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Go ahead, just ask a question

The Nation | COLUMN ONE

You name it, somebody has an answer online. And that somebody is more than happy to get back to you, maybe even with sound advice.

April 25, 2007|Alex Pham | Times Staff Writer

WHAT'S the optimal temperature for storing white wine? How old is too old to sleep with a teddy bear? Can you make liquor from broccoli?

Ask Peter Trask. He will tell you that white wine is best stored at 50 degrees, that he occasionally sleeps with a teddy bear at age 48 and thinks it's fine, and that broccoli can be made into liquor but not a very tasty one.

The accountant from Pembroke, Mass., spends a couple of hours every night answering questions like these posed on answerbag.com, where members post queries on topics as diverse as philosophy, math, dancing and religion. He's offered more than 1,000 pieces of advice since stumbling onto the website a year ago.

"I'm a wealth of useless knowledge," he said. "I have more contact with some of these people than I do with my own brothers and sisters."

The Internet is packed with specialty sites devoted to just about every ailment, passion and topic. But millions of people also seek answers from armies of volunteers such as Trask on sites like Answerbag, WikiAnswers and Yahoo Answers. The leader, Yahoo Answers, attracted nearly 20 million visitors last month, according to Web measurement firm ComScore Media Metrix.

When it comes to answering questions, expertise is preferred -- but none is required. Anyone on these services can ask or answer a question.

Many of the self-appointed authorities spend hours crafting their responses. They cite many motivations: to contribute to the greater good, fend off boredom, procrastinate as work looms or earn recognition.

They're the online equivalents of the neighborhood busybody, the helpful librarian or the sage professor. Often, that's who they are in real life, too.

By day, Lisa Poirier is comparative religion professor and director of graduate studies at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. By night, she's "Professor X." After dinner, the 43-year-old Poirier winds down by logging into her Yahoo account and fielding questions on higher education.

She has referred people to colleges with horseback riding programs, counseled students on getting into graduate school and doled out opinions on various colleges. Once, when an Afghan woman posted a question about how to study in the U.S., Poirier offered her knowledge of organizations that provide full scholarships to women from Afghanistan.

"While my partner plays video games, I answer questions," Poirier said. "It's my own game."

Like any good game, answering questions can be addictive.

"I get withdrawal symptoms when I don't go on," said Jacinta Rachel, a biology student in Liverpool, Britain, who spends up to five hours a day fielding questions on Answerbag under the moniker "Carmella." "Like if you leave home for a while, you can feel quite homesick -- that's the feeling I get."

QUESTION-answering websites cultivate that reaction by borrowing tried-and-true strategies from video games. For example, as Answerbag respondents supply responses that other members find useful, they can climb 69 levels, from Novice to Maestro. Yahoo awards points each time someone answers a question, and more points when the response is chosen Best Answer by other users.

Poirier has racked up about 21,000 points by serving up more than 1,800 answers, making her the top-ranked person in Yahoo's higher-education category. The points can't be claimed for any sort of prize, just credibility and bragging rights. Questioners can use them to help separate the good advice from the bad.

"I get a kick out of the fact that 82% of my answers have been chosen as Best Answer," Poirier said. "That means your answers have a certain quality to [them]. Anyone can get on the site and answer a bunch of questions, but what good do they do?"

Indeed, there's no shortage of silly questions and flippant answers. One poster posed this question on Answerbag: "If you were homeless, what would your cardboard sign say?"

Among the replies: "Sign for sale."

But some people turn to these sites with the most serious of inquiries, such as "How to locate my birth father?"

Debby Fabela, 47, asked that question on Yahoo in August. Her dad had left her family when she was a year old. The Lake Elsinore, Calif., woman had tried to find him over the years, once by handwriting nearly 100 letters to people who shared her father's last name.

Shortly after buying her first computer last year, Fabela revived her quest on Yahoo Answers. Among the dozen responses was one from Skip McKenna in Myrtle Beach, S.C. The two struck up a correspondence, and McKenna sleuthed online to help Fabela track down her paternal grandmother in Cleveland.

"The minute I got her on the phone, I was in tears," Fabela said. "She was my lost link to everything."

Fabela learned that her father had died years ago. But she also found she had two half brothers in Sacramento from her father's second marriage.

She credits McKenna, a stranger who holds no particular expertise in genealogy, for reuniting her with her missing family.

"He's my hero," she said, "even though I've never met him."

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