Question & answer communities

In collaboration with his SocialWorlds Research Group and other UMSI faculty members, Professor of Information Mark Ackerman has studied a variety of Q&A communities, with a particular interest in how these communities function. This project has encompassed studies of Java Forum and Yahoo! Answers, along with its sister sites Naver in Korea and Baidu in China. The studies detailed how the communities functioned, how expertise was distributed, why the answerer helped, and any intercultural differences in the transactions. 

Applying Q&A research findings to disease management support groups, Ackerman’s research group found that interactions between patients with chronic diseases can help them find individualized care, and explored the implications that their interaction habits would have in developing online community groups.

Start date: 9/1/2008
End date: 8/31/2014

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A portion of this study analyzed more than 2.6 million question and answer pairs from South Korea’s largest question-answering online community, Naver Knowledge-iN, examining data from 15 categories between 2002 and 2007. Researchers interviewed users to gain insight into their motives, roles, usage and expertise, and found that altruism, learning, and competency are frequent motivations for top answerers to participate. These studies found that higher levels of participation correlate with better performance.

This project also examined online social networks and the ways in which people around the world use them to ask questions of their friends. Researchers found that tools used in different cultures are often very similar, but can be used very differently based on unique cultural traits. Culture, including characteristics like cognitive patterns and social orientation, played a significant role in predicting a person’s social question and answer behavior. Culture was found to be more influential on individual behavior than demographic variables like age and gender, suggesting that cultural attributes should be thoroughly considered when designing social search systems.

Crossing over into the health field to understand the implications that Q&A communities can have on chronic disease management, this project examined how diabetes patients in support groups helped one another find individualized strategies for managing the disease. By understanding that support groups can allow individuals to develop common understanding toward diabetes management, the researchers were able to explore how the findings could be translated into designing online communities to support patients with chronic illnesses.  

Ackerman’s studies also have examined the computer-supported cooperative work (CSCW) view of knowledge and expertise sharing, illuminating the enormous issues in dealing with information, knowledge and expertise. This research contributed many findings about the social nature of information production, storage, retrieval and reuse and applied this to an examination of social capital to understand how and why people provide knowledge and how to allow people to share information and make readily accessible expert knowledge to those that seek it.


Support for this project was provided by partial funding and work from the following grants:

EAGER: Cultural Issues in Sharing Expertise: Characterizing and Evaluating Online Question-Answer Communities, National Science Foundation: $237,752 (9/1/2009-8/31/2013)

HCC: Medium: Collaborative Configuration: Supporting End-User Control of Complex Computing, National Science Foundation: $1,185,194 (9/1/2009-8/31/2013)Principal Investigator: Mark Newman, Co-PI: Mark Ackerman 

CAREER: Social Dynamics of Information in Virtual Spaces, National Science Foundation: $438,251 (5/1/2008-4/30/2013); Principal Investigator: Lada Adamic 

ITR: Collaborative Augmentation of Knowledge Production, National Science Foundation: $1,100,000 (9/1/2003-8/31/2009); Prinicpal Investigator: George Furnas, Co-PI: Mark Ackerman and Barbara Mirel


The National Science Foundation (NSF) is an independent federal agency created by Congress in 1950 "to promote the progress of science; to advance the national health, prosperity, and welfare; to secure the national defense…"