It’s over. On May 4, Yahoo Answers went offline, putting an end to one of the weirdest, oldest and least organized communities of crowdsourced questions and answers. The site’s seemingly endless parade of user-submitted queries ranged from intriguing thought experiments (from the likes of Stephen Hawking, no less) to the absurdity of someone asking the community, “What did my dad just say to me?”
Yahoo Answers became notorious as a home for a very specific brand of chaos. Some questions became famous memes unto themselves. Others became standards on “top ten funniest” Yahoo Answers questions. The community became a rich mine of material for YouTube comedians, even PewDiePie. Famous podcasters used Yahoo Answers as a source for inspiration too: Dissecting weird questions was a regular segment on My Brother, My Brother and Me.
Yahoo Answers had a legacy. Just not the one it was designed to have.
What Yahoo Answers was supposed to be
When Yahoo launched its question-and-answer platform in 2005, becoming a mainstay of internet comedy wasn’t part of the plan. The company billed the service as “a place where people can ask each other questions on any topic, and get answers by sharing facts, opinions and personal experiences.” Even so, Yahoo Answers didn’t exist for its own sake — it was created to help bolster Yahoo Search results.
It can be easy to forget how influential Yahoo once was. It was a big company with social communities, email, directories and, of course, the biggest search engine in the world. In 2005, however it was facing fierce competition. The hope was that Yahoo Answers could make the company’s search engine better by offering users millions of crowdsourced answers to any question they might have.
“Long term, Answers has the potential to attract incremental users, increase time spent on the Yahoo! Platform,” Lehman Brothers analyst Douglas Anmuth told Forbes shortly after the service launched, “and create monetization opportunities through additional sponsored links and page views.”
Yahoo Answers was never really about the answers, which could be why the service was best known for the questions its users asked.
What Yahoo Answers became
Regardless of what Yahoo Answers was designed to be, it’s best known for the surprising and ridiculous questions people asked it. In fact, before news broke of the shutdown, most searches for Yahoo Answers on Google, YouTube and other platforms brought back lists of absurd and amusing ponderings.
There are dozens of comedy videos mocking Yahoo Answers’ weirdest questions, and teasing these often too-personal questions will forever be a part of the service’s legacy. Despite the jokes, the platform actually got kind of close to what it was designed to be. More earnest searches could lead you to awkward, but innocent questions about growing up and human development — possibly the queries of those too embarrassed to ask their parents. Lots of users were seeking household repair tips and tech support.
Some questions were just students trying to get the internet to “help” with their homework.
Although the platform was devised to augment Yahoo’s search engine, the site’s features helped it find its own weird identity once that searchable trove of knowledge became less of a priority for the company. Question askers could pick the best response to any given question, which would help the person writing that answer earn points to level up in an internal ranking system. The points and level didn’t actually do anything, but it helped create a sense of community.
That sense of community is one of the things that made Yahoo Answers interesting. When it launched in late 2005, it debuted alongside many of today’s internet giants. Facebook and Reddit were both still in their infancy, and Twitter was only months away. Yahoo Answers wasn’t built to compete with any of these networks, but it filled some similar roles. At a time when users online were moving away from traditional message board systems and chat rooms, Yahoo Answers was there — serving as a half-step between the internet communities of the late 1990s and the social media empires that were about to take over the web.
It’s one aspect of the service that survived to the end. Browsing Yahoo Answers’ categories in its final days still surfaced plenty of standard questions seeking answers (“Can u write on money,” or “How do I get a grease stain out of concrete”), but you could also find the same discussions you’d expect on Reddit. These range from new parents asking in the parenting forum what people thought of the name of their child, or political partisans debating the latest headlines in the politics and news sections.
Yahoo Answers and the internet afterlife
After May 4, the Yahoo question-and-answer service will. There’ll be no official attempts to preserve or archive the service. Unless an outside group takes action, Yahoo Answers’ millions of questions — chaotic, hilarious and sublime — will be lost to time.
Fortunately, this is the internet, where there’s always someone happy to preserve a bizarre database of terrible spelling and weird questions — even if it might not be worth saving. When Yahoo announced it was shutting the service down, Gizmodo wrote that it created a script that would archive 84 million Yahoo Answers questions to the Internet Archive, but admitted that it would take two years to complete the process. Fortunately, a group called Archive Team started a similar project back in 2016.
A large portion of Yahoo Answers’ publicly available questions are already backed up, and the team has made archiving the rest their “warrior project” focus for spring 2021. For better or worse, Yahoo Answers’ weird legacy will be preserved on the Internet Archive.
Unfortunately, the archived pages’ search function doesn’t currently work, but at least we’ll always have all those MBMBAM segments.