Mashable! covers the debut of LinkedIn Answers, a knockoff of similar products from Yahoo! and Amazon that leverages the LinkedIn contact network of professionals to focus on key business issues. Questions focus in general on topics of interest to key executives and can be placed in categories such as Administration, Business Operations, Career and Education and so on. As with its consumer-oriented brethren many of the questions and answers turn out to be kind of vapid or vague - for example,"Do anyone would like to increase is network?" or "What issues does your team need to continually address in order to be an effective team?," but on the other hand a question like "What is the key success factor for global operating companies?" from a student working on a doctorate degree has already yielded 23 very intelligent answers from a wide variety of executives. Now THAT's a powerful business research tool.
2007 is going to see answers systems such as this as the new darlings of social media, providing the ability for people to form social networks based on areas of common interest and to contribute highly valuable content on an ad-hoc basis that addresses key concerns that are burning in people's minds right now. While answers communities have a pretty high ratio of misses to hits for content quality the hits tend to be very powerful - not unlike social bookmarking communities, where just a few key topics are likely to draw any real discussion threads. In essence each question becomes a little bulletin board topic in and of itself, without having to worry about sustaining any particular topic area over the long haul.
These types of services should be of particular interest to trade magazines: if you execute your community features properly you can in effect let a community interview itself - and pick off the best of the threads for editorial polishing into finished stories. I was pretty skeptical about Yahoo! Answers at first as a reference tool, but I can see more clearly now that answers communities are less about ongoing reference content and more about engaging people in "water cooler" conversations focusing on specific topics that help to hold a community together. From this perspective an answers community is a perfect tool for LinkedIn, helping to draw together the intellectual power of its well-networked executives into mini-conference panels at the drop of a hat. Yet again we see the evolution of media into a tool that is more powerful when it steps back and stops trying to mediate between people looking for answers and people with the answers.