Remember ChaCha, the "human-powered" search engine based in Indiana with curiously deep — and poorly disclosed — ties to local power brokers? Now, Indiana University contends its decision to select human-assisted search engine ChaCha had nothing to do with those ties. University president and former ChaCha board member, Michael McRobbie, had nothing to do with it. Neither did newly appointed university trustee and Chacha investor and advisor, Jack Gill. The decision was made solely by the university's CTO Brad Wheeler. Oh, but never mind that Wheeler was appointed by McRobbie, his predecessor in the CTO post. A new Fortune profile of Chacha CEO and founder Scott Jones makes this telling of events even more suspiciously convenient.
The Fortune piece includes the tale of how ChaCha came to be:
The trigger to launch ChaCha came when Jones was preparing a speech for the National Academy of Sciences at Stanford in 2005. To fill in some technical gaps in his talk, he phoned several venture capitalists and technology experts for help in tracking down information. Each pointed him to a specific website. "I thought, 'Holy s—-! I can actually do it now! If I recruit an army of experts, I could actually do what I was considering doing 20 years ago.'"
Holy shit, indeed. Brad Wheeler recounts a similar tale in proclaiming ChaCha superior to Google and Indiana University library services:
Wheeler said the potential for the partnership struck him when, writing a speech, he struggled to track down a vaguely remembered quote. He was impressed when IU's Ask a Librarian service found the quote, from former Harvard President James Bryant Conant, within hours. But a ChaCha guide got it in two minutes.
"That's where my head about exploded," he said. "I realized this is our core problem for the 21st century."
My heads exploding too. What is it about pre-speech gaps in information that lead to epiphanies touting ChaCha? After all, Googling the same vaguely remembered quote leads to a result instantly instead of taking two minutes. Or is this merely the pat creation myth that Jones thinks best sells his company?
Jones is a millionaire inventor. And I suspect he's equally good at inventing the story behind his company. He almost has me believing that if there were more public speakers in the world, maybe ChaCha would actually have some users. That is, besides those students forced to use ChaCha because their university's president is buddies with Jones.