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Don’t forget the answers: A Telefact retrospective

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Victor Gonzalez / Staff Illustrator

Victor Gonzalez / Staff Illustrator

Victor Gonzalez / Staff Illustrator

By Mark Pesto / Senior Staff Writer

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Someone at Pitt once wanted to know how many Barack Obamas could fit inside the sun. Jake Futerfas gave them the answer.

“We took their [contact] information and told them we’d call back, and then we estimated the mass of Barack Obama, and the mass of the sun, and we worked it out,” Futerfas said.

Futerfas, now 26, worked at Telefact, a free student-run telephone hot line that operated on campus from 1990 to 2013. Before constant Internet access became a millennial right, Pitt students could call Telefact, ask a question and an operator would search the Internet or hunt through old archives of books and newspapers for the answer. Until search engines like Google completely replaced the hot line and Pitt’s Student Government Board defunded the organization in 2013, Telefact advertised that it could answer any question a caller asked.

The answer service, which SGB initially funded as a formula group, operated out of a tiny office whose location was a venerable campus secret — now known to be room 416 in the William Pitt Union. Four or five student employees per shift answered questions ranging from the banal to the bizarre, seven days a week, from noon to 9 p.m.

Telefact’s former employees said it was the best job on campus.

“It was Google before Google,” Kayla Mormak, a 2011 Pitt grad, now 25, said. Mormak worked the phones at Telefact from 2009 to 2012 and coordinated the service in 2012 and 2013, as she worked toward her master’s degree.

“[Telefact] brought us together,” Mormak said. “You could say, ‘I’ve got somebody that’s got my back.’ You could call with anything, even if it was stupid, or funny, or whatever. It wasn’t a big deal to prank-call Telefact.”

While most callers just asked for bus schedules, directions or event times, a few were more offbeat.

“My very first call, someone called in and asked, ‘What’s the number for Poison Control?’” Futerfas, who worked at Telefact from 2009 until he graduated in 2011, said. “And I was just like, ‘Oh, my God!’”

 

First, there was a question

 

The inspiration for Telefact, also known as 4-Fact, came in 1990, when Joyce Giangarlo, then-associate director of Student Activities, heard about a student-run hot line at Bowling Green State University in Ohio that answered any question a caller asked. She and Pitt’s SGB decided to create a similar service at Pitt, hoping to establish a single, centralized source for information across the University.

Giangarlo and a team of SGB members traveled to Bowling Green to investigate its hot line and to bring insider tips from its employees back to Pitt. Soon afterward, Telefact was up and running.

According to Giangarlo, the very first caller simply asked, “Why?” to which a staffer answered, “Why not?”

But usually, answering callers’ questions took a little more effort.

“I once spent a whole week calling archives looking for the winner of a 1950s beauty pageant — one of those farm pageants,” said Mormak, who now works as a computer security consultant. “Someone wanted to know who won in 1950 or whenever, and I found out for him. It just took me a week.”

On occasion, staffers even had to take field trips in pursuit of answers.

“Someone asked, ‘If you bought one of everything at McDonald’s, how much would it cost?’” Futerfas said. “So I got up, left the office, walked down to the McDonald’s on Forbes and took pictures of the whole menu. Then I came back and calculated it out.”

Today, it costs around $140 to buy one of everything at McDonald’s.

 

A family of answers

 

Not all Telefact calls were so frivolous. According to former staffers, Telefact soon became a valuable repository of insider knowledge and traditions for new Pitt students.

“We revived rubbing the panther statue’s nose [outside the William Pitt Union],” Mormak said. “We’d say, ‘Oh, if you’re going to take an exam, rub the panther’s nose for good luck, or step on home plate in Posvar.’”

Telefact’s quirky T-shirt advertisements, which featured bizarre questions from throughout Telefact history, soon became a Pitt tradition in their own right.

“My favorite T-shirt ever was from my freshman year,” Jess Edelstein, another Telefact alum, now 26, said. “It said, ‘What happens if I plug in my cat?’ and then on the back, ‘Some questions don’t have answers. For everything else, there’s Telefact.’”

“I liked the idea, it was kind of a secret society,” Edelstein, who graduated in 2011 and is now a realtor and startup cofounder in Philadelphia, said.

Even the Telefact office’s location was a closely guarded secret. Until it ceased operations, few Pitt students knew the organization worked out of a small room in the Union.

“No one knew where the office was,” Edelstein said. “I had friends who would stalk me on my way to work to find the Telefact office. I would take people there as their birthday present.”

 

The beginning of the end

 

While salaries for Telefact staffers varied over the hot line’s two-decade lifespan, Giangarlo said working at Telefact was widely acknowledged to be the best-paying student job available — and that the high pay rate was justified, thanks to Telefact’s selectivity and commitment to answering every question, no matter how difficult. Because Telefact was a job, students could apply for a position online. On average, Telefact spent about 90 percent of its allocated money on student salaries.

When it came to funding, Telefact held a privileged position in the hierarchy of student groups. A former “formula group,” Telefact automatically received 3.4 percent of the Student Activities Fund, a multi-million dollar fund collected from each undergraduate Student Activity Fee.

In 2013, when the fund contained $2.3 million, Telefact got about $78,200 to pay its 16 to 20 employees for the academic year.

The majority of this funding went to employees’ salaries, The Pitt News reported in 2013 when SGB voted to defund the service.

In the Telefact office stood the Competition Board, a whiteboard with a list of universities, such as Bowling Green, which offered competing fact-hot line services. The Competition Board was supposed to motivate Telefact employees, but as smartphones became commonplace and call numbers started to decline, it became a sign of the times.

“One day, someone got up, crossed out all those names and just wrote ‘SMARTPHONES,’” Futerfas said.

Telefact received about 100,000 calls per year during the 2008-2009 academic year, but by the spring of 2013, that number had dropped by 97 percent. Mormak, who coordinated Telefact in 2012 and 2013, struggled to keep the service alive as interest dwindled.

“I never had time to stress about what I was going to do as coordinator,” Mormak said. “I spent all my time trying to save the service.”

After more than a year of discussion, SGB voted in April 2013 to remove Telefact’s status as a formula group, effectively stripping the hot line of its funding.

“I was shocked,” Edelstein said. “It was such an institution. Everyone knew about it.”

On April 26, 2013, Telefact tweeted, “Sad to say, we’ve been defunded effective today at 5. Write SGB or Student Life to ask for us back! Keep your eyes peeled for our #comeback.”

That optimism eventually proved unfounded. In another tweet, Telefact stated it was “trying to find a way to stay open,” but by May 1, it had ceased operations entirely.

Even after the defunding, Mormak tried to keep Telefact alive. Among other last-ditch alternatives, she proposed running the service as an online search engine-like tool.

“I crafted a full proposal, complete with a 60 to 80 percent decrease in our operating budget and submitted it to [then-Vice Provost and Dean of Students] Kathy Humphrey and [then-Associate Dean of Students and Director of Student Life] Kenyon Bonner,” Mormak said. “I never heard back.”

By 2013, Pitt didn’t have any qualms about cutting Telefact’s funding.

“Telefact served its purpose well for its time,” Pitt spokesperson John Fedele said in an email. “But Pitt and the SGB agreed that we could no longer justify spending manpower and finances on a program that became obsolete with the ubiquitous rise in powerful, free, online search engines.”

 

The answers live on

 

Today, Telefact alumni look back on their time at the hot line with nostalgia.

“I’m not surprised it shut down, but I’m sad to hear it,” Futerfas, who currently works as a technical services consultant in Madison, Wisconsin, said. “It was a unique college job, the sort of opportunity you’ll never have again.”

Still, better option or not, its former employees acknowledge that the world has changed and that Telefact is gone for good.

“A few years from now, it’ll be so strange to tell people, ‘Oh, my college job was to Google things for people,’” Edelstein said.

Telefact’s official Twitter account (@Telefact) struggled along for a while after the service lost funding, sending out mournful messages like “Who still misses us?” on Oct. 20, 2013 and “Today would have been our 23rd birthday, we miss you all!” on Aug. 1, 2013. But even that activity ceased eventually. Telefact sent its last tweet on April 27, 2014, exactly one year and one day after Telefact was defunded.

Today, the official biography for the @Telefact account reads, “We were a free fact line at the University of Pittsburgh, with the resources to answer your questions. Then smartphones came along and we became obsolete.”

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Don’t forget the answers: A Telefact retrospective