I Was A Human Search Engine In The Days Before Google

September 19, 2017
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Who here recollects the 2000 s? It was a strange transitory period. 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 appearing 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 …


A Lot Of Harmful Info Was Spread By Guides With Personal Agendas

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 stimulated 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 choose 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 πŸ˜› TAGEND

“When we got a question from a texter and we didn’t have an answer at the ready, we Googled it the majority of cases, or used Wikipedia. You’ll be happy to know we actually used Cracked on occasion. I recollect[ 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 guidebook 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 get 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 recollect 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 guidebooks, some of whom I suppose 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 the latter are passing that off as fact. Anytime I considered 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 trying diagnosis for their maladies, but instead of read 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 patently big on alternate medication, 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 client 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 entail, holy shit. When I saw that, I gazed at my screen for a good minute, because I didn’t believe they wrote that.”


ChaCha Got A Lot Of Questions From Criminals

Everyone reading this has asked Google about at the least one illegal act, from “How do I safely pirate movies? ” to “How do I tell whether this is heroin or only 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 dedicated the exact model number. I recurred 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 πŸ˜› TAGEND Texter : “How do I pick the lock on a vehicle door? “

Nick :[ Vague Explanation on how picking locks work]

Texter : “What does AAA do to open a door.” Nick :[ Explanation about utilizing a slim jim] Texter : “Does a[ Make/ Model] have a car alarm? “ Nick : “Yes, it comes with a vehicle alarm.” Texter : “Will violating a window defined it off? “ Nick : “Yes” 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 auto? “ Texter : “I don’t know them.” Nick : “Then why are you going in? “

Even though they were “9 9 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 only robbery that people had questions about: “I get 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 medication here] get me high if I snort it? ‘ or ‘Can I get drunk by falling 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 fell vodka.”

And yes, of course people asked how to build 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 route, we aren’t telling them what they’re in. This stopped most people. But a few hours I get follow-ups. There was a question about cracking, and they asked next ‘Is baking soda an ingredient in fissure? ‘ And I had to be vague. I guess 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 scares the hell out of people off before things got to the point where he had to report someone. That voices laughably naive now, but to be fair, we didn’t really know “the internet” back then.


Guides Literally Had To Do Other People’s Homework

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 voiced 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 dormitory: “I was in a statistics class in college, and we were assigned a number of even-numbered topics. I was actually doing my homework for that, and for a transgres, I decided to ChaCha a few questions. By ‘coincidence’ my second question was a statistics question. But as soon as I read it, it voiced really familiar. I was like, ‘Wait a minute, ‘ and I seemed in my volume, and sure enough, all of the questions were coming from the same statistics volume 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 topics because I twice got a text back saying ‘Mr. Johnson will no longer be asking questions because his phone has been confiscated.'”


There Was A Constant Barrage of Sex Questions

64 percent of Google searches are related to fucking in some way. We built that number up, but surely, if anything, that’s on the low side, right? Curtis, too, got a lot of fuck topics: “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 nearly word for word from Wikipedia. There would be follow-up topics 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 entails 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 ran chiefly nights, and these always came in at 10 p.m. or subsequently. And that built me an expert on sex act and everything, because I had to look them up all the time. It actually still comes up in dialogue. Some weird act like ‘The Flying Camel’ would be referenced on a demonstrate, 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 nation of sex education in America: “The question that astonished me the most, which I often got on a regular basis, was ‘Where is the vagina on a woman? ‘ At first I always dedicated the textbook explanation, but every time I said that, the follow-up topic would be ‘But where is it? If I look at a woman, where is the opening at? ‘ And it wasn’t merely 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.”



ChaCha Got Some Very Serious Topics

“The way ChaCha ran was that we would get texted a question, and we would have several minutes to answer. If they had more topics 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 relevant actors or something. It attained sense.”

“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 chore, 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 hazardous questions were at least funny to write about: “I had a texter ask ‘Can I shoot a shotgun shell out of a flare handgun? ‘ 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 dedicating a little about the plastic of a flare gun being no match for a shotgun shell running off. I didn’t get any questions after like ‘How can I reattach my fingers? ‘ so I’m assuming that dissuaded them.”


Most Of The Guides Were Just Plain Bad At It

ChaCha’s whole business model revolved around hiring college-aged know-it-alls who were ready to work inexpensive.( Sound … curiously familiar, doesn’t it ?) Before he moved up to QA, Curtis got a measly 2 pennies 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 task. 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 surely 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 get longer lags, and became more and more deigning. We were supposed to give a straight answer , no muss , no fuss. But guidebooks 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 alerted them about this, but no one truly listened.”

Curtis was actually fired for giving the correct answer to a question, “because the supervisor thought it was wrong, despite find knolls of evidence to the contrary. It was some topic on a war. It really bothered me, because now we were devoting THEIR version of history instead of documented history. During QA, I corrected that question because I couldn’t stand find it sent out as wrong, and I was “lets get going” because of it. Two people were let go because someone 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 running, ChaCha was slightly less accurate than guessing. Thank god we could simply Google that.

Evan V. Symon is a novelist, interview finder, and journalist for the Personal Experience segment at Cracked. Have an awesome undertaking/ experience YOU’D want to talk about? Hit us up at tips @cracked. com today ! Also check out 5 Ways Working In Silicon Valley Is A F ** king Nightmare and Wikipedia Is Shockingly Biased: 5 Lessons From An Admin . Subscribe to our YouTube channel, and check out If The Internet Was a High School, and watch other videos you won’t ensure on the site ! Follow our new Pictofacts Facebook page, and we’ll follow you everywhere .

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