Monday, February 05, 2007

The Auburn Hotline Story ... secret revealed

Below is my (unpublished) story about the mysterious Auburn Hotline. Enjoy.

FOY UNION. Where it all began.

The answer to any question you can think of – no matter how complicated or obscure -- is just a phone call away.

For the past twenty years, student workers at the University of Auburn's help line have been answering random questions, free of charge – from any caller, anywhere in the United States.

Need directions? Want career, medical or legal advice? Need to know the name of the actor who played Zach Morris on the television show Saved by the Bell? Need to put together a quiche? Ever wonder how many Oreos would you have to stack to get to the moon?

“We can find the answer to almost any question, if it exists. It's a challenge, people try and stump us, and I enjoy that challenge,” said Terry Marshall, a supervisor who has worked at the desk for six years.

It is a tradition – never advertised or promoted -that smacks more of urban legend than legitimate academic service, and it has promulgated across America for the last twenty years, building up steam in bars and supermarkets, passing by word-of-mouth from one person to another.

What started as an insider's joke has evolved into a serious question-and-answer service, and with the advent of the Internet and free long distance that most cellular phone companies provide, it has become a widely-used resource by alumni and strangers alike, and the workers – who make $6 to $8 an hour – don't seem to mind.

Now, hundreds of people call every day - from as far-off as Russia, London, Los Angeles or New York - wanting to know driving directions, medical advice, stock tips, trivia and sometimes, just to talk. Some callers ask “Is this God?” according to Marshall/

The desk workers, many of whom have never been outside of Alabama, find themselves giving directions, restaurant advice and weather reports for cities they've never visited. The also field more scandalous and obscure questions that sometimes fail to garner a response.

“The first question I was ever asked was, 'How many times does the average prostitute have sex in their lifetime?,” said Ashley Horton, a student desk assistant. She researched but “couldn't find any polls,” she said.

Started in the 1950's, it began with a card-based system where answers to school-related queries, mostly scheduling and phone numbers, were written down. But at some point in early eighties, it grew beyond that, with college workers deciding to take matters into their own hands, filling cabinets with trivia, phone and reference books, as well as spiral notebooks filled with previous answers and random facts. It eventually grew, with the help of the Internet, into the powerful mock-search engine that it is today.

This service – and its growing popularity – is a bellwether for a changing society that demands more information, faster, and puts that information at consumer's fingertips instantaneously, accordi=perts.

“These technologies are letting people to look more broadly than they would look normally. People are more open to looking at a wide degree of information,” said Robert Atkinson, the President of President of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, a Washington, D.C. -based think tank.

Following in the vein of this apparently popular service, the marketplace has produced a number of services that allow anyone possessing a cell phone unfettered access to volumes of information – and the industry continues to improve and refine those services daily.
Local and national 4-1-1 services - provided by telephone companies and wireless providers – once provided only directory-assistance, but now services have expanded to include movie times, weather updates, sports scores, driving directions and more.
Toll-free lines have rushed in to provide information for the small price of an advertisement or promotion. Numbers like 1-800-FREE-411, 1-800-411-SAVE and 1-877-520-FIND, are free alternatives to traditional 4-1-1 services, which generally cost a small fee.
Another line, 1-800-555-TELL, is more traditional, covering basic categories like stock quotes, movie times, weather and sports. Or you can send a text message to GOOGL (46645); you should get a proper response provided you use reasonably good grammar.
And, whether inspired by the Auburn help desk or independently created, similar services have been created, like Internet Search Pro, a toll-free number advertising an “Internet lookup” service based out of California. The web site claims it in beta phase testing – although repeated calls and inquiries provoked no response.
Experts say numbers like these are changing the way Americans store information, the same way Wikipedia, search engines and services like have made mountains of data readily available to the average American. And services like this – from search engines to news updates – mean that Americans can remember less, and do more, but that their jobs may be in jeopardy in the long-run.

“It will not eliminate managers, lawyers or professionals, but it will automate and eliminate menial jobs,” said Atkinson.

He used newly-automated McDonald's kiosks, which eliminate the need for restaurant workers, as an example, envisioning a future where basic routinized functions, like multiplication and rote memorization, are replaced by higher-level functions, with workers able to do more because of powerful information technology, although he admitted American's mathematical abilities were already suffering thanks to the easy availability of calculator-equipped cellular phones and computers.

“It's just not necessary to remember phone numbers or do basic math anymore,” he said.

The workers and supervisors at the Auburn desk, however, insist they're just having fun, offering a quirky service that they see as nothing more than an otherwise harmless enigma; answering questions people ask.
“A guy asked me how to put together a car engine. It's something I didn't know, but I found the answer,” said Marshall. “It was a long answer, by the way.”
The line is staffed by three or four workers, 24 hours a day Monday through Friday, closing from midnight to 10 am Saturday and midnight to 1 pm Sunday. On top of answering the phones, which ring non-stop during the evening hours, they run the student store, mange the union and answer questions for anyone who walks up.
The student workers, who make between $6 and $8 an hour, called the service interesting, weird, and unique – but most said they enjoyed providing the answers, if just to relieve the boredom of a menial job.
“We live in a quick-fix society,” said Ashley Horton, a 23-year old desk assistant. “you've got to know something and you've got to know it now. Those are the little things we do that make somebody's life easier.”
Are the workers, supervisors or administrators at Auburn worried that the service will get out of hand, that call volume will ever get too high, or that they will ever need to end the service? Do they think the school should shut down or charge for this service? No, they said.
“I think this will go on forever,” Horton said. Melissa Irvin Howell, the Coordinator of Operations at Foy, agreed. “I don't see this stopping anytime soon,” she said.


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Anonymous said...

Found this while Googling for Foy. I'm a student at Auburn who works the desk, and while I appreciate the publicity, I have to take issue with your comment that "many of [us] have never been outside of Alabama."

Not only do we have shoes down here, we just got cars in the last decade, and many of us spend our weekends traveling to the great far-off land of Georgia for cultural enrichment.

We also got sarcasm in our last shipment from the outside world.

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