The New York TimesApr 07, 2021 13:38:46 IST
At times on Yahoo Answers, the people asking questions of strangers lunged for the hallucinatory limits of human curiosity: What would a heaven for elephants be like? Should scientists give octopi bones?
It helped people identify their sense of self: Why do people with baguettes think they are better than me? Is being popular in high school a good skill I can use in a job interview?
It sought explanations for the unexplainable: Smoke coming from my belly button? Why is everything at my grandma’s house moist?
And it gave air to gaps in knowledge and admissions that perhaps had nowhere else to go: What does a hug feel like?
Yahoo, which is owned by Verizon Media, will be shutting down the question-and-answer service and deleting its archives on 4 May, erasing a corner of the internet that will be widely remembered for its — to be charitable — less-than-enriching contributions to human knowledge since its arrival in 2005.
Less charitably, BuzzFeed News this week called it “one of the dumbest places on the internet.” Vulture said it was “populated entirely with Batman villains, aliens pretending to be human, and that one weird neighbor you’d rather climb down your fire escape in a blizzard than get caught in a conversation with.”
There is plenty of evidence for that position. People asked: Can you milk Gushers to make fruit juice? Can I cook raw chicken in the Michael wave? I forgot when my job interview is? What animal is Sonic the hedgehog? IS THIS YAHOO EMAIL SUPPORT?
Most famously, in a question that launched a meme, a confused soul who had learned little about reproductive science or spelling asked: How is babby formed?
It was never known how many of the questions were based in earnest ignorance and curiosity, and how much was intentional trolling. Answering required no expertise, and often displayed little of it.
But the site clearly was seen by some people, including children, as a comfortable space to ask the questions — sometimes important ones — they’d never dare to ask friends, families and teachers.
“Yahoo Answers was a place for people to put questions they were too embarrassed to ask the people they knew in real life,” said Justin McElroy, a co-host of the comedy podcast “My Brother, My Brother and Me,” which has featured questions from the service since 2010. “The weird, the dumb, the truly, truly demented: It all found a place on Yahoo Answers.”
The service lost its wide popularity in recent years, and there are more competitors now than there were when it was created. Quora positions itself as more of a highbrow network that is more likely to attract an expert response, and Reddit features a forum that invites people’s idle curiosity to roam free.
Yahoo, in a letter to users, said it had “decided to shift our resources away from Yahoo Answers to focus on products that better serve our members and deliver on Yahoo’s promise of providing premium trusted content.”
Questions and answers will be halted on 20 April, and will be wiped off the internet on 4 May.
It’s not the first time Yahoo and other tech companies have killed off once-popular products without the benefit of archiving; 20 years of content posted to Yahoo Groups was deleted in 2019, the same year Flickr deleted 15 years of photos.
McElroy said he wasn’t sure what the podcast would do without its bountiful pool of discussion prompts. When the show began in 2010, they used Yahoo Answers questions to pad out submissions from listeners, he said.
While some of the questions struck him as performance art, and others seemed like a lazy refusal to search for answers, he said he was sympathetic to many of the people asking. We all have some bad questions inside of us, he said.
“I think you get into trouble when you think no actual person would be wondering that, because people wonder about lots of things,” he said. “You don’t want to put limits on the depths of humanity’s curiosity-slash-ignorance.”
Daniel Victor [c.2021 The New York Times Company]
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