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Have a pressing question? Need an answer? Chances are you'll turn to your friends and family, but doing so isn't always easy. Time and distance often separate us from the people we know, and sometimes a second or third opinion is needed.
So what's the solution? If the company has its way, the answer to that question is Facebook. Yesterday, the world's largest social network announced that its much-anticipated product, Facebook Questions, has entered beta and is being released to a growing number of Facebook users.
Q&A websites are not new, of course, but they represent a very popular niche on the consumer internet. From Answers.com to Yahoo! Answers, the top Q&A sites rank as some of the most popular websites overall. That means that Facebook will face some competition in trying to turn Facebook Questions into a leading Q&A destination.
But there's a very good chance the competition won't have enough ammunition to keep Facebook from becoming a dominant force in the space very quickly. Facebook has more than 500m users, giving in the ability to drive significant adoption almost instantly when it releases new products. But even more importantly, Facebook has something that no other Q&A site does: a massive, comprehensive social graph.
When we need an answer to a question, we often go to people who we know for a very simple reason: we trust them. Yet on sites like Answers.com and Yahoo! Answers, users are forced to rely on answers provided by individuals they probably don't know. That can be problematic, especially when asking a question that requires some level of expertise or competence in a particular area. Since users often don't have any real sense of who is answering their question, it's much more difficult to trust its accuracy.
With Facebook Questions, Facebook can allow you to tap into your social graph to get a more trustworthy set of answers. For instance, if I ask a medical question and get a response from a friend who has medical training, I'll probably feel more confident about the answer than an answer provided by somebody going by the name nurseintraining55.
Of course, Facebook's social graph means Facebook Questions has a lot of potential, but there's no guarantee that the potential will be realized. One potential problem: in an effort to drive adoption and traffic, questions are available publicly, and can't be restricted to friends alone:
Keep in mind that all questions and answers posted using the Questions application are public and visible to everyone on the Internet. If you only want to ask a question to your friends or a specific group of people, you can still pose it as a status update on your profile targeted to those people.
This, in my opinion, might make Facebook Questions less appealing, and limit some of the potential applications of Facebook Questions to questions of a more personal nature. But even so, it looks probable that Facebook Questions will silently disrupt the Q&A space just as Facebook Photos has silently disrupted online photo sharing.
The big question, of course, is what this will do for Facebook as a business. The answer: probably not much, at least in the immediate term. But that's okay. Mark Zuckerberg and company likely see Facebook Questions as just one of many products that can further increase Facebook's value as a social utility. Given the company's current position, I think we'll see more 'social utility' products being developed in the future.
Photo credit: tj_scenes via Flickr.