Mahalo 3.0: my new mechanical Turk

Almost a year ago I posted about using twitter as my very own mechanial Turk. Here’s part of what I wrote back then:

The original mechanical Turk was an 18th century machine that purported to be able to play chess. It was, however, a hoax as a human hidden inside the machine was actually doing the thinking. The term has had a new lease of life online to refer to the practice of crowdsourcing, which involves harnessing the power of large numbers of networked humans. Now that I have over 850 followers (a very modest count by twitter standards) I have begun to sense the crowdsourcing power of twitter. If I post a question to my followers (aka my “tweeps”), the responses are impressive.

Since I wrote that, twitter has evolved. An enormous range of applications have emerged that can be used to access twitter and twitter itself has been adding new features. One consequence is that many people use “lists” or “groups” to view only a subset of their twitter followers. So, even if you have a large number of followers, not as many people are likely to see your tweets anymore. As a result it is becoming harder to use twitter to answer arbitrary questions, unless you are something of a celebrity (whether in real life, or just on twitter).

Mahalo LogoThis is not a criticism of twitter: as it evolves, it is becoming a better, richer communication tool. It just means I have to look elsewhere for my mechanical Turk services and I may just have found the answer in the latest incarnation of Mahalo. The creation of iconoclastic, serial entrepreneur Jason Calacanis, began life in May 2007 as a “human-powered search engine”. Aiming to offer an alternative to algorithmic search-engines such as Google, Mahalo used people to assemble information on a wide range of popular search topics.

Then in December 2008, Mahalo Answers was launched. This service closely resembles Yahoo Answers and the short-lived Google Answers and allows users to post questions online in the hope that other users will provide useful answers. With an eye to the power of financial incentives, Mahalo Answers allows you to pay a “tip” for the best answer to a question. All payments are made in “Mahalo dollars”, which can be bought via the online payments site PayPal for one US dollar and redeemed at an exchange rate of $0.75 (the $0.25 difference representing one avenue for Mahalo to monetise the business). Over time, posing and answering questions earns you points and martial arts-style “belts” which provide greater access to Mahalo features.

While I have tinkered with Mahalo in the past, the recent launch of the revamped “Mahalo 3.0” prompted me to come back for a closer look. Mahalo Answers now has top billing, prompting users to “ask any question, any time”. The emphasis on “human-powered search” has shifted. The content is still there, but under headings suchs as Mahalo “How Tos”.

To test Mahalo answers, I posed a question about gold prices. For some time now I have been meaning to follow up a comment on my property prices post, which suggested looking at house prices relative to the price of gold. To do this I need a decent amount of historical gold price data. I was very impressed to have a response within 24 hours pointing to the Deutsche Bundesbank which has monthly gold prices going back to the 1950s. Now I have no excuse not to do the house price analysis.

So while twitter remains my social networking tool of choice, Mahalo Answers is looking like a very promising source of information when Google searches draw a blank. I will continue to experiment with it and as I do you can keep track of the questions I answer.

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