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ChaCha: More a fact finder than a Magic 8-ball

Service that answers questions via text messages comes in handy when you're sans the Internet, but don't ask it about the meaning of life.

When I learned that a company called ChaCha had partnered with the Sundance Film Festival to answer festivalgoer questions via text messaging, I was a little skeptical. I wondered, what makes ChaCha the expert on all things Sundance, and who's going to text in questions when there are festival volunteers, smartphones, laptops, and wireless everywhere?

That was before, however, I found myself stuck in a traffic jam on a crowded shuttle bus, sans laptop and in dire need of a piece of scheduling information. What time was the U2 3D screening and where? That would tell me whether I had time to get off the bus and make it to a private John Legend concert to which my friend got me invited. ChaCha ching...I texted in my question to ChaCha and minutes later got my answer.

For background, ChaCha launched publically in September 2006 as a social search site that trains "guides" to answer questions from visitors about anything. In January, it launched a free text-messaging service that lets you text any question to "242242" (or "chacha") and the answer is quickly texted back to you for free.

The idea of promoting the service as a venue-specific information source, like for Sundance, just seemed to make sense given the huge gathering of people with shared interests, said ChaCha co-founder Brad Bostic. "You've got 60,000 people who are extremely passionate about celebrities, film," and the like all wanting to be in the know, he said.

ChaCha co-founder Brad Bostic Brad Bostic's Mobile Search and Technology Blog

So ChaCha, which makes its money through Web-based ads and other means, hired festival scouts who sent information about Sundance celebrities, films and parties to some of its core 8,000 guides operating all around the country.

That's apparently how, when I followed up my prior inquiry with, "will bono b there?" the guide responded: "I'm not finding that he will, but check it out. Robert De Niro and Bruce Willis are at Eccles." (Bono was, in fact, there, as was the whole band.)

Bostic said ChaCha also has plans to assist information-seekers at South by Southwest in March as well as other future venues.

I'm sure I'm not the only one who, upon testing out the service, tried out some harder and more random questions on the guides. ChaCha had no clue, for example, about the John Legend performance. But I got an interesting and informative answer to my question about whether camels have eyelids. They do. "Camels are equipped too deal with harsh desert conditions such as flying sand," the texted answer read.

I'd stay away from asking ChaCha Magic 8-ball type questions, like "When will I find true love?" Answer: "I don't know when that'll happen to you--guides are not required to have psychic abilities! We're here to answer ?s 24/7 tho!"

ChaCha's free service isn't perfect, but it sure makes that $2.98 Verizon charged me last month for "411 Connect" seem ridiculous.