Brett Carver first logged onto a Google help forum with a question about Gmail, and then he stuck around and soon started answering questions for other users.
In a little over two years, the Santa Rosa software engineer has posted more than 100,000 comments on the online Gmail forum, offering unpaid advice for those with lost messages, hacked accounts and other problems. Google calls Carver's volunteer service a milestone.
During one hot streak for questions last winter, he was posting 180 times a day, all as an unpaid, Google-recognized "top contributor." In return for these volunteer efforts, Google has hosted Carver several times at its South Bay offices, including for a two-day summit with fellow top contributors from around the world.
What Carver has done is essentially answer the same series of questions for thousands of Gmail's 350 million-plus users.
"Everything's been asked before," said Carver, a 55-year-old husband and father of four sons. "The trick is finding it."
The online help forums have become the place to find free answers to virtually all of life's questions -- though with varying degrees of helpfulness. From technology to travel, from gardening to entertainment, the uninitiated log on seeking insights and hope they gain them from those in the know.
Many companies are finding this "crowdsourcing" a valuable way to have their most enthusiastic users educate others about products and services.
"There is a shift toward Wiki everything," said George Ledin, a computer science professor at Sonoma State University.
Even many established companies have begun to ask why they should pay a large staff to answer questions "when you could simply let the crowd do it for you," Ledin said.
The volume of questions and the demand for instant information can make help forums a needed strategy for both start-ups and large businesses. And the answers given from those who've spent hours using a product may be more helpful than talking directly to tech support or searching the company's web site.
"Usually there's a deeper level of knowledge on the help forums than on the official users pages," said Donald Laird, a computer studies instructor at Santa Rosa Junior College. A forum once helped him learn how to buy and self-program a spare electronic key for his 2001 PT Cruiser, a move that saved him more than $100 compared with buying the key at a dealer.
Google recently touted Carver as its first top contributor to post 100,000 comments on any of its 250 help forums offered in 26 languages. The top contributors are those users that the company has recognized as "especially knowledgeable" in the forums.
Carver, who works as a contractor for a local tech company, was quick to say that some other contributors actually might have beaten him to 100,000 answers if they could include their posts before the top contributor program began. Google acknowledged the possibility, but said it has no way of confirming those efforts.
Carver typically spends an hour or two a day on the Gmail forum, searching for those questions he can answer. The most-often-asked queries involve missing email and lost accounts, the latter often due to hacking.
He can cut and paste ready-made answers to more than 100 questions. And for faster insertion, he has 16 of his most-used answers ready on a a special utility program.