Facebook users have always asked each other questions, and friends have quite often been good at answering them. But Facebook has something more ambitious in mind, and has now started rolling out a beta version of Facebook Questions. This will enable people to get answers not just from friends but from up to 500 million Facebook users.
Questions features a lightbulb icon that will appear in the sidebar down the left hand side of your home page, along with Photos and Applications. Clicking it will take you to a dashboard prepopulated with “trending topics” and questions that Facebook thinks might interest you.
It should get used. Any questions that you post will also appear in your news feeds, so your family and friends will see them anyway. Using Facebook Questions simply makes the question available to a much wider audience -- in fact, to everyone on the internet -- so there is also a corresponding loss of privacy.
The Facebook blog post says, perhaps optimistically: “Ask Anything, Get Quality Answers”. Experience with rival sites such as Yahoo Answers suggests that some answers will either be silly or rubbish or perhaps both. Users will be able to vote up the best answers, which will help. However, the sort of people who post silly answers can also vote up silly answers.
Facebook users will also be able to tag questions so that they appear in appropriate topic categories.
It’s not clear how quickly Facebook Questions will become widely available. In the blog post, Facebook’s director of product management Blake Ross says: “Since we like to develop products carefully over time with your help, Facebook Questions is available to a limited number of people right now, and we'll be developing it rapidly based on their feedback.”
There’s even the prospect of competition from Google, which bought Aardvark, a social-search company started by former Googlers, in February for an estimated $50m. At the time, Google said: “Aardvark analyzes questions to determine what they're about and then matches each question to people with relevant knowledge and interests to give you an answer quickly.”
Aardvark is now available in Google Labs. However, Google has not exactly shone at converting its social networking acquisitions into viable products.