After it was spotted, Yeti-like, by a few eagle-eyed observers this spring, Facebook has officially launched its Facebook Questions product in a limited beta test--and it may have some big implications for the Web.
"Millions of people ask their friends questions on Facebook every day. What new music should I listen to? Where's the best sushi place in town? How do I learn to play the piano?" a Facebook blog post announcing the new feature explained. "With this new application, you can get a broader set of answers and learn valuable information from people knowledgeable on a range of topics."
About 1 percent of Facebook users will have early beta access to Facebook Questions, and it will be gradually rolled out to the rest of Facebook's 500-million-plus active users after that. Any Facebook user can ask a question from a new "question dashboard," the profile "publisher" that lets members update their statuses and add photos, or through the search box. They can tag their questions with category keywords, too, and those tags will eventually be used to fill up an aggregate "questions" tab on relevant Community Pages on Facebook. Of particular interest is the fact that a brand's "fan page" on Facebook will be able to ask questions too, as well as respond to other questions, providing an opportunity for some "conversational" marketing and impromptu market research.
There will, eventually, be an API for Facebook Questions, a company representative confirmed to me.
And this, in turn, means that when Facebook Questions is a mature product, Facebook will have an even bigger trove of searchable public information and opportunities for ad targeting--something that it will want on its side as it positions itself against Twitter's swarm of real-time chatter and conversation and Google's choice spot as where you go when you want to, well, find something.
Facebook Questions is also a big deal because there are plenty of other question-and-answer services out there--Yahoo Answers, the just-launched question-and-answer search from IAC's Ask.com, the Google-acquired Aardvark, and Quora, a start-up Q&A service founded by early Facebook employees Adam D'Angelo and Charlie Cheever.
When word first broke that Facebook would be entering the Q&A space, a question thread on Quora (how meta) about Facebook's alleged attempt to "kill" a start-up founded by some of its own alumni led Facebook director of product Blake Ross to speak up and say, "Quora is a terrific product built on Facebook Connect. It isn't competitive with the core use cases of Facebook, which is why Facebook Questions is pursuing different use cases."
Sort of. Quora does seem to be more of a hub for high-level discussion than searching for opinions on anything and everything. Still, this earliest peek at Facebook Questions seems to indicate that they're still very much in the same, highly coveted vein of the social Web.