by George Taniwaki

Facebook has a new application (or widget) currently in beta release called Questions that allows users to post questions and wait for another user to answer it. The questions are categorized into groups and users are shown questions that other people who have similar interests have answered. If you know anything about search and recommendation you realize that Facebook is trying to solve two really hard computing problems simultaneously.

First, how do you categorize the questions? What keywords and contexts do you use? For instance, what weight do you give to the interests of the person asking the question? And how do you categorize those interests? What weight do you give to the length of the question? How do you handle misspelled words? Do you give any weight to the fact that any words are misspelled?

Second, how do you decide which questions to show which user? Should you predict if the potential answerer is actually qualified to answer the question? Is it more important to generate lots of responses or to get the correct response quickly? Or is it actually more important to entertain users with a stream of interesting questions, regardless of whether they answer them? (This would be really hard to predict since Facebook will never get any feedback from users regarding the question they don’t answer.)

Community run Q&A sites are not new. Yahoo! Answers and Answers.com have both been around for years and are quite popular. However, I believe that most of the answers are written by a small group of dedicated users who vie for points and recognition. Facebook’s goal is to engage the entire community, since the longer you stay at their site, the more likely you are to click on some ads.

Anyway, I want so show some screenshots. This may violate some promise I made to Facebook. The first shows a few examples of questions from the Questions widget. The widget appears in the right column under the Sponsored links widget. Notice how many of the questions seem to be factual and could be more quickly (and correctly) answered using standard web-based research skills.

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Two examples of the Questions widget. Image from Facebook

If you click on a question in Questions, you will taken to a page showing all the responses for that question. You can then vote yea or nay for any response. The example below shows how introspective Facebook users are.

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Question responses. Image from Facebook

Finally, if you click on the Asked about link, you will see a list of all the questions related to that category. Notice the example below for the category “Roots”. As I mentioned above, categorizing questions is tough. And was this question really asked by that Kristin Bell?

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Category detail. Image from Facebook

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