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The people who were Google

Amelia Tait has a great article in the July/August issue of Wired—not online as far as I can tell. She profiles some people who worked for 118 118, a UK phone service which once offered to ’answer any question’, and AQA 63336, a UK SMS service with essentially the same aim.

As a student, I did part-time work with AQA 63336 and very much enjoyed it, so this brought the memories flooding back. Working for the service meant logging onto an online system which would show all the questions flowing into the service. Click on one, and you’d get a feed of previous answers to similar questions which could be sent or tweaked. Or—more fun to my mind—one might have to write an entirely original answer.

This was made much more fun by the brand’s ‘voice’—they wanted workers to write in a wry style, and most importantly, to always have an opinion. If someone asked a yes/no question, they had to receive a yes/no answer, preferably with a dash of humour. And, of course, it had to fit in the length of a text message.

As I remember, there was a set payment per question answered, though the payment varied according to demand so that more workers would log on when the service was busy. As someone who liked the challenge of taking a few minutes to write new witty answers rather than picking pre-written items from a list, this served me quite poorly… but I nevertheless loved the job.

A few months after Steve Jobs announced the iPhone, AQA 63336 led an April Fool’s Day prank announcing their own phone. I’ve never quite worked out whether this was gallows humour from a company who understood that smartphones would kill their business, or just a simple attempt at promotion.

Wired isn’t where I typically turn to reminisce, but Tait’s article provided exactly that.

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