It didn't take long for me to get a wisecracking answer: "If you don't think it is addictive try stopping for three weeks. A challenge."
Search engines are great for pointing people to information that can help them find a good deal on a laptop, the correct spelling of an obscure French writer's name and the latest news stories on the Iraq war. But how well does the Web do fully answering questions that involve some research or critical thinking?
I posted five questions to six of those increasingly popular answer Web sites. Rather than use reference Web sites that help people find answers by directing them to other online resources, I focused on Web sites where people answer the questions. In less than 24 hours, I received about two dozen responses from so-called experts, librarians and helpful Web surfers.
Not surprisingly, the answers from free Web sites were long on opinion and humor but short on facts. They tended to be good for gauging public opinion but not very helpful in finding explanations for difficult questions.
Yahoo users were the most prolific, with more than 30 responses to the questions on Yahoo Answers, a Q&A forum that features answers from "real people," meaning any registered user.
After six days, only one of the questions was "officially" answered on Google Answers, which was the only site queried by CNET News.com that charges for answers from researchers or experts.
On Google Answers, people submit questions and set a price they are willing to pay, with a minimum of $2 for a "researcher" to answer, plus a nonrefundable 50-cent listing fee per question. The price offered is paid only if the question is answered by a researcher. The questioner pays Google, which in turn pays three-quarters of the fee to the researcher. Researchers are tested expert searchers or experts in a given field. Google registered users can post comments to questions, but they do not receive any money. For each of my questions, I set the lowest price and received one answer, one request for clarification and eight comments.
There were three responses from Wondir.com, which scrolls questions across the site like a ticker and allows anyone to respond. Two of the questions were answered each on AllExperts.com, which lets people who submit questions choose from lists of experts in different fields, and the U.S. Library of Congress' Ask a Librarian Web site.
Only one question was answered through AskA+ Locator, also known as the Virtual Reference Desk Web site, which refers questioners to other free expert and resource sites within specific categories.
Question + answer = huh?
The controversial philosophical question "When does life begin?" got the most responses, again mostly from Yahoo members, 11 of whom piped up. The consensus answer was "at conception." Some people provided scientific explanations, while one user speculated that reincarnation makes that determination difficult.
Others just waxed poetic.
"Life begins when we realize the purpose behind our existence... Existence + Wisdom = Life," one Yahoo Answers user wrote. A nonexpert comment on Google leaned on historical trivia: "The Romans, sensibly, determined that human progeny became a 'person' when they first ate meat."
Three people responded on the Wondir site, including one who said life "begins with consciousness" and another who replied: "When you get your first car."
The question that elicited the second most-responses was "What should I do if I find that I am underdressed or inappropriately attired at a wedding?"
The Library of Congress said that "as a matter of policy" it does not offer "personal advice or make judgements (sic) of any kind," before referring me to two books on etiquette--John Morgan's "Debrett's New Guide to Etiquette and Modern Manners" and Emily Post's "Etiquette," 17th edition. Yahoo users, meanwhile, were quick with humorous quips, common sense tips and motherly advice.
"Once you get to the wedding it is too late to do much but hang around in the background," one person wrote. "Dress business casual. Nothing too low cut or high hemmed," another advised. A third passed on this sage tip: "My mom said, always wear a plain skirt and blouse with jewelry. It looks dressy enough for anything."
Some respondents gave tough love. "Brazen it out," wrote a Yahoo user. "If nothing else, remember you've given people something to talk about. Just try to make sure they don't do it in hushed tones behind your back."
The question that prompted the fewest responses was one related to rheumatoid arthritis and how best to treat it, with suggestions ranging from trying specific medications to doing yoga and changing diet.
One of the questions related to a recent news event--Vice President Dick Cheney's shooting of a hunting buddy--"With what frequency are nonfatal hunting accidents prosecuted?"
Someone at Georgia Southern University provided two Web addresses to help answer the question posed at Virtual Reference Desk: the Criminal Justice Journalists' News Center and a link to the FBI's Uniform Crime Reports Web page, which was broken.
Several people gave humorous responses to the hunting-shooting question. "Really depends if you are the Vice President or just John Doe from the trailer park," and "I'm guessing you have to be a senator" were two such responses. Another Yahoo user said: "NONE are prosecuted...that's why they are called ACCIDENTS."
Another popular question that elicited more personal responses than medical facts was "Is marijuana addictive?"
The Library of Congress again offered three book references, but prefaced the answer by saying, "The jury is still out on whether or not marijuana is addictive." A medical doctor at AllExperts.com responded simply, "Yes, it is addictive" and two responses from people on Wondir.com also were in the affirmative.
A paid researcher on Google Answers provided links to two Web sites for the official answer, after apparently doing a simple Web search. The links were the Wikipedia Cannabis health Web page and the Brown University Student Services Web site, which said: "More and more studies are finding that marijuana has addictive properties. Both animal and human studies show physical and psychological withdrawal symptoms from marijuana, including irritability, restlessness, insomnia, nausea and intense dreams."
Some Yahoo users' responses came from personal experience. Several respondents said marijuana was not physically addictive, but is psychologically addictive and habit forming.
"Pot is just one of a long list of products, heroin, wine, beer, etc. that screen out reality," one person wrote. "You can get addicted to screening out reality, but it really isn't a good strategy for life."