Knowledge for Hire

I have a problem with the Web. Unlike the safe, self-referential pages of the dictionary, where zenith will lead you to nadir and back again, a random search on any of the leading online engines might not take you anywhere at all. Case in point: A literary journal whose URL I always seem to forget -- the irreverent McSweeny's -- never seems to appear when I search for it. Engines like Dogpile and Yahoo disappoint, offering up links to an article on Boeing 737s and their lingering rudder problems. And when I try Altavista, I'm directed to the McSweeny family Web site (a mistake the journal would relish, but alas, I don't think there's any affiliation). Ask Jeeves suggests I try something different altogether. Convinced I've misspelled my query, Jeeves thinks that when I type in, "Where can I find McSweeny's online?" I really mean, "Where can I find mute swans?"

Why do so many of these engines respond with meaningless returns like these? While the Web has become overloaded with information, its track record for plumbing the depths of that knowledge and surfacing with something useful, let alone an exact match, is often as successful as a deep sea discovery of Atlantis. It's not Jeeves' fault, or our own; rather, Jeeves is just a poor substitute for someone who can actually answer questions. But now, after a decade of frustrated searching, a cadre of experts has appeared on the Net ready to find whatever information we've been looking for.

They're called Peopleware. Or at least this is what Rob Shavell, author of the recent Datamonitor report, "Searching for the Next Killer Internet Application," calls Web sites like Inforocket.com, Abuzz.com and Keen.com that promise to connect people with questions to people with answers. Based on his analysis, this new "expert" niche is expected to garner $6 billion in "direct information exchange" come 2005 -- all because Peopleware dot-coms can capitalize off users looking for an alternative to search engines. "Interestingly," he reports, "no one thought of intelligent networks comprised of living, breathing people, although advertising and branding have long pointed toward replacing search engines with humans."

Finally, the Web has realized our potential! But I wonder: Can humans really take a program's place?

A sampling of the questions on these sites -- What is your opinion of Boy George and Culture Club? How can I get out of debt? Or my personal favorite: Why would Kierkegaard hate the Internet? -- shows the range of inquiries up for grabs. Matters of taste, concrete financial advice, even topics presumably for college term papers are covered, and the experts are as varied as the questions.

On any given site there are support technicians, retired teachers, lawyers and college students, among others, who will solve your personal conundrum. And though plenty of CPAs, DAs and PhDs are tacked onto experts' names, none of these sites verify a person's credentials. The minds behind these companies aren't necessarily interested in old-economy experts; what they think the Internet needs is people who help people. As Inforocket's Vice President of Marketing Monica Sanchez put it, "Our whole objective is to communicate that everybody has value. Because you've been there, you have done things that other people want to know about."

Apparently, some people are so eager to know where we've been and what we've learned, they'll pay money for the information -- or at least that's what some of these information sites assume. On Keen.com, for instance, you can find the "Keen Speaker" who's right for you, and call them on the phone. The only catch is that you must agree to pay their per-minute price, which can sometimes be as expensive as a 900 number (about two dollars a minute). On Inforocket, people designated as "answer rockets" are encouraged to bid on queries from "question rockets," for a minimum fee of three dollars (though some bids have gone as high as $100). Askme.com, on the other hand, expects nothing in exchange for tapping into its expert database, and Abuzz.com, another free-of-charge site affiliated with the New York Times, is more like an information kaffe klatch, with various circles in which the curious can chat or pose questions.

But are any of these experts worth their salt? Intrigued by the possibilities, I began asking around.

"Can someone tell me about the Bay of Pigs invasion?" I asked the answer rockets, offering the mandatory three dollar minimum bid. It was a frivolous question, but other than a vague notion of an attempted coup on Castro's regime, I really didn't have much of a clue about the event. More importantly, the idea that I could pay someone three dollars to answer something that would take energy to learn myself prompted me to ask it -- exactly, I suspect, what Inforocket.com wants to hear.

The promise these sites offer is that access to knowledge -- with the help of an expert -- can be effortless. "The Internet, to me, is the most convenient thing that could have ever happened," says Sanchez. "I've become addicted to being a 'lazy person,' investing my time in the things I need to get done, and letting other people do the work for me."

With the advent of information sites, the way the Web "works" for us is changing; the "lazy" person who relies on the Internet for shopping services and banking online can now rely on the Internet for knowledge -- at a price. According to Walter Conner, Askme.com's vice president of marketing strategies, this has everything to do with consumers' desire for speed and convenience. "Almost all of my purchases are on the Web now," says Conner. "I just bought a motorcycle and needed to get some parts for it. There's a place two miles from my house. But given the hours that I work, I just haven't had a chance to get up there. So I ordered parts on the Web from a place in New Jersey that'll deliver them to my house in three days."

It takes an expert at one of these sites even less time, on average, to answer your question. "Bootsiemalone," the person I consulted about the inflammation in my cat's eye, responded to my question within the hour. The two financial experts I had tax questions for got back to me within a couple of days. "Dsteasy," the answer rocket I paid to answer my Bay of Pigs question, bid on it that same night. And when I asked the book circle on Abuzz if anyone knew where to find McSweeny's online, "Stacieelyse" got back to me the next day. "This was a tough one!" she wrote. "It's mcsweeneys.net." I had left out the third "e" in the magazine's name -- something a search engine could not abide.

Not all of the answers were to my liking, though. "Dsteasy," the college student whose bid I accepted to answer my Bay of Pigs question, provided a lengthy summary of the event but listed the CD Encarta 2000 as a source. When the time came to rate him, which most of these sites ask you to do, I decided against the highest rating of five stars. Somehow I felt cheated. This was not, as I had come to expect, a "personal" description from someone who really "knew" the answer. What's more, in one of my desk drawers lies a copy of the Encarta 2000 CD. Three dollars later, I wondered: Why didn't I bother to use it myself?

The potential shift from knowledge as something earned, to information we pay money to access, is not far from the premise of Jeremy Rifkin's new book, "The Age of Access." In it, he predicts that "we will come to think of our economic life in terms of access to services and experiences and less in terms of ownership of things." Interestingly enough, one example he provides is the way Encyclopedia Britannica responded to Microsoft's more affordable, accessible Encarta, now the world's best-selling encyclopedia. To compete with Microsoft's Internet resource, Brittannica began offering its database online, for a fee, and now, Rifkin writes, one of the United States' most respected reference books "has literally dematerialized into a pure service."

Paying for access to the materials and resources of knowledge is nothing new. A set of bound Britannicas runs over one grand; a college education could cost a student, or her parents, a hundred times that amount. It's when gathering information becomes a service -- with nothing except money and answers exchanged -- that it threatens to change the way we learn from others.

Like fast food, the answers on sites like Keen and Inforocket have to be good enough, and come fast enough, to merit the cost of information. Yet while providing answers seems to be an easy transaction, measuring customer satisfaction may prove to be more difficult. The sites I looked at do have some safeguards in place; on all of them, even on free sites like Abuzz, experts are graded upon their responses -- though expert grade inflation has already become a problem.

Keen staffers say their grading system is accurate because paying for answers is a method of ensuring quality of service. The more a customer is willing to pay for a highly rated expert, the better the information will be. "I'll go back to a really old saying," says Keen's CEO Karl Jacob. "You get what you pay for. There just isn't a model in our world for getting something for free and having it have any real value."

To this, Rifkin would probably respond that the nature of these services needs to be examined before "most remaining human activity migrates to the commercial realm." Yet the speed, efficiency and relative friendliness of online information services seems to run counter to Rifkin's moral concerns. For those new to the Web, going to Keen and connecting with humans is probably much less intimidating than surfing through a maze of sites. These are the same people who do not know how to run advanced searches and are frequently frustrated by returns. Or who do not know of any other place online where they can share information and ideas with others, free of charge. They are probably unfamiliar with Usenet -- the global link of message groups that has been maintained by people since the Internet's inception.

Even for the Web savvy -- those who know the tricks of finding information online -- interacting with a human may ultimately be more useful than posting a message to a newsgroup and hoping for a direct response, or searching through documents. In the course of writing this article, Peopleware was able to give me something other search methods could not: quick, human insights. Abuzz member Astaroth agrees: "I wouldn't be surprised if sites like Abuzz gain in popularity, because it's a lot easier and more satisfying to interact with another human then it is with a search-bot."

Although customer satisfaction is possible, it remains to be seen whether these sites will see profits. Conner believes that Askme's creation of communities -- with specific tastes, interests and consumer habits -- could prove to be a lucrative resource, as online companies will pay for information about people's buying habits. With "2,000 categories of people that's expanding daily," Conner predicts that Askme "can just keep branching and branching forever. The ability [for vendors] to go to these highly targeted audiences is what I think the future is and it's a very efficient way to market."

Askme, which does not ask its customers to pay for information, also hopes to generate revenue from advertising and commission schemes in which their experts recommend products or serve as consultants to customers on commercial sites. None of these schemes have put Askme in the red, however. Of all the sites I contacted, only Keen, with its more traditional business model, predicts it will be in the black in a year. Conner believes that within a few years one or two information sites will likely dominate the market, though which sites those are is unclear.

As with all businesses, there has to be a considerable market and need for a service in order for it to succeed. And since these sites rely upon phone or virtual interactions rather than face-to-face ones, people and industries would be phased out. Or -- in Net speak -- disintermediated. Conner cited the car salesmen as an example of such at-risk professions. If people can order their cars online, he asked, "Why do I need a local dealership?"

Curious to see if a car salesperson felt the same way, I called the Ford Dealership in Brooklyn, New York and spoke with Mike Bruno. He disagreed. "I believe most people want to come in and look at the car," he said. "They like to haggle. They like to take a test drive. They like to deal with a person."

As e-commerce expands into the Internet's most essential and (up until now) free element -- information exchange -- it remains to be seen how much people will like, rely on or be willing to pay for knowledge that is for sale. "In the very, very broad sense, people will eventually find the most efficient way of communicating with one another," said Abuzz General Manager John Capello. So in the same way we decide to call a person rather than knock on their door, or e-mail instead of picking up the phone, increasingly, we may turn to Peopleware instead of other research tools -- including the people around us.

But I doubt I'll be paying anyone for their thoughts again anytime soon. Not when there's such a glut in the market.

Enjoy this piece?

… then let us make a small request. AlterNet’s journalists work tirelessly to counter the traditional corporate media narrative. We’re here seven days a week, 365 days a year. And we’re proud to say that we’ve been bringing you the real, unfiltered news for 20 years—longer than any other progressive news site on the Internet.

It’s through the generosity of our supporters that we’re able to share with you all the underreported news you need to know. Independent journalism is increasingly imperiled; ads alone can’t pay our bills. AlterNet counts on readers like you to support our coverage. Did you enjoy content from David Cay Johnston, Common Dreams, Raw Story and Robert Reich? Opinion from Salon and Jim Hightower? Analysis by The Conversation? Then join the hundreds of readers who have supported AlterNet this year.

Every reader contribution, whatever the amount, makes a tremendous difference. Help ensure AlterNet remains independent long into the future. Support progressive journalism with a one-time contribution to AlterNet, or click here to become a subscriber. Thank you. Click here to donate by check.

Close
alternet logo

Tough Times

Demand honest news. Help support AlterNet and our mission to keep you informed during this crisis.