Why Do People Ask Questions in Social Networks?

As a good follow-up to my Google/Aardvark: All About Local? recent blog post, Mathew Ingram from GigaOM covers a new study from MIT and Microsoft Research that explores “What Do People Ask Their Social Networks, and Why?”

Ingram describes the “what” and mentions that “according to the survey, questions ranged from the somewhat open-ended and philosophical (“Why are men so stupid?”) to the explicitly practical (“Point-and-shoot camera just died — need to replace it today for vacation. What should I buy?). The most popular question types were recommendation and opinion questions, such as “I’m building a new playlist — any ideas for good running songs?,” followed by factual knowledge and rhetorical types of questions.”

The question topics (see below) are also very illustrative and many of them have a “local” intent.

Social Network Question Topics

Participants reported that questions about religion, politics, dating, health, pornography and financial issues would probably not be asked in their social network as they are too private. Caveat from the research: “the prevalence of technology questions in our dataset is likely due to the survey population, which consisted of employees at a technology company; we would expect this proportion to be lower for other populations.”

As I was very intrigued by the “why”, I read through the whole study and found the following insights from the researchers (directly quoted from the document):

Type of Information Need: The strength of social networks seems to be in their ability to provide answers to questions of a subjective nature; our respondents especially preferred social sites over search engines for opinion and recommendation questions.

Trust: Although Q&A sites and the blogs and rating sites indexed by search engines provide subjective data such as reviews and recommendations, people tend to trust the opinions of people they know rather than the opinions of strangers

Response Time: Although search engines have near-instantaneous response times, obtaining a timely response requires entering an optimal query, which may be difficult in some situations. Responses on social networks were often received within less than an hour of posting (40% in our sample), and nearly all questions received responses within one day

Effort: Questioning in natural language, rather than figuring out optimal queries for a search engine, lowers the barrier for asking questions on social networks

Personalization: Respondents appreciated that members of their network knew a great deal about their backgrounds and preferences, and were thus able to provide answers tailored based on this context.

Secondary Benefits: In addition to achieving their primary goal of satisfying an information need, asking a question via social networking tools offered two additional types of benefits not present in search engines and Q&A sites. First, by posting a question, participants were also advertising their current interests and activities to their network, creating social awareness. Second, participants found visiting social networking sites to be fun and pleasurable.

What it means: this has tremendous impacts on all search sites (general or local). Consumers are now finding it advantageous to asks questions to their friends/contacts. The main recommendation from the research is very relevant. “By incorporating social features directly into search engines, such as the ability to actively collaborate with others while searching, search engines may be able to turn a mundane experience into one that provides both intellectual and social benefits.”. Seems like a winning combo.


4 thoughts on “Why Do People Ask Questions in Social Networks?

  1. @Scott Yes, I think they are. It’s still marginal but as the Web becomes more social (i.e. as identity/social graph becomes distributed), expect users to discover that other humans give more relevant answers. The big question is: will we reach social fatigue before then? It’s possible but I suspect social graph filters will be implemented to make those interactions more relevant.

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