Yahoo Answers is dead, but the internet never forgets

Yahoo Answers will be taken offline -- putting an end to one of the weirdest, oldest and least organized communities of crowdsourced questions and answers

Image Source: CNET

It’s over. Yahoo Answers will be taken offline on May 4 at some point, putting an end to one of the strangest, oldest, and least coordinated groups of crowdsourced questions and answers. The site’s almost never-ending stream of user-submitted questions ranged from fascinating thought experiments (from the likes of Stephen Hawking, no less) to the absurdity of someone asking, “What did my father just say to me?”

What Yahoo Answers was supposed to be

When Yahoo unveiled its question-and-answer site in 2005, it had no intention of becoming a mainstay of internet comedy. “A place where people can ask each other questions about any subject and get answers by sharing information, thoughts, and personal experiences,” according to the company. Even so, Yahoo Answers was developed to help improve Yahoo Search results, not for its own sake.

It’s easy to forget how strong Yahoo used to be. It was a large corporation with social networks, email, directories, and, of course, the world’s largest search engine. However, in 2005, it was up against stiff competition.

The hope was that Yahoo Answers could make the company’s search engine better by offering users millions of crowdsourced answers to any question they might have. 

“Long term, Answers has the ability to attract incremental users, increase time spent on the Yahoo! Platform, and generate monetization opportunities through additional supported links and page views,” Lehman Brothers analyst Douglas Anmuth told Forbes shortly after the service launched.

Yahoo Answers was never just about the answers, which might explain why it’s better known for the questions its users asked.

What Yahoo Answers became

Regardless of what Yahoo Answers was intended to be, it is best known for the bizarre and unexpected questions it receives. In reality, before the shutdown, most Yahoo Answers searches on Google, YouTube, and other sites returned lists of ridiculous and amusing musings.

There are hundreds of comedy videos mocking Yahoo Answers’ strangest questions, and teasing these sometimes too-personal questions will be a part of the service’s legacy for the foreseeable future. Despite the jokes, the forum came close to being what it was intended to be.

More serious searches may lead to uncomfortable but innocent questions about growing up and human growth, probably the questions of children who are too ashamed to ask their parents. Many users were looking for advice about how to fix things around the house and tech help.

Some of the questions were simply attempts by students to use the internet to “assist” them with their homework.

Despite the fact that the website was created to supplement Yahoo’s search engine, the site’s features helped it develop its own strange identity once the company’s searchable trove of information became less of a priority. Question askers may choose the best response to any given question, allowing the person who wrote it to gain points and progress through an internal ranking system. The points and level didn’t do much, but they did help to foster a sense of belonging.

One of the things that attracted me to Yahoo Answers was the feeling of community. It debuted alongside many of today’s internet behemoths when it launched in late 2005. Facebook and Reddit were still in their early stages, and Twitter was only a few months out. While Yahoo Answers was not designed to compete with any of these networks, it did serve some of the same functions. Yahoo Answers appeared at a time when users were moving away from conventional message board systems and chat rooms, acting as a bridge between the late-90s internet communities and the social media giants that were about to take over the internet.

It’s one aspect of the service that survived to the end. Browsing Yahoo Answers’ categories in its final days still surfaced plenty of standard questions seeking answers (“Can u write on money,” or “How do I get a grease stain out of concrete”), but you could also find the same discussions you’d expect on Reddit. These range from new parents asking in the parenting forum what people thought of the name of their child, or political partisans debating the latest headlines in the politics and news sections. 

Yahoo Answers and the internet afterlife

After May 4, Yahoo’s question-and-answer service will be phased out, similar to how GeoCities are phased out. There will be no effort to conserve or archive the service on an official level. Yahoo Answers’ millions of questions — chaotic, hilarious, and sublime — will be lost to time unless an outside party intervenes.

Fortunately, this is the internet, where someone is still willing to save a strange database with bad spelling and strange questions, even though it isn’t worth saving. When Yahoo confirmed the service would be shut down, Gizmodo wrote that it had written a script to archive 84 million Yahoo Answers questions to the Internet Archive, but that the process would take two years. Fortunately, in 2016, a group called Archive Team began a similar project.

A significant portion of Yahoo Answers’ publicly accessible questions has already been backed up, and the team has designated archiving the remainder as a spring 2021 “warrior mission.” Yahoo Answers’ strange history will be stored on the Internet Archive, for better or worse.

Unfortunately, the search feature on the archived pages is currently broken, but we’ll still have all those MBMBAM segments.

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