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Tales from the people who answer KGB's text-message search queries

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Kid sends a text message to a friend. Credit: andronicusmax via Flickr

When you search for something on Google, the computers that process your questions aren't thinking about what might have motivated the inquiry. Nor are they sharing the bizarre ones with their friends. You punch in a few words and machines spit out a list of related Web pages in less than second.

But as workers for KGB, the people-powered mobile search service, field questions, they find plenty to laugh, worry and wince about.

For those who haven't seen the TV commercials, KGB isn't the Russian spy agency. It's a service that lets you ask questions by sending text messages from your cellphone and returns an answer researched by one of its volunteer laborers called agents (get it?).

Users are charged 99 cents per message, and agents earn 5 cents to 10 cents for every answer they serve up, depending on the amount of fact-finding involved.

People who already own Internet-enabled cellphones might wonder why they would spend a buck when they have Google at the ready. Surprisingly, half of KGB's users have smartphones or cellphones with QWERTY keyboards, according to KGB Chief Executive Bruce Stewart.

"People don't want thousands of links," Stewart said in a phone interview. "They just want the answer." Maybe there is something to Microsoft's "search overload" ad campaign for Bing after all.

But a better question might be: What would motivate these agents to answer our whimsical questions for less than minimum wage?

For some, it's a paid form of entertainment. Kurt Briesemeister, a 30-year-old agent from Carlsbad, Calif., calls himself "a fan of knowledge for the sake of knowledge." He used to do similar crowd-sourced work for Amazon's Mechanical Turk, which operates and pays recruits similarly. With KGB, he hasn't earned more than $3.50 an hour.

"A lot of people try to stump us," he said. "I love digging into the Internet and finding that information."

Briesemeister also appreciates the occasional oddball. "I had one question in particular that was...," he said, pausing to recall the exact phrasing of the question, "How many babies standing on each others' heads does it take to reach Mars?"

"They try to say, Ah-ha! I got him," Briesemeister said. "Well, actually, no, you don't -- because the average length of a baby is 21 inches. So, how many inches in a mile? How many miles to Mars? And do the simple math, and there you go -- 582 billion babies."

Briesemeister later got a similar question about hamsters to the moon. Both questions took less than two minutes to figure out, he said. Good thing because agents usually get less than 10 minutes per question to respond.

B.J. Ellis, a substitute teacher and director of a Philadelphia improv comedy show called the N-Crowd, also finds time for KGB on some nights. He averages about $2 per hour. "I do it because I enjoy learning random things," he said. He fires up the software "in my free time, when I'm watching TV," he said.

Ellis, too, is no stranger to fielding weird queries including, "Could Charles Manson adopt me?"

"Really? Someone spent 99 cents to find that out?" he wondered. "I said, 'Most agencies frown on convicted felons adopting.' "

Nathan Venard, a 21-year-old actor in Los Angeles, puts in about 20 hours per week, earning up to $6 an hour during evening shifts. In addition to the fun factor of learning random facts, he appreciates the flexible schedules and ability to work from home.

"Especially with L.A., the job market is so difficult," he muttered grimly.

Many are turning to services like KGB or ChaCha as an entertaining way to add a small income source. "It's just a few bucks -- pays for some gas," Ellis said.

Alongside questions seeking teenage relationship advice, the age-old "What is the meaning of life?" and "Is Tupac really dead?" Ellis notes, is one of the most common queries, "Are you a real person?"

KGB has received this one so often that they've automated the response, Ellis said. "Yes, we are." And that will be 99 cents, please.

-- Mark Milian

 
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