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The Answer People

To hear Larry Hudson tell it, he’s really no more than an opinionated old gun crank with a computer. Though the 51-year-old native of Moorehead, Miss., doesn’t claim to be an expert, he has plenty of experience with firearms.

He’s spent more than 40 years shooting, and he keeps between 40 and 50 books on the subject close to his computer. So when he saw some advice he didn’t agree with being given in the outdoors section of the online question-and-answer site Yahoo Answers, he spoke up.

“Some idiot had just about convinced a person that the perfect first handgun for a young female was either a .454 pistol or a Smith and Wesson .500 S&W magnum,” Hudson said. “I couldn’t help but to chime in on that.”

Hudson advised the petitioner to start with the basics (a .22-caliber handgun) and work her way up. That was just the beginning. Now, a year later, Hudson spends up to an hour a day answering questions about shooting and, occasionally, his other areas of interest: tattoos and cooking.

Hudson is among many millions of users who use Yahoo Answers to dole out advice based on their life experience. The online question-and-answer business is booming. According to a recent study by the Internet data tracking company Hitwise, U.S. visits to Yahoo Answers and sites like it increased by 118 percent for the week ended March 15, 2008 compared to the same week a year ago. U.S. visits increased nearly 900 percent from February 2006 to February 2008.

Q&A sites, as their users call them, allow people to ask any question--on topics as disparate as the iPhone and the pope--to a large, mostly anonymous community of peers. In recent years Yahoo! Answers, the leader in the category, has seen increased competition from smaller rivals such as WikiAnswers, Answerbag, Ask Metafilter and Amazon’s Askville.

It’s a field where market share matters. The size of a Q&A site’s user base is not only important for the site’s profit but can also determine the accuracy and adequacy of answers. Researchers at the University of Minnesota recently posed carefully constructed questions, seeking both fact and opinion, on Q&A sites and then rated their returns. The results, not surprisingly, showed that the larger the community asked, the more accurate the answer.

The sites are sustained by people such as Hudson and Lyn Wolfe, 54, an Albuquerque, N.M.-area legal assistant, who give their time for no pay. Wolfe says she spends about two hours a night on Answerbag.com, mainly for the sense of the community she feels when answering questions in her areas of expertise which include New Mexico law, Harry Potter, Southwestern culture, and grammar.

“We have the ability to comment on other people’s answers and that sparks a lot of conversation,” Wolfe said. The conversations have led to friendships. About 25 answerbaggers, as they call each other, from as far away as the United Kingdom met for a convention in California last October.

Greg Anderton, 45, an equipment engineer in Las Vegas, is a supervisor at WikiAnswers, where he volunteers a few hours a day cleaning up answers in the subject areas he is responsible for. Anderton first landed on the site, which is the second most popular in the Q&A category, three years ago while searching for information on his daughter’s car and has been contributing ever since. WikiAnswers, unlike Yahoo Answers, uses the wiki model, allowing multiple members to work collectively on one answer, instead of each contributor making a discreet entry. The process requires management by Anderton and about 275 other supervisors. He’s contributed 108,000 changes to answers and has spent as long as an hour and a half researching a single question for a fellow user.

“It makes you feel good,” Anderton said of his work. “It’s like stopping to help somebody on the side of the road with a flat tire.”

Though he mainly works on car-related questions, one of the better queries Anderton has helped handle asked how many packets it would take to turn an ocean into Kool-Aid. The consensus: Nearly 800 quintillion packets.

“There’s definitely a sense of altruism,” said Answerbag founder Joel Downs, explaining why people volunteer their time. For some others, "it is a way to build a reputation, get a little fame in the community.”

Q&A sites, in other words, can also be an ideal outlet for know-it-alls.

“You have that kind of person who’s kind of a geek,” said Tig Tillinghast, publisher of MarketingCharts.com, a business Web site that covers Q&A sites. “Someone who lives to make the point that he knows more than you do. That can be very useful--and very annoying.”

The professional answer community has taken notice of the sites. Since September the amateurs of the Q&A world have gotten competition from a group called Slam The Boards! On the 10th of every month that grassroots community of librarians from around the world hit the Q&A sites in the hopes of answering as many questions as possible. The group’s founder, Bill Pardue, a virtual services librarian at the Arlington Heights Memorial Library in Arlington Heights, Ill., jokingly calls it “predatory reference.” He said it is a chance to go out and find the questions where they’re being asked and of letting people know that there are answer services outside of Q&A sites.

“This is a chance for librarians to increase their visibility outside the library,” Pardue said. Once he’s answered a question, Pardue is always sure to leave his signature tagline: “Librarians--Ask Us, We Answer!”

E-mail: mbl2128@columbia.edu