What Makes an Answer a Great Answer?

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Two Quora replies were crowned with Shorty awards last night, and together they tell us a little something about what makes a winner.

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At last night's awards for social media, two replies on the question-answer site Quora were crowned "Answer of the Year." One is a response from a former patrol officer to the question "What's the best way to escape the police in a high-speed car chase?" (answer: not a good idea in the first place) and the other is a discussion from an entomologist about whether you should kill a bug if you've inadvertently injured it already (maybe, but this entomologist wouldn't, personally).

The answers share certain qualities: Both come from people with an intimate knowledge of the subject. Both are quite earnest. And, neither condescends. In particular this is noticeable in the case of Justin Freeman, the patrol officer, who does so despite provide an answer that amounts to "don't be an idiot." He lists the reasons to avoid a chase, including the police's advantages in number, communications technology, local knowledge, training and practice, and so on. He concludes:

As you may have gathered, I am of the opinion that there is no right answer to this question. Vehicle pursuits never end well - I've never seen an authorized pursuit go down and then heard a commander say, "Gee, that was tidy." If the pursuit is terminated by a supervisor, it's bad because the suspect got away. If it gets authorized, it's not going to have a pretty ending, most likely. The vast majority of the time, the suspect ends up needing medical attention by the time it's over. It might be for something minor, like flushing pepper spray out of your eyes, pulling TASER barbs out of your flesh, or treating a dog bite. It might be something major, like pronouncing you and your two passengers dead after your car hits an oak tree at 107 mph (seen it - decidedly unpretty). Take all the liberties you want with your own life and death - but running from the police puts scores of people in harm's way, even for a short pursuit.

Stern, but not obnoxious. Smart, but not aloof.

It's a formula the entomologist, Matan Shelomi, also puts to use. He writes:

Looks like the philosophers and theists have made their cases. As far as entomologists are concerned, insects do not have pain receptors the way vertebrates do. They don't feel "pain," but may feel irritation and probably can sense if they are damaged. Even so, they certainly cannot suffer because they don't have emotions. If you heavily injure an insect, it will most likely die soon: either immediately because it will be unable to escape a predator, or slowly from infection or starvation. Ultimately this crippling will be more of an inconvenience to the insect than a tortuous existence, so it has no "misery" to be put out of but also no real purpose anymore. If it can't breed anymore it has no reason to live.

In other words, I have not answered your question because, as far as the science is concerned, neither the insect nor the world will really care either way. Personally, though, I'd avoid doing more damage than you've already done. 1) Maybe the insect will recover, depending on how damaged it is. 2) Some faiths do forbid taking animal lives, so why go out of your way to kill? 3) You'll stain your shoe.

The difference between these answers is revealing too. Whereas Freeman's answer is definitive, a calculated cost-benefit analysis with an "answer" at the end, Shelomi's is more ambivalent, giving an overview of the science with his personal, less solid view tacked on at the end. Each seems appropriate for the question asked.

Perhaps the best indicator of these answers' quality is the number of comments in response, and Freeman and Shelomi's responses to those responses, and the ongoing back and forth that keeps fleshing out more details, more ideas. This is in part what makes Quora so fascinating to explore: The best answers aren't really answers in a definitive sense. They are the mid-way points of conversations -- ones that they elevate.

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Rebecca J. Rosen is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where she oversees the Business Channel. She was previously an associate editor at The Wilson Quarterly.

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