This tweet by Howard Rheingold led me to this short piece that he wrote in 1994. In it he describes newsgroups as “a worldwide, multimillion member, collective thinktank, available twenty-four hours a day to answer any question from the trivial to the scholarly.” That description sounds a lot like social Q&A sites to me. Which got me thinking: of course there’s nothing particularly new about a “new” technology not being new. But I started wondering what the actual differences are between social Q&A sites and newsgroups. I mean, it seems obvious. But these things never are, when you start thinking about them.

Let’s start with this: Shah, Oh, & Oh 1 define social Q&A as “a service that involves (1) a method for a person to present his/her information need in natural language (mostly a question, and not a collection of keywords), (2) a place where other people can respond to somebody’s information need, and (3) a community built around such service based on participation.”

Let’s take those in turn for newsgroups, shall we?

One: A method for a person to present his/her information need in natural language. Yes, newsgroups certainly meet that criteria. Of course, a newsgroup is a venue for more than presentation of information needs; it’s a venue for conversation. And questions are a subset of conversation. Or maybe it would be more accurate to say that newsgroups afford all manner of speech acts, and questions are one type of speech act. But I suppose that amounts to the same thing.

Two: A place where other people can respond to somebody’s information need. Yes, that has always been one of the functions of newsgroups.

Three: A community built around such service based on participation. Well, no. I guess here’s where we get to the crux of the difference between social Q&A sites and newsgroups. Newsgroups are not built around the service of question-answering; newsgroups are built around topic-specific conversation. The fact that question-asking and -answering can happen in that venue is a side benefit, one that derives from the nature of conversation.

So there’s the distinction: the raisons d’être of the two types of venue are different: newsgroups are based on conversation, and social Q&A sites are based on question-asking and -answering. Can we then make the leap to say that, since question-asking and -answering is a subset of conversation, social Q&A sites are a subset of newsgroups? That doesn’t sound right to me. A subcategory? Maybe. A narrower use case?

The only other distinction that I can think of at the moment is platform: newsgroups and social Q&A sites are powered by different software, with different functionality. Despite having been a big Usenet user in my misspent youth, I actually don’t know a whole lot about the software that powered newsgroups. I do know, though, that there’s at least one open source application designed to run social Q&A sites. And again, while I don’t actually know for sure, I feel confident that Yahoo! and other companies that run their own social Q&A sites wrote their own software to do it. So the software is different, an custom-built.

Which brings me to the functionality of that software. Newsgroups didn’t allow the user to do much except write and submit what you wrote. What you wrote could be a reply to what someone else wrote. Social Q&A sites allow that as well, though with less threading: there’s the question and there are the answers, but not replies to the answers. Social Q&A do, however, have whatever reputation systems they’ve implemented: in the case of Yahoo! Answers, for example, the questioner and/or the user community can vote on best answers, and answerers accumulate points and levels. Newsgroups for sure didn’t have that kind of explicit reputation system in place. Newsgroups had reputation systems in place, yes, but they were socially constructed, not built into the software. So another difference between newsgroups and social Q&A sites is the functionality of the software behind them. Which, I suppose you could argue, falls out of the raisons d’être of the two types of venue.

  1. Shah, C., Oh, S., & Oh, J. S. (2009). Research Agenda for Social Q&A. Library & Information Science Research, 31(4), 205-209.