Recently I learned about Quora while reading a blog post by a woman whose writing I admire. In no time, I was signing up with the question-and-answer website and soon after was receiving daily digests of sometimes nonsensical but almost always compelling questions that were accompanied by sometimes nonsensical but almost always compelling answers. Here are some examples of the questions you would receive if you signed up:
- According to the theory of evolution, why do we die?
- What is the sickest thought you have ever had?
- What is it like to marry a doctor?
- How do I become an interesting person in real life?
- What’s the creepiest thing you have heard a child say?
- What are some bad experiences of guys who have a very hot wife?
- How does knowing the Latin origin of a word help me in any way?
- Why would my teen daughter keep urinating on towels in her room when her bedroom is right next to the bathroom?
- Is “Please find attached my resume” grammatically correct?
- How would a dog react if I tried to lick its face?
- If you smell marijuana being smoked by a neighbor in their backyard, should you notify the police?
And Quora is not the only website of its kind; there are heaps of them: Ask.com, ChaCha, Google Questions, WikiAnswers, and Yahoo! Answers, to name several. What I find more interesting than the actual questions asked and answered on these sites, however, is the fact that such sites exist at all. So, I thought I would do a little thinking out loud about the appeal of reading random questions and answers, the latter of which, I’m sorry to report, are not always based in fact—and are not always grammatical.
Peter Baskerville, who bills himself as “Teacher, Edupreneur, and Father of Three” and who has been “Top Writer” for Quora each year since 2012, maintains that the site (and, by extension, others like it) “fills a massive learning-needs gap that currently exists for the people of the planet.”
As an educator and as a longtime proponent of online teaching and learning, I think I might have a sense of what Baskerville means by a “massive learning-needs gap,” though I am hard-pressed to understand how knowing what it’s like for a man to have a “hot wife” is going to help me become a better-informed global citizen. But that’s just me.
No, I think our interest in reading random questions and answers has more to do with our ever-increasing hunger for bite-sized, distractive information parading as essential information and with our brains’ shrinking capacity to identify what is genuinely important; to think deeply about a topic; or to make creative, thoughtful connections between seemingly disconnected ideas.
We have arrived at this moment in history with the attention spans of four-year-olds on a road trip who, from the back seat, call out absently to their parents in the front: “Mommy, can I still play with my dolls when I go to Heaven?” and “Daddy, why did you marry Mommy?” and “Mommy, will I turn colors after I die?” and “Daddy, what is a fish stick?”
It is as if you had arrived in a brown basket on a porch near St. Paul, a piece of bonnet poking out the one side and a wintry mix coming down. You couldn’t help but look up, mouth an O, but all you could see were four sets of dark eyes staring back down, blinking. Or more like a great tumbledown from a brilliant sun to a duller one, the fall through space across a frigid crosshatching of having-all-but-given-up-on-yourself and for what: a guest room with a busted lock and a Princess phone?
When I was a child, I had a dream I was running fleet-footed from my mother’s house, past the homes of the young girls who shunned me, past my elementary school, past the old Catholic church, past our railway station, past an empty park bench, past the five and dime all the way to Jones Beach, where I crossed what seemed a mile-long expanse of burning sand so I could dive into the water and sit at the bottom of the sea. There, I discovered I could breathe easily and well if I took small, sip-like breaths. In my 20s and 30s, I ran through streets, up and down hills, and around tracks. I didn’t much like it, running, but it was the only thing I could do to persuade myself I was free. In recent years, I discovered long-distance walking around and around an indoor track, where I again found a kind of freedom so long as I didn’t stop. Now it appears I have badly torn my Achilles tendon, what with all those many miles of my moving sorrow from pillar to post.
I will tell you about the naked oak in our yard and about
my dead robin, June, who couldn’t fly south for winter
and about the Cooper’s hawk that swooped down to eat
the poor thing, pecking first at a dull eye, while close by
two cracked eggs, each the size of a large jelly bean,
lay oozing yolk and about the cold sky pulled thin and
plumed across my low horizon and about Hyena, with
his pail full of silver buckshot, who shouted from across
the avenue, “Wanna lick my lollipop, pancake tits?”
while behind him two fat boys cackled, with Br’er
Rabbit, the older by some years, in Daddy’s pink shirt
and about mother leaving for the City, her thin
lips painted plump, and about my gray lunch
congealing in a tin pan that sat on the top rack of a
cold oven and about the canned peaches she dumped
into a tea cup and placed on a shelf in her
refrigerator. But not yet and not here