The value of answering your own questions at Stack Exchange

Stack Skeptic logoThere’s much to learn when you are interested in skepticism. There’s the human psychology, the history of various scams and hoaxes, the science (and pseudoscience) of alternative medicine, and much more. As a result there’s plenty of material to read – books, magazines, newsletters, blogs and so on.

In my reading, I inevitably come across lots of interesting little tidbits here and there. Finding stuff like this was the basis in part for both What’s the Harm and my Skeptic History daily fact.

But sometimes you find a neat fact that you’d love to call to everyone’s attention, but you don’t have the appropriate place to put it. Social media is often too ephemeral, and blogging is not everyone’s cup of tea.

Let’s assume you don’t have a popular website of your own (most people don’t) and don’t want to start one. Some topics just aren’t appropriate for their own Wikipedia (or even RationalWiki) article. Either there just isn’t enough meat there, or other editors might question the “notability”.

Wouldn’t be nice if there was another place to publicly bookmark little items like this, set up so the general public could easily find them? There is such a place and let me explain why it’s ideal for this.

Stack Exchange

The place I’m thinking of is Skeptics StackExchange. I’ve written about this site before – it’s basically a question-and-answer site that is specialized for skeptics.

But unlike some other Q&A sites (like the famously bad Yahoo Answers) it is very carefully designed to encourage the posting of good material, and make the best material more prominent. Most particularly, the site is designed to rank well in search engines such as Google, so that the general public can make use of the answers that are posted there. (The site does not charge users or readers, so this benefits everyone).

As a result, something posted on a Stack Exchange site can easily rank very highly in Google for related searches. I answered a question about L.Ron Hubbard on this site that ranks very highly for several relevant searches. This is a great way to get answers to people who are looking for them.

Questions Without Answers

So how does a Q&A site translate into a good place to post factoids? Well, the site owners found that it was common for someone would post a question to the site, and then go off to continue to research the correct answer themselves. Often the original questioner would figure out their own answer before the other users on the site came up with anything useful.

Naturally they wanted to encourage the original poster to take the time to return to post their answer. Originally you couldn’t get credit under the site’s scoring system for answering your own question. But why leave everyone else hanging with an unanswered question sitting there? That helps no-one.

So eventually they altered the software to explicitly allow this (back in 2012).

Asked and Answered, Your Honor

So the method is simple. Can you phrase your factoid in the form of a question, Alex?

Then all you have to do is head over to Skeptics Stack Exchange and hit the Ask A Question button. Try to ask it in the most natural way possible – the way a person who genuinely wants to know the answer would ask it. That will help them find it in Google. Include supporting material that helps explain the context of the question – this additional text might help others find your post who use different wording.

Then look for this checkbox on the page:

Answer your own questionCheck it!  You can then type the answer that explains the factoid that brought you here.

But remember this is Skeptic StackExchange – so they play by good skeptic rules. You have to provide your sources! If you can provide a hyperlink that’s great, but otherwise create a bibliography entry that references the printed source where you found this information. You don’t need to know HTML – StackExchange uses a simple formatting system called MarkDown, which provides for both inline links or even footnotes if you prefer that style.

Why This Is A Good Idea

This is really just another type of barnacle SEO, which I talk about a lot on this site. That’s where you take advantage of some other site’s good search engine position to post some content that is designed to reach the public.

For instance, this is exactly why posting videos on YouTube, or articles on Wikipedia is a good idea even if you would prefer to post them on your own site. These sites likely has a far higher PageRank than your own site. It’s the digital equivalent of sticking a poster to the side of a building on a street with lots of foot traffic.

This is also applicable to many other topics, not just skepticism. Stack Exchange has well over 100 topic-specific sites right now. Anything from board games to photography and beyond.

So next time you run across some neat little factoid that you write down for your own later use, consider how you could phrase it in the form of a question. And take it over to Skeptic StackExchange and put it there where it can benefit everyone.

Update: I discussed this technique on Virtual Skeptics #99 on August 13. My segment starts at 36:13 in the show and is only 9 minutes.

2 thoughts on “The value of answering your own questions at Stack Exchange

  1. Pingback: Virtual Skeptics #99 – 8/13/2014 | The Virtual Skeptics

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