Social reference and digital reference: Online question answering practices in two diverse communities



This panel brings together researchers who focus on Q A sites, those that focus on digital reference, and those who bridge between the two, into what we believe will be a lively discussion.

Sponsorship: SIG-SI; SIG-BWP; SIG-USE

Social reference refers to online web-based question-answering services provided by volunteers on Q A sites. These Q A sites, like other web 2.0 participatory social sites, such as Flickr, YouTube, and Wikipedia, are flourishing. Even though the number of visits to these sites increased by 889 percent in just 2 years, from 2006 to 2008 (Hitwise, 2008), and they attract as much traffic as Flickr (Quantcast, 2008), they have not attracted as much research attention. This may be partially due to the novelty of the phenomenon and partially due to the fact that these sites are female dominated (Hitwise, 2008); Q A sites attract mainly stay at home moms and teenagers (Harper, 2008), unlike the male dominated Wikipedia community. Amid the introduction of ideas such as the ‘wisdom of the crowd’ (Surowiecki, 2004), ‘here comes everybody’ (Shirky, 2008), and ‘everything is miscellaneous’ (Weinberger, 2008), many traditional conceptions of information creation, dissemination, seeking, and use are being challenged. It is possible that on social Q A sites, the conceptions of the reference encounter are challenged as well. For example, by the utilization of wikis and the exploitation of user participation through collaborative processes, the dyadic reference encounter is no longer the norm. Although social reference and Q A sites follow a long tradition of library reference (Harper et al., 2008; Shachaf, 2009), specifically online reference services, reference research and research on Q A sites are mostly detached from one another. Research on Q A sites primarily includes efforts to incorporate social dimensions into the retrieval mechanism (e.g., Adamic, et al., 2008; Bian et al., 2008); only a few studies have linked or compared library reference services with online question answering sites (Harper et al., 2008; Shachaf, 2009). Reference research and social reference research can inform each other.

The potential and risks associated with social sites seem to be contested. Much has been written about the danger and challenges that ‘the cult of the amateurs’ brings to our society, economy, and cultural institutions (Keen, 2007), but at the same time, research on Wikipedia, for example, suggests that the crowd produces an encyclopedia that is easily keeping up with traditional encyclopedias (e.g., Emigh Herring, 2005; Giles, 2005; Rosenzweig, 2006).

It is possible that social sites that produce encyclopedic knowledge and those that provide question answering services are as good as or even better than their predecessors. Q A communities provide services that are comparable to library reference services; these may resemble (Shachaf, 2008), surpass (Harper et al., 2008), or may be limited (O'Neil, 2007) compared to (traditional and digital) library reference services. One way or another, reference research cannot ignore this booming phenomenon as much as reseach on social Q A sites cannot ignore the long tradition of reference research. This panel brings together researchers who focus on Q A sites (Gazan, Rosenbaum, Shachaf, Shah), those that focus on digital reference (Abels, Connaway, Radford), and those who bridge between the two (Abels, Shachaf), into what we believe will be a lively discussion. Each panelist will first present a particular question answering service or a comparative analysis of a few question answering services. Abels will focus on the IPL and will talk about “Ask an IPL Librarian.” Radford and Connaway will focus on live chat VRS, including OCLC Question Point and will present “Quality Inquiry: User Perspectives on Virtual Reference Practice.” Shah will focus on Yahoo! Answers and will talk about “Caching on the Wisdom of Crowds for Question Answering”. Gazan will focus on Answerbag and will present “Dimensions of Trust in Social Reference.” Shachaf will present a comparative analysis of several Q A services (Answerbag, Askville, WikiAnswers, Wikipedia Reference Desk, and Yahoo! Answers) and online library reference services and will talk about “Social Reference vs. Digital Reference: Quality Assessment.” Then the entire panel and the audience will be engaged in a discussion of the following questions:

  • 1What do we know about Q A sites, online library reference services, chat services, and web-based form reference?
  • 2To what extent do Q A sites pose a threat to library reference work?
  • 3How can we best evaluate the quality of interactions and answers on each of these reference services?
  • 4How do Q A sites compare to digital reference services in terms of answers provided?
  • 5What types of answers do users prefer?
  • 6What are the motivations for the askers and the answerers for their participations on Q A sites?
  • 7What are the costs and benefits or pros and cons of Web 2.0-like participatory Q A sites, such as Yahoo! Answers, compared to more digital reference-like services, such as IPL?
  • 8What are the different uses, expectations, and motivations for social Q A vs. traditional digital reference services?