It used to be that, if you had a burning question (depending on the degree of difficulty), you had to a) ask your mom; b) consult a Magic 8 Ball; or c) trek to the top of a mountain to seek out a sagacious, all-knowing guru. Now all you have to do is search the Interwebs.
But while most knowledge seekers turn to Google and other search engines, newer sites like Yahoo Answers utilize an approach that’s so archaic, it’s practically Luddite: they employ actual people to answer your questions, via wiki-style community contribution. ChaCha, a new company that launched this past January, is taking that idea one step further, by having employees (ChaCha calls them “guides”) personally research your questions online, and text message you an answer. It’s like having a smart cabana boy. And it’s free.
Here’s how it works: anyone in the US with a cell phone can send a text message to 242-242 (“ChaCha,” get it?), asking any question: will it rain today? What’s in hummus? When will Guns N’ Roses release Chinese Democracy? Within about 10 minutes, a guide should text back the answer. (Probably. Mainly chickpeas, tahini, and olive oil. Maybe never.)
“Most services out there just take what’s on the Web and refit it for a text message,” says Susan Marshall, vice-president of marketing for ChaCha, on the phone from their Indiana headquarters, in reference to similar, but automated, question-answering services, such as Google SMS. Hence the often frustrating and irrelevant answers Google SMS can return — like wrong places or “no results” — when all you want is the name of that damn pizza place on Brighton Avenue. “People want simple answers to questions, and with the guides, we’re able to give them that.”
Marshall says ChaCha currently employs approximately 15,000 guides, who field millions of calls each month — about 500 answer questions each hour. Typically, a guide earns 20 cents per text-message answer, though ChaCha seems to be in a constant state of re-valuating its payment system and its guide-training process, and restructuring its Web site. The whole operation is funded by advertising sponsors (whose one-line ads appear at the bottom of some of Cha Cha’s texts) covetous of an aggressive text-messaging demo.
I texted ChaCha on a Thursday afternoon. “What’s the best strategy for kickball?” I queried, smart-assedly. Moments later, my phone buzzed to life with a text reply: “Surprisingly, it’s best to kick low toward third base, as outfielders will catch most harder kicks.” It was almost like texting with a very wise friend — except that my friends don’t usually send advertisements for Coke Zero with their messages.
Go ahead, fire away
Taking it a step further, I followed the allure of the ChaCha come-on — “It’s the most flexible job ever!” promised the flashing maroon Web site. “Use your brainpower anytime, anywhere!” — and decided to register on chacha.com and myself don the guise of a ChaCha guide.
I checked off boxes on lists of interests and availability, feeling a bit like this might be a trick to get me to join eharmony.com. I clicked through a series of multiple-choice and written tests that measured my typing speed and ability to find information on the Web. In between guide exams, ChaCha assured me they were “reviewing my submission,” and would get back to me soon, which made me worry that perhaps I wasn’t cool and Web-savvy enough for this, and that maybe they’d write me off with an “it’s not you, it’s us” e-mail — like I was getting denied a job at the Gap.
Finally, though, I got the congratulatory e-mail, officially welcoming me to the ChaCha community. Next, I went to the ChaCha “universe,” the Web site where I’d log in to answer questions. (Like my fellow 15,000 brothers and sisters, ChaCha guides — Chachis? — work not in an office but at home, or in cafés — I guess wherever they can have access to Google.) Seconds after logging in, a window popped up.
“You have an SMS query. Would you like to take it?” Was I officially ready to be one of The Internet’s Answer Providers? Nervously, I accepted my first questions. “What was Radiohead’s first hit?” (“ ‘Creep,’ which enjoyed unexpected popularity in the US a year after its 1992 release,” I replied.) Then the floodgates opened. The variety of questions one receives as a ChaCha guide is far-reaching. In my two months on the job, I’ve now investigated everything from the ridiculous (“If flowers were stars and crickets were airplanes, what would that make you?”), to the lewd (“How should me and my girlfriend screw today?”), to the subjectively lewd (“What movie has the best sex scene of all time?”), to the herpetologically intriguing (“Do rattlesnakes give birth or lay eggs?”). I’ve bookmarked the page where I found the size of the supposed longest penis on record (that’s a frequent question). I’ve been asked, “What’s the weirdest question you’ve been asked?” more times than I’ve actually been asked weird questions.