her to reasonably quickly get used to her new surroundings and get her business done. We got stopped a bunch of that first walk (see the picture below to understand why), and after an exhausting five hours finally returned home without even a single drop of pee left on the streets of the Lower East Side. Then, moments after opening the door to our apartment, she bolted to her pad and proudly released five hours’ worth of urine onto our kitchen floor.

We were stopped on the street soon after we got her to ask if we’d be willing to bring her in to model for a book of Lower East Side Dogs.

In a scenario that would be familiar to any pet or baby parent, I frantically Googled for answers on how to un-train a puppy from using pads. The one source of related information was Yahoo! Answers—never a great sign. As soon as I clicked through I was bombarded with insults directed at my proxy who had asked exactly my query on the site. The puppy owner was accused of being a monster, after all no ethical human would think of training their puppy on pads. More scrolling only delivered more insults, not a single person attempted to actually answer the question of how to undo pad training. That’s probably because there’s not a good answer, but it’s also stuck with me as a mental model for how much of the dialogue on the internet goes, particularly if the topic has anything to do with the care of an animal (canine or human). 

Why is this interesting?

Yahoo! Answers, which finally shut down in May of this year, was a fascinating case study in community building. It seemed to toe a line between complete chaos and real people searching for answers, buoyed by some of the internet’s best SEO (think of how many queries ended with Yahoo! Answers in the top three results). I’ve thought about this explanation from BNet (RIP) since I read it back in February:

Yahoo! Answers feels like a real wild west ghost town of the internet, a product from a storied technology brand that has been almost completely ignored and fallen into decay, but still teems with life through sheer inertia. But the product is also juuuuuust focused enough in its question-answer format that it hasn’t been completely taken over by radicals and reactionaries in the same way that, say, something like 4chan has. Having to phrase your concern in the form of a question is juuuuuust enough friction to stop people from posting tons of terrible stuff.

Maintaining a community of any size is incredibly difficult. Yahoo! Answers probably never had a chance. Quora, which is basically the LinkedIn to Answers’ Myspace seems to try to do it with lots of logins and ID verification, but the SEO-ability of the question format will always make the whole affair rife for spam, overrun, and craziness. Ask Metafilter seems to have maintained quality through the years, but they’re a) heavily moderated and b) have a $5 registration fee (which I always thought was a genius idea). Lately, I’ve noticed more communities moving to Slack and Discord, which of course isn’t part of the general World Wide Web and, at least in the case of Slack’s free plan, quickly unsearchable to even the community’s participants

With all that said, there is still a huge population who find huge value in communities that haven’t changed in decades (see the Forum Edition for more on that topic). At the same time, many of these spaces are rife with conspiracy theories and misinformation. In the end, it’s hard to put together a clean set of guidelines for what makes all these communities work except for extensive human moderation and mutual respect amongst participants. If getting there were easy, everyone would do it. (NRB)

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Thanks for reading,

Noah (NRB) & Colin (CJN)

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