Question Everything: Google Moderator was (once) my idea (sort of)

“The thing to do with good ideas,” Oscar Wilde never said, “is to just wait until Google develops them, to save you the trouble of doing so yourself.”

Google has unveiled Moderator, which resembles the UK service Yoosk, which resembles my 2004 idea the Question Scoreboard. People post questions to public entities openly; other people vote on the questions; the public entities answer the popular questions, hopefully. (Microsoft LiveMeeting has this; the Berkman Center has prototyped a similar feature uncreatively called the Question and Answer Tool.)

For one, it’s finally underscored the futility of posting ideas here on Civilities (not they get stolen, that they get ignored). And it probably also underscored the fact that the money I investment in a 20% down payment 3 years ago could better have spent as two years of salary replacement developing a service that Google would find valuable. c’est la vie.

It’s possible also that Digg or or any other emerging social bookmarking services can figure this out as well. It’s a bookmark with an addressee.

[Dan Gillmor had pointed me to both Moderator this weekend and Yoosk in 2007. He’s interested in the same stuff, and we have talked enough over the years for me to know that posts *less* of what he actually is working on.]

The main saving grace here is that I’d rather see a larger point made in support of the theory of constructive media— that something can cut into the blog hegemony. A blog is used for PR; and that rule becomes more acute the more popular it gets. The more readers that respond, the harder it is for the blogger to answer, let alone converse, because of the prioritization problem. The comments, beyond a certain point– a very low number– become a free-for-all discussion that bear little relevance to the original post ot article. Someone with a legitimate question of a popular journalist or blogger have a difficult time getting heard.

I’ve heard of bloggers who are now so enthralled by Twitter (or real life, for that matter) to keep blogging at the pace they once did. Twitter is seen by many as the new essential. But what if question-answering rather than pontificating is seen as the essential communications?

In other words: would you rather have a company or elected official answer every reasonable public question that came their way? Or blog whatever’s on their mind? It’s not strictly an either-or, but given the effort its taken to get public entities aboard the blogging bandwagon, it’ll be hard to bring them into the question-answering business as well. In the grand scheme of things, it’s easy to understand why blogging came before answering; the technology of spouting was easier, and the people who did it wanted to get things off their chest. Now it has to evolve.

The public nature of questioning is critical. FAQs may once have been answers to frequently asked questions, but there’s no guarantee they still are. You can email a company all you want, or write some angry blog posts, but they won’t have any effective force until you can get others to caucus around it. We have to see this type of Q&A technique as an essential communications process.

I see that Google has started asking its own employees, generally public-facing engineers, to participate. A sign of success for Moderator or Yoosk is for a Matt Cutts to embed the questions on his blog, and also for a Google search of “Matt Cutts” to bring up questions to Matt Cutts. And, also, of course, to rank the most responsive “answer-ers.”

…which gets us to the biggest marketing challenge. The biggest coup of blogging, as I discussed 3 years ago, is linguistic. The noun (“blog”) spawned a new verb (“blogging”) and an occupational noun (“blogger”: one who blogs). In other words, you could be hired as a corporate “blogger” and be asked “to blog” as part of your job; you could be sued for “blogging” and referred to in the newspaper as a “blogger” and people will have a general sense what is going on. For services like Moderator/Yoosk to sweep through organizational systems, political and corporate, we’ll need to be familiar with “answerers” (or whatever word replaces that.) There’s also no common word to explain the action of agreeing to a question. Many have used the word “voting,” but the connotation is that someone/something “wins” with voting. I prefer “caucus around a question” but that’s  a bit mouthy.

Well, paraphrasing Homer Simpson’s view of alcohol, here’s to El Goog, the source of– and the solution to– all of the Internet’s problems.

(For some reason unknown to me, Google Moderator is not very REST-ful, it has obfuscated URL’s. Here’s the URL for the questions I’ve asked Google.)