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Jelly App Gives Immediate -- But Not Always Informative -- Answers

Mobile app Jelly creates a loose social network from which you can draw short answers to any question.

What should I make for dinner tonight?

What are your thoughts on fracking?

What year did this old computer come out?

These are just a few of the questions I’ve asked or seen other people ask this week on Jelly. Jelly is a free, mobile-only app for iOS and Android that lets users pose the most random of questions to the Internet and get answers within minutes — sometimes seconds.

It was created by Ben Finkel and Biz Stone, a Twitter co-founder. The two worked on Jelly for several months in stealth mode, creating an only-in-the-tech-universe mystique around an app named after an amorphous sea creature.

After testing Jelly for over a week, during which I posted about a dozen questions and answered several others, I’m pretty intrigued by it. And I’ll probably keep using it to feel it out. There’s a certain type of visual question — i.e., What kind of plant is this? — that really lends itself to Jelly.

But right now, Jelly isn’t for every question. At its best, it actually can be helpful or informative. At its worst, it’s inane.

As with Twitter updates or Facebook statuses, some people contribute silly or amusing content rather than helpful or prescriptive stuff — but unlike other apps, you can’t select whom you follow or get answers from. Jelly also requires that users post a picture with every question, and some pictures aren’t illustrative of the questions being asked.

As other users have rightly pointed out, sometimes a quick search online will give you a better answer than Jelly will.

And there are some features I’d still like to see added to the app — a search function or profiles, for example.

If you haven’t tried Jelly yet, here’s how it works: You download the app to your mobile device and, while signing up, are prompted to link to your Facebook or Twitter account, or both.

Jelly then uses your social networks to create a kind of Q&A roulette. You might see questions and answers from your friends on Facebook, but more often I saw posts from friends of friends on Facebook. The same goes with Twitter connections: You may see Jelly content from people you follow, but you also might see content from the people who they follow.

You can also opt to share your location, but the company says it isn’t using this data in its algorithm yet.

The main screen of Jelly is a photo-capture screen. Here’s where you snap a photo with your smartphone, select one from your camera roll, or use Google Images. You’ll be prompted to ask a question, limited to 240 characters. You can add a link to the question, or scribble on the photo using a “draw” tool, adding notations or emoticons. Then you send the question into the Jelly-verse.

The other side of Jelly is the “Can You Help?” part. Here you’re shown a series of question cards, all attached to photos, from other users. As I mentioned, these are often people two or three degrees away from your immediate friends in your social networks.

If you know the answer, you can post an answer, which is visible to everyone on Jelly. If you don’t know the answer but you appreciate the question, you can “star” it. If you would rather not ever see that question again, you can swipe the card down to the bottom of the app screen, and away it goes.

Finally, the app has a notification center where you can see who has answered your questions, or who thought your answers were good.

Often when I posted a question, I would get an answer within a minute or two. For example, one night at the market, I posted a picture of chicken and asked the Jelly-verse for favorite chicken recipes. By the time I left the store, I had about a dozen answers. Some posted legitimate recipes, with or without links; one person used the draw tool to cross out the chicken and write on the photo, “No. Veg[egetarian].”

On another occasion, I was debating whether to go for a run or take a nap. I know! I thought. I’ll ask Jelly. So I went to pose the question. But I had to take a picture first. So I took a picture of my Under Armour socks. Gripping stuff, right? In either case, the majority consensus on Jelly was that I should go for the run, then take a nap later.

And, in an attempt to test Jelly beyond the frivolous, I once posted a picture of a sign that read, “Don’t Frack California,” and asked Jelly for people’s opinions. Shortly afterwards, I had 28 wildly divergent answers. In general, the more visual the question was, the better the answers.

Sometimes, a brand might pop up with a question. Last week, I saw question cards posted by Toms Shoes and CNBC. (Disclosure: The business network’s parent company is an investor in this site.) Jelly co-founder Biz Stone told me that Lowe’s has been making an effort to answer questions related to home-improvement projects.

When I saw a question pop up from an actual friend or close colleague, I would always want to answer those. It’s this randomness that makes Jelly kind of fun.

But the lack of search can also make Jelly feel like it’s trying to trick you into this never-ending loop of questions you don’t (now that you think about it) actually care about. If I want to search directly for those Lowe’s home-improvement tips — maybe I want to know how to hang a TV on the wall — I don’t have the ability to do that within the app.

Amazingly, there are no privacy settings. There isn’t an option for connecting with people directly through the app, the way Twitter offers direct messaging. You can send a generic “thanks” to someone, but you can’t customize your response. One of my friends said this week that she wished she could send a quick note to someone who answered a question about keeping plants alive, but you can’t do that in the app, either.

And there are indeed instances in which Jelly isn’t ideal: Where you might be more inclined to search Google or other topic-specific websites. That night when I was looking for chicken recipes? I ended up Googling it. Some people turn to Facebook, or even Quora, another question-and-answer service, for more in-depth answers.

But Jelly is worth a try if you’re looking for a lightweight, fast-moving Q&A app and you don’t mind the loose social connections or sometimes-flippant responses.

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