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Sunday, June 08, 2008

When good enough goes bad

Has anyone heard about ChaCha? Just saw an article in the NY Times...

"Here’s another voice-activated service (800-2CHACHA) — but this time, you can ask any question at all. “What’s that German word that means, ‘pleasure from other people’s pain’?” Or “Who ran against Abraham Lincoln for president?” Or “What’s on the front page of today’s New York Times?” Or “How do you jump the battery in a Prius?” Or “Where’s the cheapest gas in southeast Connecticut right now?” Or “What’s the last flight to New York out of O’Hare Airport?” Just about anything, in fact, you could find on the Web.

After 30 seconds, you get a text message confirming that ChaCha is working on your question. A minute or two later, you get the answer, typed out in friendly English (“Thanks for asking!”), as though there were a real person on the other end.

That’s because there is a real person. ChaCha employs thousands of amateur researchers across the United States to field your questions, find the answers online and shoot them back, with a link to the Web page where they found the information.

They’re paid $5 to $10 an hour, which may explain the occasional unhelpful replies. (Q: “Why do British and American cars drive on opposite sides of the road?” A: “Because the British have their steering wheels on the other side.” Gee, thanks.)

Even so, ChaCha does a tantalizingly good impersonation of a personal concierge who caters to your whims, and saves the day with amazing frequency. Best of all, there’s no fee, no software, no signup or registration; you can dial it right this instant."

I am always talking about culture shifts and how they impact libraries… this is one of them. The slippery slope that began with "good enough" is sliding a bit more with a service that "caters to your whims, and saves the day with amazing frequency". When I start to read articles like this in the Times, a little alarm goes off in my mind. This service takes the "good enough" argument that libraries have been battling to a very scary place and it is something we need to be aware is happening.

It opens a discussion about the ever-widening gap between how libraries and the masses view information and in turn those who deliver it. The emphasis on information went from factual to fast with Google. But now what we may be witnessing is the beginning of a new cultural shift that takes it from fast to fun. If that is where information is going, imagine the ramifications- not just for libraries but for the world!

Maybe the real marketing campaign ALA needs to be waging is one that connects the dots of the VALUE of information to thought; thought to the ability to make complex decisions; to solving the word's problems and so on. I could envision a nationwide campaign for sure. Partner with schools. Hey newspapers would join and we could get activist actors onboard too. We need to be looking at the big picture. It's not about going back to old ways but reinventing the future possibilities to include a world that values education, research, complex thinking, etc… because they are what will save the planet.

We can continue to ride the tide or we can begin to change it while it is still possible.


Liz B said...

When I first heard of chacha I wondered, once again, (as with goodreads and shelfari and librarything and libraryelf) why libraries were letting corporations take over. And I think it's because most libraries are local and don't have the resources; and even if they do, library boards etc want to know what they are doing for their community not the entire country & world.

I think to "compete" with the corporations, we need to re-imagine how libraries work together to deliver services to people that aren't tied to a local community.

Alexandria Arnold said...

Too many people simply don't think of their public library these days. This is exactly why marketing and advertising is necessary - for-profit ventures are out in front waving their arms and calling attention to themselves, doing the very same things we've prided ourselves on doing for years.

Great point about the emphasis on information going from factual to fast to fun (!) I think it can be difficult for us librarians to accept that the general public may not put as much emphasis on information being complete and completely accurate as we do. I'd like my marketing efforts to attract patrons by promising (and delivering) the fast and fun that the public wants, while giving them the complete and accurate that libraries stand for.

~Kathy Dempsey said...

Yeah, what chacha doesn't say clearly is that just about anybody can work there "researching" questions. The answers they provide might be no better than the asker could find on his or her own.
problem is, as Alexandria hints at, that this is all people want -- the fast & fun info. it serves their needs (they think). so even if libraries offer more, it's not a better option b/c they don't want more. this is what keeps me awake at night!!

Yesterday I followed an ALA link to a Washington Times article that was thoroughly horrifying. about students searching for "good enough" info and hating it when teachers made them do research. ARGH. read it if you dare...
(registration is not necessary, but a good sedative might be.)