Friday, January 20, 2006

Asking Metafilter

I have recently become enamoured with Ask Metafilter:
Ask MetaFilter is a discussion area for sharing knowledge among members of MetaFilter. There is also a filtered view of this page showing just questions with "best" marked answers and another page of fantastic questions and answers suggested by members.
Last year, when I did information literacy sessions for first year students I would frequently begin by asking the class where did they normally go when they need answers to their questions. They would answer: friends, google, professor, library, parents... and with some pressing, they would then expand their answers a little to include such things as The Yellow Pages. One reason I liked beginning this way was it let the students know that we knew that the library was just one of the places they went for when they needed help.

No one answered "my virtual community".

I haven't even heard the phrase virtual community in years. Years ago, I once worked a company that tried to build one (inspired by this book) and it failed miserably. I think the phrase died because it was too grandiose and community is a very hard ideal to meet. So the phrase doesn't describe what I think Ask Metafilter is. But its close.

Ask Metafilter Its an active (almost too active) discussion area where there are (mostly) intelligent, confounding questions and (mostly) intelligent, insightful answers. I think Ask Metafilter works because it has a large population filled with folks from all different parts and varied different backgrounds and because the one time $5 donation to join in keeps most of the bozos out. As a librarian who is obsessing over questions at the moment, I love Ask Metafilter but I know I'm late to the game as jessamyn from has been answering questions there for a while now.

Which got me thinking. I think a public library of a city with a relatively large population should try hosting a local copy of Ask Metafilter. The set-up would be exactly the same - with a possible exception or variation of the $5 manditory donation. There would be librarians partcipating but unlike "traditional online reference service" any library user could answer anyone else's question. The more I think about the idea, the more I like it. It would demonstrate that the library is a place where conversations occur and questions are raised and answered. And it would recognize and reward the everyday experts in the community. Librarians have to recognize that sometimes the fastest way of getting an answer is not to pick up a book, but to pick up the phone and call that someone you know who's read that book.

While I'm relatively optimistic of such a project in a public library, I don't think this could work in an educational setting as there are too many students already that don't parse their assignments properly into bite-sized questions. These are the types that bomb mailing lists and such with their assignment verbetim. But then again, an Ask LibraryFilter may be a way to demonstrate the benefits of being able to ask a good question.

I should Ask Metafilter to see what they think of its viability.

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