The first question asked on Yahoo! Answers, after its public launch on Dec. 08, 2005, was: “How do I decide on a good magic set for children (about 8 years old)? Ideally, less than $50.” This is, at the very least, correct according to the collective wisdom of Yahoo! Answers itself.
No one knows what the last post will be before the service shuts down on May 4, for reasons Yahoo! has not spelled out. But if the past is any guide, the final question is likely to be along the lines of the most popular recent ones: “Will America survive 4 years of Joe Biden?” or “We have now seen way too much of what the Dimms want to do to America. When will the liberals admit they were wrong and stop this madness?”
In the origin and end of Yahoo! Answers—in the gap between that first question and the latest—lies the demise of the original vision of the Internet as one large, utopian community.
Tim Berners Lee, the scientist who first created the World Wide Web, conceived of it as “a common information space in which we communicate by sharing information.” He explained to Quartz two years ago: “It wasn’t supposed to just show what we know, but also what our problems are, and how they connect. What if I have a problem and the two pieces of the solution are in different people’s heads? That was the sort of thing I was going for.”
Inherent in this vision was a certain democratic ethos: that everyone had something to contribute, and that they would offer their knowledge up with sincerity, knowing that they could in turn ask for assistance later. No one needed to profit financially from this exchange; there were no hierarchies, because no one was the expert at everything; there was no obvious incentive to mislead or lie.
Yahoo! Answers was, in many ways, the embodiment of that: an information exchange where people could ask trivial or important questions, and hope to find knowledgeable soul to resolve their doubts. You might receive wrong answers, of course, but if enough people weighed in and upvoted good responses, you had a fine chance of emerging wiser from it all. Even some of the much-ridiculed posts from people wondering about ouija boards sounded sincere in their urgency. And asking questions and getting them answered in a plain forum with little advertising felt like the cleanest, most fundamental version of the Internet.
The transformation of Yahoo! Answers, in recent years, into yet another stage for polarized political battles, trolling, and disinformation is emblematic of the internet’s transformation as a whole. In fact, it’s all the more remarkable—and dispiriting—that such trends have overtaken this utilitarian, near-forgotten corner of the internet just as they’ve swamped hyper-popular social networks like Facebook and Twitter.
We still have some utopian experiments unfolding online, but nothing with quite the same resonance. Quora is a question-answer service that is similar to Yahoo! Answers—and is experiencing similar forms of ruin. Wikipedia is exemplary, but it is a few-to-many service: a tight group of writers and editors disseminating the information they think is important. GitHub is a collaborative forum, but it is highly specialized, catering just to coders; it also offers layers of paid services. And the slow, sure creep of the worst human tendencies through the most popular social or collaborative web sites feels like a failure for our species.
Yahoo! Answers could have been simple, quiet and helpful. And it was, for a while. Then we wrecked it.