Q&A Sites and User Motivations
Any remember Google Answers? It was a Q&A service where questions were posted with a monetary bounty that would reward the answerer with a financial incentive. The answerers were experts at Googling around the net, and they often posted the Google queries they used along side their answers. It was a precursor to MTurk and all the Q&A sites online today, and in many ways it was a pioneer in this space of human computation.
Yet, Google Answers was considered a failure by Google… in fact, if I recall correctly, it was Google’s first publicly failed and shuttered product. Froogle was also considered a failure at the same time, but they never closed it off the same way they closed Google Answers. It’s remarkable to see in the wake of Google Answers’s failure just how hot the Q&A sector of the internet has become over the last year.
StackOverflow, Quora, and other niche Q&A sites have done something really awesome. They have fostered communities where people contribute answers to each other what would normally be $100/hr consulting advice *for free.* Google assumed that you had to pay people for high quality answers to domain-specific questions, but it turns out people will willingly give away copious cognitive surplus in exchange for social credibility amongst their peers (points, badges, leaderboards, etc). In short, paying someone with fungible reputation has proven to be more motivating than paying someone cash, in the Q&A sector.
However, fostering a community that collectively values the leaderboards and point systems in a given web service is very difficult… The tech sector is littered with dead, open-source StackOverflow clones that assumed “if you build it, they will come.” So, the successful Q&A sites have proven that users can be better motivated without financial incentive, but constructing the incentive mechanics is the (relatively) easy part of the equation… the difficult part is building a community that actually cares about you.