By Sean Coughlan
BBC News Magazine
Are polar bears tougher than lions?
The need to know answers to infuriating questions is so strong that thousands of people are paying for a human-operated, instant-reply text service.
There is something compulsive about the need to know the answer to a question. For instance, can you think of three words in English ending in the letters "gry"?
It might not be important, and you might not really care, but once the question has been asked it's hard not to start thinking about it. There's "hungry" and ...
Feeding this appetite for answers is a company which promises to tackle any query - and to send the reply back almost immediately by text message.
Any Question Answered is an open-all-hours service, with humans providing the answers - charging £1 for each question and responding to about 80% within five minutes.
At present, the service is answering an average of 7,000 to 8,000 questions per day - with replies written by a team of 500 part-time researchers, including an Australasian-based night shift.
So what makes people want to use this pay-as-you-know service?
Which Friends' performer had the problem with worms
The peak time for questions is the evening, around the time people might have had a couple of pints. And AQA's chief executive, Colly Myers, says these are usually "male type" inquiries.
"It's about acquisitive knowledge, getting one up on your mate, teasing your mate about what he doesn't know. Who won a football match? Who scored the most goals?"
"There are other questions which are clearly about settling an argument. Such as 'If a polar bear and a lion had a fight who would win?' A polar bear, generally you don't want to come up against a bear."
It can include more specific questions, such as "Who should get the next round of drinks?"
And the fact that the questioners get a response from a human being, maybe with some humour added, means that people are using it as a form of instant entertainment, he says.
Trivia might be a staple: "What Friends' character got sacked for vomiting worms on set?" Answer: Ross's pet monkey Marcel (who confusingly enough was really called Monkey).
But Mr Myers says the questions are becoming more diverse.
Colly Myers, former Psion chief, is now king of the questions
There are commuters' travel questions or searches for factual information that people appear to need in a hurry for work and even more strangely, people are texting in with inquiries about their relationships.
About a third of questions sent in by customers have already been asked, says Mr Myers. And although there are exclusion zones, such as medical or financial advice, the researchers try to answer whatever is thrown at them.
"What goes well with orange trousers?" Answer: a purple satin shirt.
Or which word includes all the vowels in order? But that's just getting facetious.
If a customer contests an answer - because it's wrong or they think it's unsatisfactory - they can dispute it and ask for a refund.
Set up in April 2004, AQA might tackle trivia, but its intentions are anything but trivial. It's a serious business, wanting to establish itself as an instant information resource for people on the move.
"What goes well with orange trousers?" All the big questions answered.
People might begin by asking questions to see if anyone really replies. "How many Rory Bremners could be fitted inside the turbine hall of the Tate Modern?" (1.65 million if neatly stacked).
But then they might begin to use it for more practical purposes - such as finding a local restaurant.
This isn't any kind of student bed-sit start-up. Mr Myers used to run handheld-computer company Psion and mobile-phone technology firm, Symbian. And he sees the huge mobile phone market as providing rich opportunities for customised, well-produced services.
It's also an example of the information economy - selling knowledge, building up a database of answers, staffed by part-time workers at home using online technology.
But will it be a temporary phase? In many ways, it's giving phone users a search engine on the move. But what happens when most people have easy and quick access to the internet through their mobiles? Why pay if you can look it up yourself?
Google also has its own answering service - in which questioners can set a price, between $2 and $200, that they're willing to pay for an answer. And looking at the current crop on Google Answers, it's information that wouldn't exactly fit on to a text message.
For instance, someone is offering $2 for the wiring diagram for a 1994 Honda Accord. Another questioner is offering $22 for detailed information about front-loading washing machines. It's a kind of eBay for information.
But there will always be a need to know trivia. Like those words ending in "gry". Or who won the FA Cup and never scored?
Better check out the Magazine Monitor on Monday to find out.
Add your comments on this story, using the form below.
This is torture - hungry, angry but the third is eluding me. Come on, someone out there must have the answer as I refuse to pay £1 for it!
Jane Stolworthy, Cleethorpes
Yeah! But will they know if this is the way to Amarillo?
This service is absolutely brilliant - have used it loads of times. As mentioned in the article, it's mainly when I've been out for a couple of beers with mates! Have used it for practical things like cinema listings but also to ask things like which of my friends Dr Luka from ER would love the most (the answer was Helen, but I'm not having that at all. Blatantly me.)
'If a polar bear and a lion had a fight who would win?' That depends on the terrain.
Brian Milner, London UK
I can see the attraction but it will not help with the really big questions - like who would win in a fight between a Tyrannosaurus Rex and a great white shark staged in an Olympic swimming pool? A question that's been bugging me for a couple of years!
Surely this service is just charging for someone else to use Google?
Matt Hawkins, Bristol
I'm angry that the word I thought of (hungry) was mentioned later in the article! If only I could think of another...
Peter Douglas, Edinburgh
I tried the service using a clearly-worded question to which the answer is freely and easily available on the web. Not only were they unable to answer the question, but contrary to their sales blurb (about only charging if they supplied the answer!) they charged me the £1 anyway. So my advice would be to potential users - proceed with caution. And be prepared to pay a quid whatever happens.
Why spend money texting a company when you can do it a lot quicker by surfing the web?
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