Facebook Launches New “Questions” Application – An In-Depth Look

Today, Facebook launches a new in-house application called Questions which aims to make it easy for users to get recommendations, advice, and opinions on any subject. Users can pose questions which are displayed in the Questions Dashboard and the news feeds of the author’s friends, friends of friends, and people who like things related to a question’s tags. Answers are voted as helpful or unhelpful, surfacing the best responses and hiding the worst.

All Questions content is public, meaning it will quickly form a huge knowledge base that could best other Q&A sites like Quora if Facebook can keep the quality of content high. Facebook says that users frequently used status updates to ask questions, and they wanted to facilitate this behavior while making the knowledge created available to anyone interested.

Facebook is slowly rolling out the feature so they can closely watch how behavior patterns develop and react accordingly. Users who create top voted questions and answers may be asked to become community moderators to help guide the application’s users towards best practices.

A new Questions navigation button on the home page’s left sidebar leads to the Questions Dashboard. Here you are shown an input field asking “What do you want to know?”, and a list of relevant questions based on your interests, Questions activity, and friends. The dashboard also suggests topics and lists trending topics, a term pulled directly from Twitter, in the right sidebar.

When a user clicks on a question they are shown its existing answers, along with an input field to add their own answer. Some features from Quora that appear here include the option to follow a question so you receive notifications about its activity, and the ability to “Ask a Friend”. This option allows a user to direct a question to someone specific by typing in the name of a friend, or, unlike Quora, choose from a few suggested friends represented by mini-thumbnails of their profile pictures. Keyboard shortcuts for actions such as following a question, changing topic, or adding an answer are listed along the bottom of the screen.

The answer page’s right sidebar lists who asked the question, along with their work info, network, and a mutual friend if you have one. Below that are related questions, related topics, and recent activity across the entire Questions application. At the top of the screen is a navigation bar that allows you to move to the next question in the currently viewed topic, or choose a new topic to browse, such as sports, The Simpsons, or everything, which brings up a random question. However, currently a bug is making navigation to topics unstable, often looping users back to the topic selection screen and showing the message “There are no questions about [this topic]” even if there are many. Facebook has acknowledged the bug and claim it will be fixed soon.

To initiate asking a question, a user types the query into the input field at the top right of the Questions dashboard, or into the new section of the publisher on the home page. This brings up the question editor, where a user can add a more detailed description, insert photos, and set up a poll between two choices in addition to text answers. Facebook will automatically scan questions and answers for keywords and tag them forming links to their Questions topics. Users can augment these auto-tags by manually adding pertinent topics. Authors can delete questions or edit them, even after they’ve been answered, creating a moderation concern since an author can change a question to make existing answers seem inappropriate or embarrassing.

The answer editor provides formatting options like bold, numbered or bullet point lists, and indented quotes. There is currently no way to add photos to an answer, and inserting a URL doesn’t bring up a preview of the website. Other Pages a user is an admin of can be selected as the answer’s author by using the “Publish answer as…” drop down.

The Questions application has implications across Facebook. User profiles now include a tab displaying their Questions activity. Community Pages now display a tab showing Questions content that mentions them, as well as Questions input field asking “What do you want to know about [this community Page]?”. Most visibly, those with access to Questions are seeing a new design of the publisher, which allows users to initiate asking a question right from the home page. Facebook’s Zach Ritter explains that initiating a question from here instead of the Questions application makes it more likely to be seen by friends.

Questions also sends a large volume of notifications which can’t be turned off to a user’s notification inbox, signaling actions including someone following your question or your answer being voted as helpful. A new section in the Account-> Notifications settings allows users to select which of these messages are sent to their email or phone. Since users are directed questions from strangers based on tags matching what they like, the Pages a user is connected to now have greater influence on what they see. This could encourage users to like more Pages they care about and drop those they don’t but added out of sympathy or social obligation.

Further integration of Questions into the Facebook experience could redefine how cliques make group decisions, especially if privacy settings were introduced to the product. Creating a natural segue from Questions to events would make it easy for users to poll the preferences of their friends, then use the data to create an event they know people want to attend. For instance, instead of blindly posting an event inviting friends to a movie, you could ask if they wanted to see a movie or go out to dinner, then plan an event accordingly.

Questions has the potential to change the way people think about acquiring knowledge. Much the way Wikipedia is now the go-to source for objective knowledge, Questions could be the first choice for soliciting or finding subjective knowledge, thanks to its ease of use and enormous user base. Facebook’s inherently social atmosphere makes it perfect for digitally requesting recommendations and opinions about everyday life, but perhaps less suited to more academic questions that Quora hosts. To prevent competing with the much larger Facebook, Quora needs to lock down its specialization in more complex topics. Meanwhile, Q&A services without a clear niche like Aardvark, ChaCha, Yahoo! Answers rightfully have something to fear from Questions.

Facebook’s challenge is now to closely monitor the content flowing through the Questions application and eliminate useless content which could make the product untrustworthy, boring, or juvenile. They also need to closely monitor how users react to the inclusion of Questions stories in their feeds, as too many posts could make users resent the product and worry their own questions will annoy their friends. If these points are handled successfully, Questions could become the new killer app, providing high utility to users, creating new inroads to Pages which will excite brands, and further increasing engagement and time on site.