We talked to one of these guides, Curtis. He told us how ...
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Who here remembers the 2000s? It was a strange transitory time. We had the internet, but it was slow and incomplete. We had smartphones, but they were impractical and expensive. Into that wild and woolly era came a service called ChaCha. The idea was that you'd text them the kind of questions currently reserved for Google. Something like "What was the name of the mute dude from The Snorks?" They'd text you back "Tooter." You'd reply, "Yeah, what was up with that guy?" They'd answer, "That is outside our expertise," and you'd go on with your day. But it wasn't some rudimentary AI looking up your bullshit for you; ChaCha was run on a cadre of "guides," who were essentially human search engines.
We talked to one of these guides, Curtis. He told us how ...
One good thing about Google is that for the most part, it doesn't have an agenda -- though people can try to game it with SEO, and the site has made changes in hopes of fighting "fake news." And sure, it allows for "sponsored" search results, but those are clearly labeled. You ask Google a question, it'll give you a bunch of results, and you can decide for yourself whether the answers provided by CNN are more reliable than the ones on Infowars. ChaCha guides like Curtis used the same tools we all use today to answer questions:
"When we got a question from a texter and we didn't have an answer at the ready, we Googled it most of the time, or used Wikipedia. You'll be happy to know we actually used Cracked on occasion. I remember [the questions] being about weirder things for Cracked, but it was a more than acceptable site to use." But since you were getting the answer texted to you, there was no way to vet the quality of the source your guide picked. Curtis noted that "a lot of guides quoted the first answer they found. The answer could be from Harvard or NBC or something good, or it could be from some guy's blog. Or they got the answer from a site that mixed things up."
Curtis got burned by his own employer on this once: "There was a time where I was dating a girl from New Hampshire and I couldn't remember the capital. I discreetly texted that to ChaCha and I got back 'Nashua.' I asked her if she ever went to the Capitol up in Nashua, and she looked REALLY offended."
Curtis was eventually moved to QA, where it got even worse: "This was at the time of the whole Obama birth certificate debacle, and we were often asked 'Was Obama born in the U.S.,' and several guides, some of whom I think had agendas, copied and pasted from bloggers: 'While Senator Obama claims to have been born in Hawaii, as of yet there is no proof that he was.' And they were passing that off as fact. Anytime I saw them write that, whether it was intentional or not, they were reported." Curtis continues: "There were other conspiracies -- like the moon landings -- guides would copy and paste from blogs. But the Obama birth certificate answers we had to watch like hawks."
ChaCha basically dealt with all the problems of the modern internet. For instance, there were people seeking diagnoses for their illnesses, but instead of reading WebMD and deciding they had cancer, they would text Curtis and his comrades -- none of whom had any relevant medical training or experience. "One guide that wasn't caught for three months was obviously big on alternate medicine, because any medical question they had was answered with non-medical things, like being cured by herbs or massaging pressure points."
He told us one story in which a customer asked what they should do if they believed they were developing cataracts. The only responsible answer would be "Go see a doctor." But "The guides answer was 'The use of apple cider vinegar can remove cataracts.' I mean, holy shit. When I saw that, I stared at my screen for a good minute, because I didn't believe they wrote that."
Everyone reading this has asked Google about at least one illegal act, from "How do I safely pirate movies?" to "How do I tell whether this is heroin or just roofing tar?" Most of those search queries come out of idle interest, with no intent of ever committing a crime. And thankfully, Google don't judge. (The government is another story, though.) But it was a bit different for the human "guides" of ChaCha.
"There were lots of suspicious questions. Like 'How do I pick a lock?' and we would give the basics on how locks are picked, not actually doing it. I got a text once in which they said 'How do I pick a model something lock?' and gave the exact model number. I repeated the basic definition of lockpicking."
Lockpicking was a popular query from ChaCha's apparently sketchy user base. Curtis recalled one text conversation that a co-worker of his reported:
Texter: "How do I pick the lock on a car door?"
Nick: [Vague Explanation on how picking locks work]
Texter: "What does AAA do to open a door."
Nick: [Explanation about using a slim jim]
Texter: "Does a [Make/Model] have a car alarm?"
Nick: "Yes, it comes with a car alarm."
Texter: "Will breaking a window set it off?"
Texter: "How can I open a car door without a key?"
Nick: "Spare key"
Texter: "I don't own it."
Nick: "Is this a friend's car?"
Texter: "I don't know them."
Nick: "Then why are you going in?"
Even though they were "99 percent sure [the texter] was trying to break into the car," Curtis and his colleague couldn't do anything about it. It wouldn't have been good for ChaCha's bottom line if their users started getting busted for search queries. And it wasn't just robbery that people had questions about: "I got questions like 'Does an dime bag of marijuana really cost $50?' or 'What's an 8-ball?' and they were from people obviously buying drugs and wanting to know if they could get ripped off."
At least those are relatively harmless questions. Telling someone the average price of a dime bag isn't going to add any harm to the world. But then: "Sometimes I got a 'Will [fill in the drug here] get me high if I snort it?' or 'Can I get drunk by dropping vodka in my eye?' They weren't always illegal, but they were really stupid. I added that it was dangerous and not recommended, but I had to write in that yeah, you can snort ashes or drop vodka."
And yes, of course people asked how to make meth: "What we did was give the chemical names. Like, we couldn't say 'cough medicine,' we said the long words of what made up meth. This way, we aren't telling them what they're in. This stopped most people. But a few times I got follow-ups. There was a question about crack, and they asked next 'Is baking soda an ingredient in crack?' And I had to be vague. I think I said, 'Baking Soda can be used as an ingredient in crack cocaine, the manufacture and use of which is illegal.' Whatever the DEA website said about it. For good measure, I included at the end 'According to the DEA website.'"
Curtis' hope was that this would scare people off before things got to the point where he had to report someone. That sounds laughably naive now, but to be fair, we didn't really know "the internet" back then.
To bad students without smartphones, ChaCha must have seemed like a gift from the heavens: "Some nights we got the same question from three or four different texters. I remember having fun with exactly 20 questions on themes and symbolism in The Outsiders one night, and they sounded word for word off a worksheet."
And as if this was all some weird horror movie, the texts could even be coming from inside your own dorm: "I was in a statistics class in college, and we were assigned a number of even-numbered questions. I was actually doing my homework for that, and for a break, I decided to ChaCha a few questions. By 'coincidence' my second question was a statistics question. But as soon as I read it, it sounded really familiar. I was like, 'Wait a minute,' and I looked in my book, and sure enough, all of the questions were coming from the same statistics book I had ... I did one of my classmates' homework, but I didn't know who."
Curtis also got a number of questions that were very clearly from kids in the middle of taking the SAT or ACT: "I knew they were SAT questions because I twice got a text back saying 'Mr. Johnson will no longer be asking questions because his phone has been confiscated.'"
64 percent of Google searches are related to fucking in some way. We made that number up, but surely, if anything, that's on the low side, right? Curtis, too, got a lot of fuck questions: "I was asked 'How do I masturbate?' often enough. That's something I really can't answer, so I had to give a vague description like 'For men, they do this. For women, they do this.' Not how, but a vague idea. And for 'they do this' I said 'sexually stimulate penis/vagina by oneself,' which I copied almost word for word from Wikipedia. There would be follow-up questions like 'No, how do I do that to myself.' And I had to find the best answer online that wasn't too long. We were actually asked about how to masturbate so many times that it became a PAQ, which means Previously Answered Question. We had a stock answer for it."
And of course, "I got a lot of questions only teenagers with text access would ask: 'What's a Cleveland Steamer' or 'Alaskan Pipeline,' because that's something they would giggle at, and I had to look up unspeakable sexual acts. I worked mainly nights, and these always came in at 10 p.m. or later. And that made me an expert on sex acts and everything, because I had to look them up all the time. It actually still comes up in conversation. Some weird act like 'The Flying Camel' would be referenced on a show, and my friends would ask what that is, and I'd say 'I know that!' and explain it. Two years of ChaCha was like getting an associate's in gross sex things."
Curtis' position also gave him a more heartbreaking insight into the state of sex education in America: "The question that surprised me the most, which I often got on a regular basis, was 'Where is the vagina on a woman?' At first I always gave the textbook explanation, but every time I said that, the follow-up question would be 'But where is it? If I look at a woman, where is the opening at?' And it wasn't just guys. I also had 'How low is a penis on a man?' and 'Does sex hurt?'"
What ridiculous questions. We all know those answers now -- "Just below the belly button," "As low as possible," and "It is agony, every single time."
"The way ChaCha worked was that we would get texted a question, and we would have several minutes to answer. If they had more questions after the answer, we would stay with them, because the texter would probably have questions with a similar theme, and it would be easier to search. Like, if they asked what year some movie won an Oscar, the next question might be about an actor or something. It made sense."
This that meant guides like Curtis sometimes stayed in touch with a texter long enough to notice severe warning signs: "My dorm had a few guides working for ChaCha, and we'd sit in the common room and comment on what questions just came to us. There was a night in 2009 when 'Paul' got a question asking 'How high do I need to kill myself by jumping?' It sounded like a bar bet question we got all the time, and he found the answer. Less than a minute later, he got another from the texter: 'Does grass cushion impact?' Again, weird question, but it may have been some drunk dude. Then with the next few questions, alarms started going off. 'Does falling on my head or spine kill me quicker?' and 'How quickly are suicides reported?'
"We didn't have their info in front of us, but he asked her via a text 'Are you OK?' while 'Nick' called ChaCha to see what they should do. ChaCha had the number, and it turned out to be the next area code over. They let the police know, and they somehow traced the texter down. Paul and I were asking questions of our own, but it wasn't our strong suit. We were worried and way out of our depth. Paul had the great idea to talk with her about her job, and that distracted her long enough. The police got there, but I guess she had calmed down enough that there wasn't any negotiations or anything. The police got there, and she willingly went with them. The police officer told us this so matter-of-factly. 'We asked her to come with us down from the roof (the building was five stories), and she complied.'"
While that was harrowing, some potentially dangerous questions were at least funny to write about: "I had a texter ask 'Can I shoot a shotgun shell out of a flare gun?' and because of our standards, I had to say 'While a shotgun shell can be fired from the same mechanism as many flare guns, it is extremely dangerous to do so.' I sent another text giving a little about the plastic of a flare gun being no match for a shotgun shell going off. I didn't get any questions after like 'How can I reattach my fingers?' so I'm assuming that dissuaded them."
ChaCha's whole business model revolved around hiring college-aged know-it-alls who were willing to work cheap. (Sounds ... oddly familiar, doesn't it?) Before he moved up to QA, Curtis got a measly 2 cents per answer. "Only those insufferable know-it-alls moved up, so everyone's point of contact or boss had that same 'I know everything' attitude, combined with not wanting a more established job. I was QA for my last stretch of the job, so I probably fall under this category too, but I admit it."
Google Instant Answers and the advent of ubiquitous smartphones were certainly two bullets in ChaCha's corporate kidneys, but Curtis doesn't think that either factor fully explains the service's downfall: "What killed us was the management. Answers got longer delays, and became more and more condescending. We were supposed to give a straight answer, no muss, no fuss. But guides started [answering] simple questions like 'What's 85 divided by 22?' [with something like] 'You know calculators have been invented, right?' or 'You didn't learn this in grade school?' I warned them about this, but no one really listened."
Curtis was actually fired for giving the correct answer to a question, "because the supervisor thought it was wrong, despite seeing mounds of evidence to the contrary. It was some question on a war. It really bothered me, because now we were giving THEIR version of history instead of documented history. During QA, I corrected that question because I couldn't stand seeing it sent out as wrong, and I was let go because of it. Two people were let go because somebody refused the facts."
It's possible that Curtis is giving us a biased account here. But the evidence seems to back up his claim that, by the end of its run, ChaCha was slightly less accurate than guessing. Thank god we could simply Google that.
Evan V. Symon is a writer, interview finder, and journalist for the Personal Experiences section at Cracked. Have an awesome job/experience YOU'D want to talk about? Hit us up at firstname.lastname@example.org today!
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