I have been spending a lot of time thinking about Q&A systems lately, largely because I think it’s an opportunity that’s becoming interesting again. In thinking about what can be done to improve the quality of Q&A systems, it appears to me that all of the systems out there (perhaps with the exception of Yahoo!) suffer from the same two core problems:
1. How do you aggregate enough questions to have meaningful coverage?
2. How do you convince users to invest in posting and answering questions on your platform?
I don’t have a great answer to the second question yet, but I do have some thoughts on the first question. I am subscribed to a lot of mailing lists and other distribution groups for alumni organizations, interest groups, or other organizations that regularly publish content or solicit input. By and large, message board or mailing list traffic falls into three major categories – rants/flame wars, legitimate announcements, or requests for information. A perfect example is the general alumni mailing list operated by my alma mater, Stanford. At least once per month there is a flame war or thread that spawns tens of messages and generally decreases the utility of the list. Some other fraction is general announcements (job postings, events, etc). The most interesting, traffic, however, are what I call requests for information. There is a lot of this type of traffic on the mailing list. People are always asking questions about mortgages, looking for service providers, asking for input or advice on some topic or decision they need to make, etc.
Sadly, this information stays locked up in the list archive. There is no good way to publish that information out to an external Q&A system. I am surprised that there isn’t a Q&A system out there who has come up with a way to have interested users feed questions into the system from message board traffic or other systems.
The other interesting wrinkle to this approach is that many message lists are thematic in nature — they attract people with an interest or expertise in a particular topic. The targeted nature of most mailing lists and other distribution lists ought to make classifying questions and answers easier and frankly more useful to the end user.
I can’t imagine that it would be terribly difficult to pull this off from a technical perspective. Yahoo, as one of the largest groups operators and Q&A operators, is in a good position to do this. There are also a lot of non-Y! groups who have great content as well and who could enhance the value of any Q&A system.