Commentary

Curiosity As Entertainment: ChaCha App-ifies Random Acts Of Data

"And Confucianism -- now that is cool -- moral perfection." My fiancée is jazzing on world religions. She is listening to an Audible book on her iPhone each night as she takes the long "I am fitting into that damn wedding dress" walk from work. By the time she gets home, her head is filled with insights about another ancient faith, and I am assigned the role of happy listener. Not being on the spiritual quest she is on right now, I can't quite share her enthusiasm. But I have been married before. I know how this dutiful listening thing works. How many walkthroughs of gadgetry has she endured? For her, the audiobook version of comparative religions is actually proving too much. There is so much information coming at her at once that "if a horn honks or I get distracted for a second while walking, I just missed a key definition."

The persistent, almost overwhelming flow of data that mobile media now makes available everywhere and anywhere is a curious issue that we haven't really handled. We talk a lot about the implications of constant connectivity -- of always being "there" and in touch. Usually we mean by that "connections" to people -- being available all the time. But I wonder what happens to us as mobile technology fills in the remaining holes in the skein of information we have erected. There is no place now where information cannot flow, where questions cannot be answered on the spot, where data is now filling every nook and cranny of existence and becoming an environment rather than a resource. Whatever you think of Microsoft or its Bing search engine, the inspired TV spots dramatizing the bizarre randomness of the digital data flow is on target. We have created an environment of hyper-information and mental hyperactivity.

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Localized mobile media like check-in services and other GPS-powered apps have the weird ability to put a lens over random acts of information. Local directories and apps like Foursquare and Buzzd try to shape and manage the flow of user feedback coming from discrete locations. But what if you just dove into the very randomness of it all?

The human Q&A engine ChaCha released a new app this week that not only mobilizes the answer service but gives the user a peek into what people around them are asking. Marketers no doubt already hear the bells ringing. If you apply the right search queries against localized questions over a given span of time, then the insights could be invaluable. What services are people looking for most? What needs are not being met? While the ChaCha app only shows a limited list of queries made from nearby locations, and there are no filtering tools in the mix yet, the potential is obvious.

Many of the questions should be suggestive to marketers. I see a lot of queries about product features, whether a cell phone or camera can or can't do something or how much RAM a gadget has. Users are looking for advice about vendors and whether some online sources are trustworthy. There clearly are a number of people who use the engine in place of other dedicated apps that I might use. A number of people just ask about the weather, and ChaCha can geolocate the questioner and send the forecast.

What is curious about the app for now is just the odd kind of drama or entertainment value it provides. By watching what people are asking nearby, I am plugging into something -- I just don't know what, exactly. For instance, here in northern Delaware it is obvious from the questions and the Newark, DE tags on them that I live in a college town. Some poor sots are sitting in class or slaving over a term paper and need quick answers to "What is humanistic theory?" and "What are the major threats to biodiversity?"

But if you spend enough time watching the questions come in, then your environment seems to light up with a series of private dramas. "Should I let my boyfriend work with a bunch of girls?" one person asks, only to get a nonsensical reply. Someone out there is trying to figure out if they are seeing bedbugs this morning because they want to know what color they are. A lot of people are in need of jokes, from blonde jokes to "yo mamma" jokes.

Perhaps the most heart-rending theme that emerges in this feed of queries surrounds anxious girls asking questions about pregnancy and birth control. In the space of a few hours you can see any number of queries about the proper use of the Pill, permissible activities during pregnancy, etc. Likewise there are more than a few quick queries about a range of medical symptoms, drug names, etc., that leave the viewer feeling downright voyeuristic. There is an undercurrent of private anxiety to much of this. Watching the scroll of queries, you are always left wondering who is asking, in what state of need, in what possible state of mind?

I don't know where this leads. But clearly mobile media doesn't just make users available to marketers and data source anywhere and everywhere. It also opens up a persistent feedback loop that is chaotic, by turns dramatic and comic, and altogether new. At some point all of us walk down a busy street and wonder, what are all of these people thinking? What if that no longer becomes a rhetorical question and instead can be answered on some level?

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