Biz Stone Banking on Altruism
It's launch day for the startup Twitter co-founder Biz Stone has been working on for most of 2013. It's called Jelly, and in a blog post the company announced the new search-engine app works by letting people ask questions based on images--and by tapping social networks, currently including Facebook and Twitter, to find answers. "Jelly changes how we find answers because it uses pictures and people in our social networks."
It adds: "Also, it has the added benefit of being fun."
Stone founded the company in San Francisco in April along with Ben Finkel, who is a former Twitter engineer-manager and who is functioning as Jelly's CTO. The company's name and logo are inspired by the jellyfish, "because it has a loose network of nerves that act as a 'brain' similar to the way we envision loosely distributed networks of people coordinating via Jelly to help each other," the company writes on its site.
Download the app on iOS or Android, and you'll find a navigation that's kind of intuitive and fun. Similar to Instagram, it prompts a user to use her phone camera to take a photo, crop, and reframe an image before uploading it. It strays from Instagram in that it allows one to draw on top of the image, and encourages the user to ask a specific question.
Resting at the bottom of the screen are questions from other users. Tap there and something new pops up for you, say, a question asking for birthday party ideas for an 8-year-old. Can't answer it, or don't want to? You just swipe slightly down the screen, and it down to watch it tumble away. You'll never see the question again, the app promises.
"Does anyone know what kind of fish this is supposed to be?" asked Josh Elman, a partner at Greylock Partners, introduced to me as a friend of "Matt," who is Matt Galligan, the founder of Circa. (Reid Hoffman with the Greylock Discovery Fund invested. In fact, the investor tally is rather star-studded: Evan Williams, U2 frontman Bono, and former Vice President Al Gore each contributed to a round of funding raised in May.)
The company is probably banking on not just altruism, but the power of the connections that will be fostered on the app. It allows not just individuals with whom a user shares a direct social-media connection to answer questions, but also secondary connections--which broadens a question's reach.
It begs the question: Is this just Quora lite? Gawker snarked that it's "Yahoo! Answers for the bourgeoisie." For now, the quality of questions being asked does seem a little trite compared to the (at least occasional) intellectual heft Quora can bring. Recent posts from my networks include: "What kind of dog is this?" with a picture of a mutt (a dozen answers revealed nothing useful), and "What is this?" with a picture of bottle of well-labeled hand sanitizer. (One answer on that one: "Shut up Steve.")
Inherent silliness aside, perhaps it's interesting that the company is billing itself not as a social query app, but rather as a search engine. While there's certainly a limited utility in the simple act of taking a photo of an unknown object and hoping to find an answer to what it is (I can think of just one time in the past several years I've actively wanted to do this), there might be broader applications for image search in the future. Jelly might just be Stone and Finkel's test lab for image identification and search. Or a social network that is actually based on conversations, rather than one-direction pronouncements. Now that would be interesting.
CHRISTINE LAGORIO-CHAFKIN | Staff Writer | Senior Writer
Christine Lagorio-Chafkin is a writer, editor, and reporter whose work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Village Voice, and The Believer, among other publications. She is a senior writer at Inc.