Dumb Ideas with a CEO: ChaCha

what's Digg?The dumbest idea I’ve seen so far this year: a human assisted search engine. The idea is simple, when you need to find something on the web, this search engine connects you to a live operator (“guide”) who then will help you find what you need (searches for you). Why is this the dumbest idea ever? Because the company has failed to address a real need, at least without introducing more problems.

What’s the point of search? Finding stuff, right? Let’s take two cases. 

I need to find something straight forward: in such a case, a Google search will very likely suffice. On the other hand…

I need to find something very obscure: this is the case where a human powered search engine would shine, right?

Wrong. If I can’t find it on Google, how are you going to find it? This morning, I was looking up if the PHP SERVER[‘REQUEST_TIME’] variable takes time zones into consideration. This wasn’t noted in the PHP documentation and several searches came up empty (the answer is that it uses the system time). Would ChaCha technicians know?

No.

If I can’t find this information, how in the world will a $5/hr search monkey find it for me who has a limited (if at all) understanding of PHP? The answer: of course this won’t work.

The more straight forward something is, the more likely a search engine can do the work. The less straight forward and obscure something is, the more likely a human can help if the person were a super computer far more powerful than Google’s 1,000,000 servers and knew the context of everything I was asking. Well, the good news is that they identified a problem, but the bad news is that their solution isn’t the answer.

Okay, what about those cases where a longer session of Google will net you an answer. What’s a decent search time? Five minutes? Well, according to a former guide of ChaCha, they have an economic incentive to drag your search out for 20 minutes. 20 minutes! So which would you rather gamble on: 20 minutes of Google or chatting with a stranger on ChaCha hoping that they’ll eventually find it for you (in 20 minutes)? For that effort, I’d rather chat with friends who might be able to help me. For that effort, I’d go post my question on Yahoo Answers and wait for a reply (last time I tried, took about 10 minutes).

Lastly, the management of the “employees” are clearly a bust. ChaCha uses volunteers as their “guides.” And this is where it gets sick. I can become a guide. I can help other people find stuff by using my “expert” Google skills. For $5 an hour. They’re paying people a minimal economic incentive to do work that requires a high degree of computer literacy and language comprehension. Not to mention it requires constant focus and attention, good customer interaction skills, excellent written communication skills, fast thinking, and a person who is “current” since searches tend to mirror pop culture (see picture). These are not traits you can come to expect out of a person being paid minimum wage.

If a customer pisses me off, I can just tell them off. If my buddy IMs me, I can just ignore the customer until they go away. If I think a customer is dumb, I can just call them dumb. If they are searching for stuff I disagree with, I can send them the wrong links. Why? Because the site pays so little that nobody would ever equate being a guide with their livelihood. People simply won’t give a crap if the end-user hates the experience. Either way, you get paid $5. For all you future business owners, remember this: you get what you pay for.

In the end, this company addressed one problem with a solution that introduced a dozen new problems.

Like I said, this is a dumb idea with a CEO. Oh, and it’s poorly executed to boot.

The Crazy Folders on Linux – Now You Can be Hardcore Too

I’ve always wondered what all of the folder names meant on Linux, and Saturday’s post on Slashdot about the /etc folder answered it.

From the responses:

All the system directories were kept to three letters, and all of the names are abbreviations — none are acronyms.

/adm = administrative (now found in /var/adm)
/bin – binaries
/sbin – system binaries
/dev – devices
/home – user home directories
/lib – libraries
/log = logs (now found in /var/log)
/mnt – temporary mount point
/root – root’s home directory in case /home is on another file system
/var – variable data, such as databases, news, and mail
/tmp – temporary files
/usr – mostly there because it wouldn’t fit on / 😛
/etc – stuff that doesn’t fit any of the above

Neat, huh?

Another neat factoid regarding “/etc”:

Lot of hardcore UNIX guys pronounce it “et-see” because you sound retarded saying, “It’s in “et-cetera-slash-init-period-d” rather than “et-see init-dee”. Same reason people transliterate Ess-Que-Ell (SQL) into “Sequel” …It’s quicker, and it sounds better.

Microsoft DOESN’T Owe 1.5 Billion

So contrary to the previous ruling, Microsoft has now had a previous 1.5 Billion dollar ruling reversed. The previous ruling was made by a jury that determined Microsoft had violated Alcatel-Lucent patents related to MP3 audio technology.

But this week’s a federal judge has ruled  that Microsoft has not violated any of the patents. So unless Microsoft loses an appeal, they’ve been saved. This is good news since the loss could have had ripple effects across the digital music industry. The last thing we need is for the most pervasive file format on the planet to be patented into the ground.

Cisco Bought Tribe.net! (WTF!)

You read the title correctly. Cisco Systems bought Tribe.net. Cisco is that company that makes routers and switches. They bought Tribe.net, a not-very-popular social networking site. If Cisco paid any more than $100 million, we’ll call this the dumbest purchase of 2007. Even $10 million would be too much money.

Cisco has no experience in this realm, but apparently somebody in management drank a little bit too much of the social networking Kool Aid. Proof? Well, it turns out Cisco bought another social networking company last week called Five Across. According to that development, Cisco did it because… well, check out this quote:

Based on conversations with three or four different Cisco executives in recent months, it is clear Cisco sees social networking and the wider Web 2.0 phenomenon as ways to drive Internet traffic, and thus traffic over their routers and other networking gear — and, it follows, more revenue for Cisco.

I guess by that logic, oil companies should buy amusement parks to get more people outside and driving. The logic is retarded, and highly troubling that it’s coming from executives themselves. Cisco is chasing a pipe dream.

Tribe.net might as well have asked Krispy Kreme to buy them because the fit is that bad. I can’t see any competitive edge coming out from either company’s assets that will help the other. They are simply unrelated. One caters to free loading teenagers while the other builds hardware for paying corporate clients. One is sales and support based while the other is supported by ad revenue. One sells tangible goods while the other gives away a service on a website. One has over 50,000 employees and the other has less than 10. One is a proven fighter in its sector, and the other got smashed into obscurity and nearly went bankrupt.

The New York Times calls it a “curious pairing.” I call it dumb, especially on Cisco’s part.

The new social networking players, which include Cisco … say that social networks will soon be as ubiquitous as regular Web sites. They are aiming to create tools to let ordinary people, large companies and even presidential candidates create social Web sites tailored for their own customers, friends, fans and employees.

Cisco is hoping to use this new resource to eventually create customizable, personalized social networks. They believe that social networks will become a commodity. Ning is already doing exactly that and it has a two year head start. If Cisco was really committed to this vision of theirs, they should have bought Ning.

Besides, if an eight person company can build something that you plan on re-developing into something else, why not just hire 20 people and do it from the ground up, the way you need it to be? Why hack an already existing system that was built from the ground up to compete with Myspace and Facebook when you are after a whole different market? Frankly, even the technical justification doesn’t make sense.

And if Cisco truly believes social networking will become ubiquitous, which I can understand, they need to start on a new technological foot. Social networks will become a commodity when open protocols for exchanging information between them becomes open and published. Much like HTML of today, social networks of the future will communicate on open protocols to exchange data. That’s the only way they’ll ever get as common place as Cisco sees it. And tribe.net isn’t getting them any closer to that path. You would think a major producer of hardware that relies on open protocols would understand this best.

Congratulations on the big pay day, Tribe.net owners. You just schooled some heavy weight businessmen from their hard earned money. In closing, the founder of Ning said:

The idea that Cisco is going to be a force in social networking is about as plausible as Ning being a force in optical switches.

I understand Cisco’s motives for buying Tribes.net, but if you want to branch out into other markets by buying companies, you do it by buying winners, not has-beens.