The technological news outlet “Company Confidential” reported earlier this summer that the question-and-answer Russian website “TheQuestion” completed a second investment round, securing $500,000, and is opening new offices in Berlin and London. The site, which started in March 2015, allows Russian-speaking people all over the world to ask a wide array of questions, and experts in that field will crowdsource answers to those questions.
The website's mission—summed up a year ago in an interview with TheQuestion's co-creator, Tonia Samsonova—is to “spread the culture of asking questions.” Samsonova says this culture is sorely lacking in Russia, and bolstering the public's critical thinking, she argues, could go a long way to “undermining” the Kremlin's propaganda empire.
In another interview for the website Vc.ru, Samsonova stressed the importance of having experts answer the questions, though she has her own definition of the word “expert”:
Наша идея в том, что экспертиза — это не статус, который к вам навсегда прикреплен: получил диплом физика — стал экспертом по физике. Чтобы ответ был полезен, важно, чтобы человек умел хорошо объяснять сложные вещи. […] Мы решили построить такое сообщество, в котором на старте у школьника, любителя химии и профессора будут одинаковые шансы, а их «экспертность» будет определяться тем, какому количеству пользователей их ответ показался полезным.
Our idea is that expertise isn’t a status that’s attached to you forever. For example, if you get a diploma in physics, then you are an expert in physics. For an answer to be useful, it’s important to be able to explain complex things in an effective way. […] So we decided to create a community where a schoolchild, someone interested in chemistry, and a professor will all have the same initial chance, and their “expertise” will be determined by the number of answers [the community says] is useful.
The questions range from “Where can I watch lectures from Harvard, Oxford, and others with Russian subtitles?” to “What future do you see for Russia?” and “Confess, what’s your fetish?” Anyone registered with the website can offer up an answer, and an upvoting system (similar to what you find on Quora and Reddit) determines what is regarded as the “best” answers, which rise to the top and are featured first. Users can subscribe to their favorite “experts,” who can gain a higher “rating” by leaving more and more appealing answers. With this system, users can get in-depth answers to unexpected questions such as “How do I swear like a Hussar?”
In its “media kit,” TheQuestion says it had 80,000 registered users by February 2016, and more than a million unique visitors. The website has also begun appealing to businesses, offering “corporate accounts” that can pose and answer brand-based questions. This push into consumer markets is likely what has investors so interested: according to the RuNet industry website Roem.ru, Yandex CEO Arkady Volozh may be involved with the company, though Yandex’s press office has not confirmed this.
The Popularity of Asking Questions
In many ways, TheQuestion functions as a Russian localized version of a service like “ASKfm,” which allows users to ask any kind of question publicly or anonymously. ASKfm, incidentally, is as popular in Russia among teenagers as it is in Germany or the United States. There are other copies floating around the RuNet, too. Otveti@mail.ru, for instance, is also an almost exact copy of “Yahoo Answers.”
But Russians have also used question-and-answer online services in more creative ways, in particular to relay information or ask for advice in local groups. On Vkontakte (the most popular social network in Russia), pretty much every single city and town has one or several dedicated groups—most often titled “Подслушано в…” (Overheard in…), followed by the name of the city. Locals use these communities to discuss recent events in the city, ask for advice, share warnings, post advertisements, or simply to tell anecdotes. During the conflict in Eastern Ukraine, for example, these Vkontakte communities became a popular way for residents to report troop movements and artillery fire.
Posting on Vkontakte generally requires contacting a community's administrators, who are then capable of posting a question on the main group board. This complicates anonymity, however, which adds to the appeal of ASKfm, where users can avoid sharing their identity entirely. Overhear.club has tried to solve this issue, creating an independent platform for a completely integrated and anonymous way of sending messages to local groups on Vkontakte (with no additional registration required).