Net's altruistic side


Richard Marchal poses for a photo next to a computer screen showing the Yahoo! Answers Web site at a local library, Thursday, Dec. 28, 2006, in Marion, Ill. Marchal, a semi-retired chemist and father of five, is the top-rated answerer on Yahoo! Answers, a Web site where people pose questions and hope that strangers will answer them.

The Associated Press
Published: Thursday, January 11, 2007 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, January 10, 2007 at 10:26 p.m.

In Marion, a small town in southern Illinois with the slogan "Hub of the Universe," 58-year-old Richard Marchal spends four to six hours a day answering questions from strangers.

"What is the acid produced by bacteria on our teeth?"

"Would the density of water differ if it had a dissolved solid in it?"

"What should I do about a crush?"

"Is camping a fun family activity?"

Marchal has answered more than 6,400 such questions in little more than a year. He's the top-rated answerer on Yahoo Answers, a Web site where people pose questions and hope that strangers will answer them. His reward: the gratitude of the asker, if he's lucky. Oh, and Yahoo gives him "points," which serve no purpose but to rank him among other users.

"This way here I can be grandpa to hundreds," Marchal said. "A lot of people tell me this is the best advice they ever got."

Helping strangers for no tangible reward is a huge phenomenon online — huge enough to have repercussions for the largest businesses. Yahoo sells ads on Answers, where visitors do most of the work, while other companies gratefully let volunteers provide online technical support.

Google Inc. started its Answers service four years ago, three years before Yahoo, but pulled the plug on it this December. One major difference between them: on Google Answers, the answerers were paid, at rates set by the askers.

Google didn't explain why it cancelled the service, but research company Hitwise estimated that free Yahoo Answers had 24 times as much traffic in October.

At the end of 2006, there were 85 million answers on Yahoo. Many of them are flippant, but there is genuine advice and well-researched fact there. ("How much fabric goes into the construction of a hot air balloon?" Marchal: about 12,751 square feet. He included an explanation of how he computed the answer.)

Adobe Systems Inc., maker of Photoshop and other design software, also benefits from online volunteers. Murray Summers, a freelance Web developer in Spring City, Pa., spends up to 10 hours a day giving people advice on how to use Adobe's software on the company's Web forum, often starting at 6:30 a.m.

"I work an hour, an hour and a half, then go to the forums and spend a while on the forums, because it refreshes my mind," Summers said. He estimates that he's made more than 100,000 posts on the forum in seven years.

It's hard to believe that this is the same Internet that's a vehicle for spam, viruses and identity theft. So why does the Internet seem such fruitful place for seemingly altruistic behavior?

"It's not that human nature has changed, it's that the cost of participation has been dramatically lowered," Rheingold said. "If you're an expert on the prairie dogs of Nebraska, it's now very inexpensive for you to contribute your little piece of expertise."

Patricia Wallace, author of "The Psychology of the Internet," believes the anonymity of the online environment makes people more likely to take the risk of helping. She contrasts this to this to the act of helping out a real-life motorist who's asking for directions: "If you gave that person the wrong directions, he knows what you look like, who you are. He might drive back and say what kind of jerk you are."

The anonymity of the Internet boosts asking behavior too, Wallace believes.

"Men don't ask for directions, right? Online they ask for help," she said.

Another reason we're ready to help online: we don't know if there's anyone out there, ready to help. When there are others around, we feel less accountable, said Wallace.

"What I think is going on on the Net is a fuzziness in your ability to make that calculation," she said. "You're sitting all by yourself by your computer, so you have a sense of being alone, and you can't tell how many other people are out there."

Another factor, one that may have tripped up Google in particular: if you get paid for something, it's work. If you don't, it's play.

Evolutionary psychologist Nigel Barber cites a study where kids were given pens to play with. Surprisingly, those who were rewarded for doing so were less inclined to continue.

"The underlying explanation for psychologists is that when you pay somebody to do something ... they get the feeling that they're not doing it because they enjoy it," Barber said.

The top answerers on Yahoo are there because they want to share their knowledge and connect to other people, according to Tomi Poutanen, director of Yahoo's social search products.

"There is a core community, a core group, that is highly interested in the quality of this," Marchal said.

Summers, on the Adobe forum, said he gets "tremendous payback" for the time he spends there.

"I really enjoy the community spirit, and when you work in your basement like I do, it's kind of like having someone in the next cubicle," he said.

He also gets tangible benefits like work kicked his way by other forum members, and Adobe has a Community Experts program that gives its top forum participants some free software and other goodies.

Would he spend as much time on the forum without those benefits?

"Probably I would, but don't tell Adobe," Summers said, chuckling.

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