Jelly App: It Does What Others Already Can, Slightly Better

Rummaging through junk questions and stealth-marketing may be the app's biggest weakness.

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Jelly Industries

Jelly the app, like real jelly after I smear it on a pancake for my 17-month-old, seems a bit of a mess at first blush. In my time futzing with it this morning, it’s mostly annoyed me with awkward non-questions, or made me suspicious of questions that look like stealth ads.

But let’s talk about what it is, first: a new search-related app unveiled on Tuesday from Jelly Industries — the name of ex-Twitter-ite Biz Stone’s stealth 2012 startup. Jelly (the app) is apparently what Stone’s been working on all this time.

You know how sometimes you take a picture with your phone or tablet, then post it to Facebook or Twitter or Instagram or Snapchat with a question like “What’s this goofy thing supposed to be?” There’s now an app that piggybacks on your social networks to do…well, just that: an additional standalone layer that lives between you and your Facebook- or Twitter-verse, designed to encapsulate snapshots of the world around you with queries that can plumb the social networks of your friends (and friends of friends) for answers.

Jelly Industries is marketing the app with predictably highfalutin rhetoric: “It’s not hard to imagine that the true promise of a connected society is people helping each other,” reads the buzzy homepage pitch. The twist, or at least Jelly Industries seems to think it’s a twist, is that instead of search-engining your way to solutions, you’re relying on whatever someone decides to type in response to a question. “Knowledge is the practical application of information from real human experience,” says Jelly Industries. That’s certainly one definition.

In theory, Jelly isn’t a bad idea. The idea that I might get the answer I need from an experienced human mind instead of a rote computer algorithm, however sophisticated, makes intuitive sense. Just the other day, I tweeted something about the “Polar Vortex” media craze, implying it was another buzzy creation of The Weather Channel; a few moments later, one of my followers, who lists “meteorology” as an interest in his profile, replied “Polar Vortex is a real meteorological thing.” A quick double-check and sure enough, I’d learned that the terms “Polar Vortex” and “Sharknado” aren’t from the same conceptual genus. (The media’s been having its cake and eating it, in other words.)

So Jelly has the potential to be a wellspring of information, a repository of answers you’ll never be able to glean from a non-sentient search engine. But it also has the potential to be wrong, or incredibly stupid, or just plain boring.

My early experience with Jelly hasn’t been promising. The first question I chanced on seemed legitimate but hopelessly open-ended: something about what Jelly’s arrival means for Quora, which of course entails the sort of dissertation-length reply you’re going to want to provide using a tablet or smartphone while on the go. The second question from a friend of that friend was more insidious: was I using Google Plus Analytics for my business, and would I please provide the URL? A quick background check — you can click on the social network profile of each person asking a question — confirmed it was from someone who handles brand management for Google.

What’s to stop marketers and so-called “grass roots” organizers from turning Jelly into another ad-and-agenda-littered minefield? Nothing. Well something, I suppose, if you count your ability to dismiss a question with a downward swipe. I appreciate Jelly’s directness in that regard. There’s no need to click something (like an ad) first, or answer a minimum number of questions to ask one. Once dismissed, Jelly informs me you’ll never see a question again. But you can’t un-see those stealth marketing questions, since by definition you have to read to suss them, and maybe even expend extra time background checking (if the person’s being especially clever) to deduce whether they’re really asking for help or just trying to lure you somewhere.

Thus far, I’ve only stumbled on a few interesting questions in my personal feed. Most of the people I follow apparently think Jelly’s a comedy app, a place to snark or go for a laugh. There’s someone asking whether to make tea or coffee. There’s another asking what some person lying on a couch in repose is doing. It’s a little like a quasi-realtime version of the New Yorker‘s cartoon caption contest.

And where I have chanced on a “genuinely interesting” question, say one like “What happens to the thousands of discarded Christmas trees in New York City?”, the answers are just a click away — on the web. In fact, I worry that our dependence on search engines to get answers to any question, including ones asked on Jelly, winds up contaminating Jelly’s answer-verse. What’s stopping someone who doesn’t know the answer to a question on Jelly but wants to be helpful by typing it into a search engine, then grafting the answer back into Jelly’s preserve?

There’s an old-school self-corrective of sorts: As with replies in Facebook, you can thumbs-up an answer (in Jelly’s vernacular, you mark it as “Good”), and you can opt to share either questions or answers with specific people in your virtual rolodex by tweeting, emailing or texting.

I suppose there’s some allure in getting answers from people you’re supposed to trust (that is, assuming you’re not using your social network as a self-promotional platform), though the friends-of-friends aspect complicates things. And there’s the more important question, which I was hinting at when I described Jelly as a layer that sits between you and your social networks: Why wouldn’t you just use your social network directly? Jelly feels superfluous to me, something that exists less to improve or even distill a process than piggyback on one.

As this point, unless you’re an on-the-go comedian, or patient enough to forage through piles of intellectual (and much of it decidedly sub-intellectual) as well as stealth-marketing detritus, or just into fiddling with shiny new things (like me), I can’t recommend Jelly as a serious problem-solving tool. But I’ll close by pointing you to someone who does: Steven Johnson, author of genuinely interesting books like Everything Bad Is Good for You and Where Good Ideas Come From, is much more bullish about the app (he’s been beta-testing it for a while). I recommend giving his take a read, though that gardening example he leads with? It had me doing this instead.