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I’ve found ChaCha’s guides to be consistently pleasant and straightforward, even if they do sometimes fail to scratch my information itch. To one of my queries, about irrigation for desert gardens, a guide named Navindra responded frankly, “Umm, I am telling you from up front that your info seems a bit hard to find.” No worries: Navindra soon transferred me to Fabrice, who was able to locate two makers of drip-irrigation systems. The entire interaction took 22 minutes. I could probably have found the same information faster on my own, using Google, but it certainly wouldn’t have left me with the same sociable glow.

I expect that ChaCha searches will go faster and produce better results as the guides gain experience and as the company improves the tools it gives them for plumbing the Web. And ­Bostic’s point–that the average netizen is increasingly comfortable turning to fellow users for information–is part and parcel of the explosion in “social computing,” manifested in the great popularity of other user-driven reference sites, such as Wikipedia and Yahoo Answers, and in the proliferation of Internet-based instant messages, which now outnumber voice calls.

Amazon Mechanical Turk, ChaCha, image-tagging startup Polar Rose, collaborative search engine PreFound.com, and other new human-dependent Web ventures are significant because they are the first to exploit a new economic phenomenon: Internet piecework. Humans, it turns out, are even better than computers at completing some big ­information-­intensive tasks such as indexing the Web or searching satellite photos for lost vessels–as long these big jobs are broken into thousands of small ones and distributed to willing workers. That’s what the new online tools do, with great efficiency. And companies are already discovering that it doesn’t take much to recruit workers–just a chance to earn a few extra bucks, in ChaCha’s case, or a humanitarian urge to help in a crisis, in the case of the Jim Gray search.

But whether brokering this type of piecework can become a business big enough to meet the expectations of Wall Street and the venture capital crowd remains to be seen. For now, the companies enabling human-assisted search are putting their faith where dot-com entrepreneurs put theirs–in the Internet’s ability to aggregate millions of users, and in Web software and hardware that can process a continuous flood of transactions swiftly and cheaply. “How do you make many small things add up to a big thing? By making your system amenable to ­handling lots and lots of them,” says Peter Cohen, director of the Mechanical Turk project at Amazon. “We wouldn’t be doing this unless we thought there was going to be a business here for us.”

Computerization and the productivity gains that go with it have plenty of unintended side effects, from longer unemployment lines to the voice-­activated phone menus that make it hard to get assistance from a person at your bank or cable company. But the next time you look for help on the Web, it just might come from a human.

Wade Roush is a Technology Review contributing editor.

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Credit: Marc Rosenthal

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