Twitter co-founder Biz Stone on launching Q&A app Jelly
When a message needs to be delivered, everybody from President Rouhani of Iran to unemployed hairdressers uses Twitter. But now co-founder Biz Stone has perhaps an even better business idea.
His new app, Jelly, lets people use their social networks to help each other. “If helping just means tapping a finger on the glass on our phone, we’ll do it,” Stone tells Metro.
Metro: Do you think the world needs another social network?
Stone: No, I don’t. I think we have plenty, but I don’t think Jelly is a social network. We take your existing networks and blend them into one. The reason we do that is not that we think the world needs another social network, but because we think that the world is at its most connected point ever.
Remember the proverbial six degrees of separation that we’ve all been talking about? Recent studies show that it’s down to four. And it’s precisely because of this supersaturated superconnectivity that something like Jelly can exist. The premise of Jelly is for people to help each other.
On Jelly’s site it reads “it’s who you know, not what you know.” But isn’t knowledge the currency of our society?
Of course we have to know things, but what I was trying to get at was this idea that you and your general circle pretty much know about the same sort of things. But then there’s that one friend who has an acquaintance who is a lawyer. He or she may not be someone you hang out with, but that lawyer is tied into his or her own whole network of friends who know a completely different section of stuff that is new and informative to your group.
So, when you do have a question that your friends all shrug at, Jelly allows everybody in your group to forward that question on to his or her personal contact list. Then it jumps to a whole new pool of people, and that’s how you get that perfect answer for how to fix the alarm system at your house, for example. Our idea is that there’s this incredible strength in those weak ties.
So you’re trying to make social networks useful rather than a repository of updates?
For the past 10 years, we’ve been adding friends and collecting followers. That’s fine, but people don’t have a long-term strategy when they click the follow button on Instagram. But I had this feeling that when lots of people start doing something, it’s not purely coincidental. It’s as if we’re unconsciously moving to a point where something else can happen – by becoming the most connected society we’ve ever been.
What’s society’s role then?
When I left Twitter, I just kept thinking about that. And when we finally came up with Jelly, I couldn’t help but think that the true premise of a connected society is people helping each other. You can play a game with someone online, but the really important thing is: what if we could just help each other? I think that’s the real answer to why we’ve become so connected.
Is Jelly a toy or a tool?
It’s both. If it’s a tool but not a toy, you will not use it on a regular basis or have that muscle memory to use it when you have a real question. So there’s an element of play involved. You can draw on the photo and do other things that aren’t necessary to getting your answer but nonetheless make it fun to fiddle around with.
It’s early yet, but we’re seeing three types of questions coming through the system. The first type are recommendations, so asking your friends things like, ‘I’m here in New York City at such and such address and would like to have some good food. What do you recommend?’ Then you wait for three minutes and someone might respond, ‘Walk three blocks south, there’s my favorite restaurant.’ A second use is identification: ‘Is this snake poisonous?’ And finally, we see troubleshooting: ‘How do I set up this PlayStation?’
The identification part has the potential of becoming a visual Wikipedia. Will you have a verification system?
It’s one of the million ideas we have, but I wouldn’t say we’re planning on it. The list of things we plan to do is still incredibly short, because we only have eight people and not very much time. Our priority right now is to get more good questions. Certification of experts is one of those things that would be wonderful, but we’re nowhere near that yet.
With Twitter and Jelly, you’ve had at least two great ideas, and probably many other ones I’m not familiar with. How do you get your ideas?
Mostly by talking to other smart people. I make it a habit to do what I call ‘walk-and-talks’ with wonderful, fantastic people like [Twitter co-founders] Jack Dorsey and Evan Williams. They happen to be my friends, but I also meet with people who are not as famous. We have on our schedule to meet once a week and have lunch or simply walk around the city. We can walk, joke around, and sometimes start talking about really important things.
One of my favorite people to do this with is Ben Finkel, who is now my co-founder at Jelly. One day, I don’t know why, I was thinking about [Google’s] Larry Page and Sergey Brin building the first really important search engine. I said to Ben, ‘Can you imagine if we had to do that? I know nothing about computer science!’
But then I took it seriously. I thought to myself, ‘What if people locked us up in a room and said that we’d have to find a way for people to give answers?’ Then I thought that Jelly should not be a website, but a mobile device. Mobile phones are the hyperlinks of humanity. We all hold them in our hands, and they have the emails and phone numbers of everyone we know. After going back and forth, Ben and I thought, ‘This could work.’
How will you make it do so?
It hinges on whether people are willing to help each other, and I believe they are. If you ask someone if they’re willing to help fix a car, most of us would think, ‘No, the guy could be crazy.’ But if it’s just tapping a finger on the glass on our phone, we’ll do it.
And I don’t just have that hunch. I know it to be true because 15 years of building collaborative networks have shown that people are more good than bad. We can’t have cities and companies if we’re not willing to help each other.
And once we built Jelly, we got the proof that we were right, because we’ll have more answers than questions. People want to help more than they want help.