When the hive mind works, it's a beautiful thing.

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Feb. 23 2009 7:10 AM

AskMeFi

When the hive mind works, it's a beautiful thing.

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The rules start with what questions get accepted. There are certain topics that never go well: "Don't ask about circumcising your baby," says West. "Don't ask about declawing your cat. Questions about extreme paranoia are bad because we've found that people like to tease people who are hearing voices." Nothing about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. No questions about suicide. (In these cases, West responds with an e-mail suggesting counseling in the question-asker's area.) No questions like "Is my husband trying to kill me?" No revenge questions along the lines of "Help me get back at my shithead boss." No chatty questions such as "What is everyone's favorite color?" or useless, leading questions along the lines of "Why does everyone like Ted Nugent so much?"

What's left are questions about the news of the day, computer problems, taxes, pets, hotels, dreams, minor medical concerns, workplace situations, romance, clogged drains, and the daily ephemera that you wonder about and wonder if anyone else wonders about: "Is it rational for me to become irritated when I see people with their windshield wipers on full speed when there is only a light drizzle? Does this irritate anyone else?" When not watching the questions, West and her colleagues watch the responses. "It's amazing how deleting an early, dumb, shitty comment about, say, how bad the U.S. health care system is can mean that the rest of the thread is normal and civil," says West. (Apparently AskMeFi is riven with a lot of U.S.-Canada tension.)

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West also points out that the people on AskMeFi have grown to know one another through their posts and questions. They flag inappropriate responses and generally feel that they have a stake in making the site function as a source of useful information. Fostering good conversation turns out not to be complex, but it does require effort: "There are real humans who pay attention to the site all the time." AskMeFi has one other key factor that promotes civility: It costs five bucks to join. In a New York Times article about vicious Internet feedback, Slate's Mickey Kaus said that "the world is crying out for the jerk-zapper." Perhaps five bucks is that jerk-zapper. The hit-and-run flame artists will go where comment is free and targets are ripe—a place like Yahoo Answers, say, where unlucky people ask: "Is duck tape really made with ducks?"

I joke about the jerk-zapper, but it would be a truly good thing, because when you see a functioning hive mind in action, like AskMeFi, the results are incredible. One guy wanted to find the address of the apartment where his late grandfather lived in Vienna before fleeing the Nazis. He spoke no German, no one in his family had any idea where the place was, he was leaving in a few weeks. He found the person who could answer his question in 32 minutes. Next, there are questions that, if posed elsewhere, would be met with an avalanche of mockery—"So … I'm fat! Still wanna meet up?"—but are answered on AskMeFi with perspective and sensitivity. If people stay on topic, an impressive knowledge resource can result. Whenever I need a starting point in an unfamiliar area, I look at this thread: "What single book is the best introduction to your field (or specialization within your field) for laypeople?" And, finally, there are those threads that may just change your life or, at least, amaze you for an afternoon.

Michael Agger is an editor at The New Yorker. Follow him on Twitter.

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