Go ahead, ask the internet

Our age will probably be largely remembered as the time when humans outsourced large chunks of our brains to our web-connected gadgets: if you had asked me a friend’s phone number 20 years ago, I could recite it by heart – now, I have to make all new friends if I lose my cell phone.

Often, many of my questions can be answered with a simple Google query – “What is the square root of 144?” or “Who played James Bond in Goldfinger?” – but anything moving beyond a simple factual question can mean wading through page after page of results. Search engines, like Google, Yahoo, or Bing, give you a list of websites that may​ have your answer, but they won’t help you sort through them. To do that, you need to access actual people - and there are a wealth of sites that let anyone ask questions to people with the knowledge you need.

A great place to start is Ask Metafilter, the question-and-answer arm of the community blog Metafilter. Divided into categories like Clothing, Beauty, & Fashion, Media & Arts, Work & Money, and many others, Ask Metafilter lets you post your question in the appropriate category, where Metafilter’s community of smart and (mostly) polite people will help you find the right answer. There are plenty of similar sites, like Yahoo! Answers, but both the questions and answers on Ask Metafilter tend to be smarter than most (as well as less bizarre).

Another terrific resource, especially if you’re looking for the answer for anything involving technology, is Stack Exchange, which is actually a collection of 76 different question-and-answer sites, ranging from a site just for programming questions to gamers trying to beat Modern Warfare to a whole site dedicated to homebrewing. Stack Exchange excels at technical, specific questions, and features a smart, active community.

Quora is a new take on an old format, where question-and-answer sites meet social networking. You sign up with your Facebook or Twitter account, and create a feed of questions and answers based on your interests – the idea being that Quora connects you to everything you want to know about, linking you to topics and ideas as well as people. It's a new idea and still developing, but the beginning steps they've taken are very exciting.

If you do decide to pose a question to the collective wisdom of the internet, you’ll be more likely to get useful information if you follow a couple simple rules:

  1. Be specific: questions like “What’s wrong with my computer?” are impossible to answer. Include any details someone would need to know to answer your question. If you’re at the point where you’re not even sure what the relevant details would be, look at similar questions on the web – especially ones that have been answered successfully – and model your question on theirs.
  2. Do a little research first: make sure no one else has asked the same question before. If they have, you can save some time and just use the answers already given (and avoid making people repeat themselves). This will also help you post your question in the right place.
  3. Be polite: stay calm and avoid sounding angry or irritated. No one wants to help a grump.
  4. Give back: everyone’s an expert in something – once your problem has been solved by the interwebs, try to go help someone else answer their burning question.

You can, of course, also direct your technology questions to your friendly volunteers and staff in the Community Technology Center. Try coming to one of our Open Labs, where you can get help from our whip-smart docents on any technological question, or bring your new tech toy to an Ask the Gadget Guy session to tame your laptop, MP3 player, or phone. Here’s to a new year filled with new knowledge!

Written by nate on December 21, 2011


Susie on December 28, 2011


Hi Nate, Thanks for listing all these great sites!

I want to mention one more that Colorado residents can use to get online help from a real person 24/7. That service is our very own AskColorado Virtual Librarian (http://www.denverlibrary.org/ask) service. Our qualified information professionals (aka librarians) provide expert assistance with finding information. We also provide assistance with researching facts.

AskColorado is a human-powered search engine.

Please feel free to try it out anytime!

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