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Prank calls turn educational in Ohio State students’ new website

March 3, 2014

hollar.38@osu.edu
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A screenshot of ewakz.com, a web app developed by four OSU students in which the user can send a Wikipedia article, custom message or urbandictionary.com definition to the recipient of a valid phone number.
Credit: Screenshot of ewakz.com

When you think of pranks children might pull, some classics probably come to mind: throwing toilet paper over a neighbor’s house, for example, or making prank calls.

Prank calls might have been set back by the adoption of caller ID, but now four second-year computer science students at Ohio State have reimagined the classic prank with a new web app.

Abby Benedict, Jeff Casavant, Max Buck and Erik Thiem are the minds behind ewakz.com, a website they developed at BoilerMake, a “hackathon” at Purdue University. BoilerMake is a contest where independent teams come together to develop web, mobile, desktop or hardware projects.

The premise of the web app is simple: When you visit ewakz.com, you can enter a topic (an example on the website is Russian history) and a phone number, and Ewakz will call the number you entered and read the corresponding Wikipedia article on the subject you chose.

It’s not just Wikipedia, though; one can also send, via ewakz.com, pickup lines, custom messages and definitions from urbandictionary.com to other people.

“It’s a weird mix between useful and a prank call,” Buck said. Given that the users of ewakz.com send messages anonymously, the service might potentially be used to bother others.

Eventually, though, Buck said he hopes that mix skews toward useful.

“Say I want to read ‘The New Yorker’ — but I’ve got more important things to do, like make pancakes,” he said. He wants Ewakz to be a solution.

Currently, the web app is mostly used for sending Wikipedia articles, Casavant said.

The name, which Benedict admits sounds like “earwax,” has nothing to do with the service being offered, she said.

“(The name is) Erik’s fault,” Casavant said.

Thiem agreed. “I’m always Erik with a k — or ewak,” he said.

And at 3 a.m. the night before the hackathon, when they were sleep-deprived and everything was funny, that was a “really clever” name, Buck said.

But ewak.com wasn’t available, so ewakz.com — or the plural of Ewak — was born.

It costs Ewakz two cents each time it makes a call, Thiem said. It is free to use, and in the web app’s first 10 days, around 1,500 calls were made from about 550 users.

That amounts to roughly $30 in phone calls that users had not paid for. The money came from Twilio, an internet phone company based in San Francisco, Calif that Ewakz uses as its phone call service. Ewakz uses Twilio to make calls, and Ewakz was credited $50 by Twilio during BoilerMake for testing purposes.

Plans for monetizing the web app — or even for funding the calls once the original $80 is gone — are still nebulous, Buck said.

“We want to sell it to Facebook for $4 billion,” Thiem said, laughing.

More seriously, Thiem said they might introduce ads or begin charging a small fee for using Ewakz as expenses increase with more users.

Ben Stanseski, a second-year in aviation and a beta tester of Ewakz, said he thinks the web app will catch on because of its simplicity.

“The ability to send whatever information you want, to whomever you want, provides the most appeal to people,” he said. “Especially when it is as easy to use as Ewakz.”

Currently, the recipient of a call from Ewakz has no way of knowing who sent the message unless the sender identifies him or herself via a custom message. The four developers acknowledged that the anonymity of the web app can allow for misuse of the service.

There has already been one reported instance of “bullying,” Thiem said. Their current solution is to prevent the recipient of the “bullying” from receiving future calls from Ewakz — a solution they’re admittedly not fond of, Buck said.

Moving forward, the creators have considered requiring users to log in to use Ewakz as a measure against misuse, Buck said. No login feature had been added as of Monday evening.

Stanseski said he doesn’t think abuse will become a problem, however.

“There is a slight concern there,” he said. “But I think people will use it more for fun than for harassment.”

Future features, like a required login, a means of monetizing the web app or the development of a “native app” — one that can be downloaded on to a smartphone via an app store — are still being worked out by the group.


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  1. Erik Thiem says:

    I would like to send a big thank you to The Lantern for publishing this. I hope that everyone who reads this article tries out our website. Please leave any feedback here or send us an email so that we can work to improve it. And most importantly, have fun!

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