A pants problem
I had a pants problem, and I turned to the Internet for advice.
And then I turned my pants problem into a practical comparison of some of the different ways to get answers to tricky life questions from the Internet.
A short summary of my problem:
I'm really picky about pants, and having trouble finding pants I like. I'm tired of super-expensive jeans, and khakis and most dressy pants I see are boring.
Does anyone have suggestions for pants that I can wear to the office, that look good, aren't totally boring, and are fairly durable? Easy to clean would be nice, but I can handle dry-cleaning.
I'm totally serious about this question.
Questions and answers
I posted that to Quora, which was the service which got me thinking about question and answer services. (That and my desperate need for better pants.) Quora seemed intriguing, and I keep getting invites from other people, but the questions seemed pretty … limited in scope. It's all very Silicon Valley inward-facing with lots of thinky questions about design process and The State of The Industry and etc. All the questions I came up with on that front seemed pretty artificial, and I wondered how they'd handle a more down-to-earth subject.
Similarly, with Aardvark, I'd done a bunch of answering questions (usually about restaurants in San Francisco, a perennial favorite), and enjoyed the experience, but had never tried asking something myself.
So I decided to use my pants problem to put them to the test.
I tested, more or less arbitrarily, 'normal' social apps like Facebook and Twitter, recommendation engine Hunch, social question & answer site Quora, and social search service Aardvark. There's probably a bunch of other things I could have tried, but I wanted to stick to things I'd been using (or at least visiting) recently.
I posted the question quoted above to Aardvark and Quora, and trimmed versions to Facebook and Twitter. The wording varied between services, and I kept changing my mind as to limiting my pants preferences to dark colors or not, so this is in no way an apples to apple comparison. (Also, of course, I have different connections on each of the services.)
Posting the question to Quora was nice & easy, and the constant (for me) stream of new folks following me is gratifying.
On the other hand, once I posted my question it was … gone. I couldn't find it from my default page. I had to go hunt it up on my own profile to confirm that I had, in fact, posted. I suspect (but don't really know) that their somewhat mysterious topic system may be at fault — my default view is showing me questions in topics my social circle finds interesting, and maybe my social circle isn't interested in Pants. (More fool them.)
The topic system is awfully emergent, and in this case emergent is code for "I can't figure out how it works or how to control it". My question was assigned to the topic "Pants", which has two other questions also in it at the moment. Pants seems to be a subset of "Fashion", which makes sense, but it's pretty non-obvious how to navigate or use the topics in any conscious way.
And my results? No answers at all, but two followers to the question. At least I'm not alone in my quest!
I had high hopes for Hunch. I love their UI, and my impression was that their strength was in practical "should I buy X or Y" type questions. And I've answered enough of their quizlets that the engine should have a pretty good idea of my tastes.
And sure enough, there was a Men's Pants topic! Awesome.
As I started advising Hunch as to my pants preferences, two issues became clear. One was that Hunch seemed to know about a relatively small (and I suspect fairly productized) section of pants. No new hot designers or niche retailers here. The second was that Hunch wanted me to articulate preferences I don't really have (pleats vs. flat-front) or choices I didn't want to make (stylish vs. durable).
I ended up hitting "skip question" a bunch of times, resulting in exactly the sort of dull chinos I'd been hoping to avoid. Bah.
Aardvark! I love answering questions on Aardvark, especially when it comes to inflicting my opinions on restaurants in San Francisco to anonymized strangers on the Internet.The fact that I do so from my IM client is a little odd, but it works.
So I IM my question to the Aardvark bot, and a few hours later I get a response (sent by email to my Gmail account, as I had my chat window closed).
Awesome, juicy answer! A bunch of ideas, with specifics as to why they were offered. A second answer was a little lamer. Even better, my answerer followed up with an offer of more assistance; it turns out she's a community manager at an online retail venue. The only slight hitch was that rating the answers required logging into the Aardvark site — I'd become so accustomed to dealing with it through IM that this was disconcerting (plus of course I'd forgotten my password).
On the whole, though, a stellar experience.
Twitter! The concise version of the question:
I'm bored with men's pants. Recommend me some! Ideal: office-plausible, non-boring, durable, black.
Result? Some gentle mockery, 2 joke suggestions, and one direct message with a completely viable option, from a friend. Not bad for 140 characters.
I posted a similar query to Facebook as a status update. Instant results.
9 comments! Some of those are mine, which just highlights Facebook's knack for encouraging conversation. Excellent answers, with a range of styles and ideas from a broad cross-section of my friends.
Sadly, I didn't get opted into Facebook Questions until after I'd posted to Facebook proper. I reposted as a question, but got no result — possibly because those likely to answer already had.
The Facebook Questions flow has some issues. The question entry box is optimized for short answers — I tried entering the full version of my question and hit a limit, and had to go back and use my Twitter version instead. Even then I couldn't see the whole thing at once.
Once it had posted, it was (unlike on Quora), super-easy to find my question and see what happened to it. Facebook Questions is on the right column of my primary facebook page, and when I click over to it, my questions are highlighted in the upper right of that page.
Also, updates (like people following my question) are added to my stream in typical Facebook fashion, which makes sense.
From a strictly pants-centric perspective, Facebook is the clear winner, with Twitter and Aardvark also being exceedingly helpful. I'm not sure if Facebook Questions will emerge as a comparable experience — but based on my results here, I'm not sure it needs to, either.
Now, why? My guess is that Facebook, and to a lesser extent Twitter, succeeded purely on social graph size. I have a lot of contacts on Twitter, and more on Facebook. Enough of those saw my question, had opinions on pants, and chose to share them with me that I had useful answers. No friend-of-friends action was necessary. Facebook's style encouraged a more conversational, back-and-forth response style; Twitter responses were more pithy and to the point.
Aarvark is a funny beast: more of a black box than the other options. I have no idea who was asked my question, why those were chosen, and how many were asked before I got my 2 replies. On the other hand, the result I got was awesome, and the "not another site" experience was unique and charming.
Quora looks like it has potential. If I was asking wanky Silicon Valley questions, I'd be set, but real-world questions may have to wait until the user base is broader.
Hunch seemed unexpectedly robotic to me. Even though some other services (Aardvark, Quora) seem to have a more search-ey genesis, Hunch gave me results most like a classic product search.
Overall, I'm pretty pleased with my results. Most of the posting experiences were good, and in all cases where I got results (except maybe Hunch), I got results better than me futzing around with search engines trying to find thigs I might like.
There are some other places I could have posted (and may yet).
- Ask Metafilter. Q&A offshoot of the resolutely old-school Metafilter. Probably this would be the best place to get non-friend answers — the signal-to-noise ration is usually superb.
- LinkedIn. Well, maybe not. Are pants a professional subject?
- Yahoo Answers. Nah. (Sorry, guys.)
Pants Pants Pants Answers
Waiting for the pants? Here's the goods.
- John Varvatos (two votes, the 2nd with two examples)
- BDUs (black cotton ripstop)
- Japanese selvedge jeans (like these ones)
- "One word: zippers!"
- "men's pants are boring …unless you think velvet pantaloons might be office appropriate"
- "Alberto jean-cut pants made of Ceramica ™ that last years and years "
- "I'm a huge fan of JCrew's mens trousers. The bowery is super nice and has a subtle sheen if you grab it in the wool."
My conclusion? I'm going to order some BDUs for weekend (and preschool) wear, and then wait for the opening of the AllSaints store in Union Square later this month. Wheee!