Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Asking questions of your social network

Google recently acquired the startup Aardvark for $50 million. The idea behind Aardvark is to provide a way to ask complicated or subjective questions of your friends and colleagues.

There are two papers that will be published at upcoming conferences that provide useful details on this idea. The first is actually by two members of the Aardvark team -- co-founder and Aardvark CTO Damon Horowitz and ex-Googler and Aardvark advisor Sep Kamvar -- and will be published at the upcoming WWW 2010 conference. The paper is called, "The Anatomy of a Large-Scale Social Search Engine" (PDF). An excerpt:
With Aardvark, users ask a question, either by instant message, email, web input, text message, or voice. Aardvark then routes the question to the person in the user's extended social network most likely to be able to answer that question.

Aardvark queries tend to be long, highly contextualized, and subjective -- in short, they tend to be the types of queries that are not well-serviced by traditional search engines. We also find that the vast majority of questions get answered promptly and satisfactorily, and that users are surprisingly active, both in asking and answering.
The paper is well written and convincing, establishing that this idea works reasonably well for a small (50k) group of enthusiastic early adopters. The paper does not answer whether this will work at large scale on a less motivated, lower quality mainstream audience. It also does not provide data to be able to evaluate the common criticism of asking questions of social networks, which is that, at large scale, the burden from a flood of often irrelevant incoming questions creates too much pain for too little benefit.

To get a bit more illumination on that question, turn to another upcoming paper, this one out of Microsoft Research and to be published at CHI 2010. The paper is "What Do People Ask Their Social Networks, and Why? A Survey Study of Status Message Q&A Behavior" (PDF). Some excerpts:
50.6% ... used their status messages to ask a question .... [on] sites like Facebook and Twitter .... 24.3% received a response in 30 minutes or less, 42.8% in one hour or less, and 90.1% within one day .... 69.3% ... who received responses reported they found the responses helpful.

The most common reason to search socially, rather than through a search engine, was that participants had more trust in the responses provided by their friends [24.8%]. A belief that social networks were better than search engines for subjective questions, such as seeking opinions or recommendations, was also a common explanation [21.5%].

The most common motivation given for responding to a question was altruism [37.0%]. Expertise was the next biggest factor [31.9%], with respondents being motivated because they felt they had special knowledge of the topic ... Nature of the relationship with the asker was an important motivator [13.7%], with closer friends more likely to get answers ... [as well as] the desire to connect socially [13.5%] ... free time [12.3%] ... [and] earning social capital [10.5%].

Many indicated they would prefer a face-to-face or personal request, and ignored questions directed broadly to the network-at-large .... [But] participants enjoyed the fun and social aspects of posing questions to their networks.
The key insight in the CHI paper is that people view asking questions of their social network as fun, entertaining, part of building relationships, and as a form of a gift exchange. The Aardvark paper focuses on a topical relevance rank of your social network, but maintaining relevance is going to be difficult at large scale when you have an unmotivated, lower quality, mainstream audience. The CHI paper might offer a path forward, suggesting we instead focus on game playing, entertainment, and the social rewards people enjoy when answering questions from their network.


paolo said...

Very interesting review of the paper. Thanks!

amit said...

Interesting post indeed!