App lets you ask a question about something you’ve photographed. Are its limitations fatal?

A couple of weeks ago, around the same time that thousands were milling about in Las Vegas for the Consumer Electronics Show, some of the team behind Twitter launched a new app called Jelly. The concept behind the Andriod/iOS app is simple: take a picture and ask a question, and wait for the folks on your social networks (and their connections) to provide answers.

From one angle, this is nothing new; after all, people spit out questions on their social networks all the time with the hope of crowdsourcing the answers. And there are sites dedicated to getting answer to questions, with the most notable example being quora.com. So what’s the point of Jelly, then?

After playing around with Jelly for just over a week now, it seems like it’s designed to split the difference between these two question-asking options. If you shoot a question out directly to your social network, it will generally only end up in the eyes of friends/followers who happen to be online at the time, which limits its reach. On the other hand, sending it out on something like Quora will send it out to the whole world, and often generate a lot of serious and extensive answers.

Instead, Jelly puts your questions to your followers and their networks, and limits responses to a relatively short character count to prevent dissertations. But this is also one of its biggest problems.

In theory, Jelly’s Snap-a-Pic-and-Ask-a-Related-Question format seems like it could have a fantastic use case: asking your group of smart and worldly friends what the heck something is, when you can’t identify it. “What type of plant is this?” “What does this symbol mean?” “What’s this doohickey that just fell out of my car engine and do I need it to drive home?” Through this interface, you could interact with a large group of people and even companies, tapping into the expertise of your social group and their connections.

In practice, however, Jelly almost immediately devolved into a method of polling people about an endless procession of relative trivialities. “What item on this menu should I order for lunch?” “Seahawks or 49ers?” “If you had one day left on earth, what would you do?” (That’s when it wasn’t filled with ridiculous test posts asking questions like “What is this?” attached to a picture of their foot, or “Who is this?” next to a photo of their annoyed co-worker.)

There are probably a few reasons for this, with the chief reason being the lack of any real tools for filtering out junk.

The character restriction in the answer field – while not quite as restrictive as Twitter’s 140-character count – still dissuades any in-depth responses, which seems to have led to a lot of glibness. And of course there are tons of people who either answer questions with “I don’t know”, a completely incorrect answer, or pointless trolling. In fact, one Jelly user went out of his way to answer every question he could find with “feta cheese”, an endeavor which was either epic trolling, an attempt to make a point about the lack of junk filtering on Jelly, or possibly both.

The Jelly app’s interface could also be a big reason that the question stream has been taken over by seemingly pointless mundanities rather than actual requests for hard knowledge.

When questions from your network come up, you can either answer them or swipe them away if you don’t have the answer; essentially, you’re being forced to make an instant judgment on whether you can answer the question, and once you’ve swiped it away, you won’t see it again unless you’ve starred it (which is a request to follow the answers).

The questions come up seemingly at random, with no ability to filter by subject matter, to avoid questions by nuisance users, or to go back to previous questions you may have dismissed by mistake. I’ve found that I drift into a less-engaged state of mind, swiping away questions like I’m trying to get through a level of Candy Crush Saga, rather than trying to determine whether my knowledge can be helpful. Swipe, swipe. Level complete.

Of course, this gamification of Jelly is part of what’s supposed to make it interesting for people who find the text-heavy Quora to be a snooze (or worse, intimidating). Answer a question well, and fellow users may rank your answer as “good”; if the original asker likes your answer, they can send you a “thank you” card.

It’s all designed to push the same psychological buttons as getting “likes” on Facebook, which makes you want to keep playing. Again, that doesn’t necessarily encourage incisive answers, just more answers. And if snarky, glib answers get attention, that just means there will be more of them.

This is just the first version of the app, so it’s hard to make any definitive judgment on it just yet. If Jelly is smart, it will give users a way to categorize questions and filter (or downvote) both questions and other users; otherwise the service will have little hope of being more than a playground for smart people with bad attitudes (and some time to kill).

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