Why I think Jelly should succeed and why I’m excited about its potential

Ask Jelly

For almost as long as the Internet has existed there have been attempts to connect those who have questions to the right answers. More recently the moves have been to identify those people who are qualified to provide those answers and rank them accordingly.

Google toyed with Authorship which aimed to link individuals to their work on the web thus building greater influence in topics for which they were considered experts.

Bing included articles from “People who know” in the sidebar of search results linking to authors (mainly journalists) who had written pieces relevant to your query.

Quora is the leading Q&A service on the web which seeks to use its community to modify and fact check both questions and answers to provide “the definitive answer for everybody forever” – a bold statement.

And now there is Jelly. Again.

After the relaunch of Jelly, some have been asking why it is even called a search engine when it is appears to be more a Q&A service like Quora, albeit with the intention of being much simpler to use.

Jelly combines technology with humanity, using an element of AI to route questions to relevant topics and, therefore, people who are most likely to provide an answer.

But this is only the beginning.

In an email sent to users Biz Stone advises that “this is just the beginning of some very ambitious plans” so, I could be very wrong, but I’d like to lay out how I envisage Jelly could grow and develop.

Q&A or Search?

Jelly is currently inefficient, its largely human approach and lack of search beyond asking a question mean the same queries get made again and again leaving many to go without a response. As such, the system will need to develop to reduce duplication and provide better answers.

You may be wondering “what’s the point of a search engine without a search function?” but if Jelly is able to achieve what I think it can then you won’t need input beyond asking a question – the system will do the rest for you.

The difference between a search engine and a Q&A service is that the former needs a database to pull its answers from so, to begin with, usage will help to populate that database.

We are currently in the data collection phase: Jelly is learning about who we are, what we know and are interested in, but it will also be learning answers to common questions. More on this later.

Expertise

Although you are not required to fill out an extensive profile you are advised to select the topics that interest you so that questions can be routed correctly. But this is only half the story.

Rather than a traditional search engine, Jelly is actually building an expertise engine using your answers as a guide. The system learns more about you the more answers you provide but it has a secret weapon in its arsenal – marking answers as helpful.

How “helpful” you are is the only publicly visible metric and, I’d wager, is also going to power aspects of the service going forward. Luckily, it is a metric which cannot be gamed as it is determined by the person who asked the question.

Jelly is designed to connect those asking questions to other human beings who have direct knowledge, experience or opinion rather than returning a sea of blue links which leave users to fend for themselves. It still, however, needs to deal with the inefficiency I mentioned above.

Automation may seem counter to the central idea but the Jellybot already auto-responds to certain items – mainly those that appear to be test questions or basic queries about the service itself, but even over the past days I have seen it respond increasingly often. Maybe it’s just that more people are asking questions, or maybe it’s because it is learning.

Automation

Jelly may want to enable answers from real people with similar experience or first hand knowledge, but as the service grows it is likely to become impractical for this to always occur in real time – question asked, question answered. This is where the helpful measure comes in to play.

Currently, the AI routes questions to those most likely able to answer them and the system will be learning. Answers which are marked as helpful are, no doubt, weighted to assist the AI in routing but, in future, helpful answers may power further automation. There is no reason that common, consistent answers to frequently asked questions cannot be returned automatically by the AI with a good deal of accuracy.

Common questions still receive relevant, insightful, human replies but those replies are instant, improving the user experience and leaving those answering questions free to tackle the more unique queries.

But not all questions are the same or seek the same type of response – this is why Biz advised that Jelly might be the only search engine that “can say you asked the wrong question” or “give you answers you wanted but didn’t think to ask.” Being helpful is not the only criteria that may be at play.

When providing an answer you can also fill out a “How do you know” box to demonstrate why you are qualified to do so. This might allow Jelly to distinguish between:
– academic knowledge (I have a degrees in x)
– eye witness reports (I was there when)
– opinion or conjecture

Consequently, different answer types can have weighting and we could potentially be offered those different types based on how we word our questions and the type of questions we seek.

But what about search?

It’s a search engine so shouldn’t it, like, have search? Well, this is where things can get very interesting if they head the direction I feel they could.

Jelly is human “powered” search but that is quite a loose term in the current context. Yes, we ask questions and get one or more responses but this still conforms more to the Q&A model – until you start linking questions to historic data.

What if, in addition to automated responses after posting Jelly was to drastically reduce question duplication by pointing the user to existing responses before they even submit the questions to the stream? The AI could scan the question, identify if it is sufficiently common and immediately suggest a number of answers – all relevant, all written by real people just not in real time.

If the answers provided do not sufficiently answer the question, or the question is unique enough not to have reliably accurate answers available, it will then get routed to those best suited to answer.

One point of input but multiple potential outcomes.

No need for a secondary search feature.

Human powered

Human powered means to be powered by opinion, feeling, emotion and bias – it is not always A → B. Human powered means grey areas and fuzzy logic.

What if one answer isn’t always right? What if we are automatically presented with alternatives, opinions, discussion points? What if the AI could scan questions and (based on their nature) link them to, not only the right answers, but also the most thought provoking? What if the AI can cross link related questions allowing to explore a topic more deeply than from our limited question?

Being able to interact with those answering questions by way of comments allows us to set additional context or suggest counterpoints so that data may become almost as important as the answer itself.

I may be getting way ahead of myself here.

Too much?

Not knowing how advanced the Jelly AI is I don’t know how much of this is possible or how long it would take to get there. Although Biz says that this is just the start I also don’t know if the degree of AI involvement would even be on the roadmap or is anathema to Jelly’s whole concept.

Either way, providing we get past the initial shiny new toy stage, I can see great things ahead for Jelly.

Why I think Jelly should succeed and why I’m excited about its potential

Here is the news

Twitter is news

When I first saw that Twitter had changed its App Store classification from social network to news my immediate reaction – no doubt like many others – was that this was an act of desperation. But the more I considered it the more I thought that the change made sense.

First, someone asked on Jelly:

“Why Twitter can’t add more users?”

My reply began:

“Non-users just don’t understand what it is meant to be/for and Twitter hasn’t been able to adequately explain it to them.”

Next, Marshall Kirkpatrick tweeted:

“Twitter is news (and social) and you are a news maker (and commentator)”

This triggered a light bulb moment and it all came together with something else I’ve been suggesting for years: that Twitter users should be presented with news or events and be encouraged to “comment” (tweet) on them just as they would leave a comment on a more traditional news article.

Moments is an ideal vehicle for this.

Not a social network

Twitter has not considered itself a social network for years – Evan Williams described it as an “information network”, but, as illustrated by the recent emphasis on live, it is actually a news and current affairs network. We have, after all, been saying that news breaks on Twitter for some considerable time.

Live, real-time, current affairs, news – it all points to an attempt to explain exactly what a Twitter is and is for. If Twitter has a user growth problem because people don’t understand it, or why they would ever need to use it, then a concerted effort needs to be made to remedy this.

But this cannot be achieved by merely weaving a new narrative, although that is a very important part of the way forward. No, Twitter’s story must be backed up with meaningful product changes that reflect that narrative as well as making users realise that they are helping to tell and shape the news.

Change

Ever since Chris Sacca’s open letter to Twitter, users (and investors) have been wanting the service made easier to use, to have more widespread appeal, and for the company to have the courage to change. There have been some steps in the right direction, but they have not yet gone far enough – the stalled user growth is evidence this.

Moments, the algorithmic placing of tweets, gifs, having Periscope videos in the feed, they are good ideas and all show potential, yet they are obviously not enough. Moments can be further enhanced by making them more interactive and why can we still not start a Periscope session from directly within the Twitter app?

There are fears that change will alienate the existing core of users. Nonsense! Twitter has already changed significantly and those core users are still here, tweeting like their lives depend on it. Further change does not have to kill the core experience, it can extend it, enhance and supplement it. Moments, for example, is already on its own tab so is free to grow and develop without affecting the main feed.

Denial

Maybe this is it and Twitter doesn’t need fixing, maybe it has reached its peak and we are all in denial. Maybe those billion accounts that signed up, cried out in despair and were suddenly silenced show that not enough people are interested in a service such as Twitter.

Maybe changing its App Store category is an act of desperation, a last ditch attempt to sell itself to the masses.

Personally, I’d like to think (hope) that it is a realisation; that the company will have the courage of its convictions and this is the beginning of that new narrative backed by meaningful change.

Here is the news

Panning for gold

Scratch pad

Is Twitter a digital, public scratch pad?

People use journals to unclutter the mind, discard the mental flotsam to free themselves to concentrate on what’s important. Yet they get called scratch pads, confused with those places that are supposed to be the birthplace of our plans and schemes.

How many ideas do we through out on Twitter that could grow into something more if we wrote them down somewhere and mulled them over?

How often do we go back over our tweets to find those sparks and reignite them, fan the flames until we have something deeper?

Don’t get me wrong, I love Twitter – over the past 10 years it has been the one network I always come back to. I may have stopped tweeting at times but the raw, real time nature of it always brings me back.
Still, I can’t help wondering how it affects me.

Distracted

We offload our thoughts to these outboard memories but never access them again. The stream flows on and the ideas are washed away with the banal, the laments, and the sewage.

Occasionally, someone may scour the stream and find a pearl of our wisdom like a prospector optimistically panning for gold, but when are we ever that prospector sifting through the muck for discarded nuggets in our own stream?

Panning for gold

An idea of its time

strawberryj.am
History is filled with instances of simultaneous invention, also known as multiple discovery, where more than one person or team arrives at the same point independently.

Classic examples are Newton and Wilhelm with calculus, Darwin and Wallace with evolution, or Bell and Gray with the telephone. It’s as though the answer was always there just waiting to be discovered and was destined to be found at that time.

But multiple discovery doesn’t always have to be simultaneous; it is possible for people to reach the same outcome independently at completely different times without being aware of, or influenced by, the other. This happens when something just makes sense and takes an existing situation to its logical conclusion.

From my own experience, one instance is the notion of channels on Twitter which I first proposed in 2011, was separately suggested by a Twitter engineer in 2012, attempted with Event Pages, and which we now see evolved into “followable” Moments.

But one example I’m surprised more people don’t mention is the invention of social link gathering services.

Nuzzel

Nuzzel has rapidly become a tour de force on the social web born out of the frustrations associated with content overload. Incredibly popular, loved by those who use it but it is not the first of its kind.

Strawberryj.am began in 2011 as a web based system to find and show only the most popular links shared by those you follow on Twitter with a count of how many shares each received. Sound familiar? It also let you search by specific users and hashtags. I used to use it all the time but, unfortunately, it did not survive and never emerged from beta.

I recently asked Jonathan Abrams, founder and CEO of Nuzzel, if Strawberryj.am had influenced its development but he was not aware of the previous service – to be fair, I think it did slip below a lot of people’s radar hence the lack of comparison between the two.

jonathan abrams twitter

Two services, extremely similar in function and purpose, so why should one succeed and the other die out?

Nuzzel has captured the imagination in a way its predecessor never could and I can think of three reasons why:

Users

In September 2011, around the time Strawberryj.am launched, Twitter reached 100 million global active users – less than a third of its currently reported MAUs. In comparison to other social networks, 300+ million is now considered small fry but, for an auxiliary service, there must be a tipping point that allows it to maintain sustainability; a point when the percentage of Twitter users that would utilise such a service is enough.

Nuzzel, however, also supports Facebook which instantly exposes it to a much larger audience of potential users, although I suspect that it curries greater favour amongst those who link it to Twitter.

Smartphones

Mobile has changed the world with smartphones giving life to so many apps that would not have otherwise existed. While both Strawberryj.am and Nuzzel started out as web based apps the latter’s native move to mobile devices has undoubtedly fuelled massive growth.

Although we were firmly in the grip of the mobile revolution back in 2011 the desktop web still controlled far more of our attention and the impact of mobile apps was not felt quite so keenly.

The rise of social news

RSS readers had been in decline for a while, with many preferring to source their news from their social networks, but they were far from dead. Google Reader closing in 2013 reinforced this move to social news which is a big shot in the arm for something like Nuzzel; it instantly boosts the percentage of users who are more likely to use such an auxiliary service.

Timelessness

Solutions are usually built in response to a particular need, often that need is an individual one that just happens to coincide with the need of others. When someone is not aware of an existing solution, but experiences the same pain points, it is not unusual for them to build a similar solution.

Some ideas are timeless and will succeed whatever the prevailing conditions but others, whilst being obvious in their need, require a specific set of circumstances to come to fruition. If conditions had been different in 2011 perhaps Strawberryj.am would have thrived and there would be no need for Nuzzel.

An idea of its time

Losing Your Voice

Voice
Being ill and losing your voice is incredibly frustrating, it makes it hard to speak, to be heard, to get your point across. Not to mention the pain.

It’s the same with writing.

We are told to find our voice, to find our natural rhythm and phrasing rather than trying to force a particular style. Once we find it writing becomes easier, we get into a flow and are able to write from the heart.

But when we lose our writing voice it is just as frustrating as losing our spoken one. Only being able to communicate in snippets; trying to get your points across when the words won’t flow, when all you can manage is broken sentences before your throat catches and the coughing takes over.

The slow road to recovery

I started this post a couple of months ago when ill and unable to utter little more than a squeak but the parallels between talking and writing were obvious.

Over the past year or so, I feel that I have lost my writing voice or, more accurately, become deaf to it. I think I got tired of “listening” to it day in, day out and chose to ignore it, block it out.

Just as it took a while to recover from the illness that made me lose my talking voice so it takes time to reconnect to the writing voice; to be willing to listen to it again and truly hear what it has to say.

It is almost like translating a foreign language – grasping words and sentence fragments here and there, snatches of meaning until the understanding grows allowing for a passable translation.

There is no Rosetta Stone and I am by no means fluent, not yet, but I recognise the voice more as my own.

Losing Your Voice

Writing and the Open Web

Open doorMuch has been written recently about the open web versus more closed, proprietary platforms with a particularly Orwellian cry of “open good, proprietary bad.”

It’s not quite that simple.

As Walk Mossberg wrote, the intersections between the two are becoming increasingly blurred with supposedly closed platforms created using ever more open technology and platforms hailed as open being built on proprietary code. This position is seen by some as not a true reflection of the open vs closed argument, that it is the end result that counts rather than any of the technologies employed.

Supporters of the open web call for standards allowing for interoperability between services, for movable data that can be housed in different systems because they all talk the same language.

Writing or publishing

Some just want to write and are not bothered about retaining control over the results or in owning their own domain (unlike 10 years ago) which is no doubt a response to the social web where we endlessly pump out our thoughts – largely for the good of the platform. They just want to write and not to publish.

Some see the upkeep of their own site as prohibitive, others decry the lack of network effects available to a blog on an increasingly social web. Even more just want to write and feel that services like Medium provide an environment where they don’t have to exert any other time and effort to getting their words out – the literary equivalent of Mark Zuckerberg’s wardrobe.

There is no doubt that writing on Medium has become fashionable, it has rapidly become the de facto standard for politicians, business leaders and celebrities. Now, people who might otherwise have considered starting a blog, or even those already with their own sites, look at what is happening and feel that if they put their words on a service which is seen to be synonymous with quality writing that they will instantly find an audience – a lot are realising that this isn’t the case.

Platform or Publisher

With Medium being both platform and publisher, with increasing aspirations towards the latter, there is a renewed hope that writers might get paid but the likelihood of this happening for the individual not attached to any significant publication are currently slim. Maybe this will change in future.

But the historical bastions of the closed web are starting to open up allowing for cross-posting by way of open systems; they may not be standards but they are the next best thing. These new tools, such as Facebook Instant Articles and the Medium posting API enable a “post once, publish many” environment allowing for the best of both worlds: local control coupled with enhanced distribution.

Full Circle

Because of this, we are almost heading full circle.

Blogging was previously the only option for most to publish their thoughts but the growth of the social web and its proprietary platforms made many (myself included) feel that they had to go to where the audience was.

Now, however, these new tools have started to negate those effects and the need for people to abandon their blogs. Now, we can write in our own space but take advantage of these platforms with no additional effort.

Frictionless movable data.

Modern platforms may seem like the new pillars of the internet, giant 2001-esque monoliths impervious to time and change, but platforms have died in the past. Do we want our work to die with them?

Writing and the Open Web

Distraction

BubbleThere are times when all you want to do is wrap yourself in a bubble and write, shut off from distraction in a zen-like state. Trying to create that bubble, however, becomes the problem itself.

Every noise is amplified, every interruption a hammer blow, all designed to stop you from entering that state.

More time is wasted finding new ways to craft the bubble than would be lost by taking a few moments to just refocus and calm the mind; you become your own engine of distraction.

The bubble cannot be forced. It is best to step away.

At least for now.

Distraction

Trouble at Mill

The Spanish InquisitionI wanted to write something erudite and pithy about the current state of affairs at Medium; about the arguments and how one event has been blown up out of all proportion into a huge, festering mess.

I wanted to but couldn’t find the words to demonstrate how exasperated the whole thing made me feel.

The accusations, the insults, the recriminations, the personal agendas; and that’s all after the event in an ongoing diatribe which has, sadly, diluted the original argument. It seems like one of those occasions where people end up fighting on principle but forget why they started fighting in the first place.

A discussion about plagiarism and “fair use” quickly devolved into a challenge of journalistic integrity before diving headlong into accusations of sexism initiated by those who feel they are helping but only serve to inflame an already incendiary situation whilst adding extra layers to this rather pungent onion that were never there to begin with.

People are upset, perhaps rightly so. They feel wronged but would rather continue mud-flinging than accept an official policy decision as final. They feel entitled so, when that decision doesn’t meet their expectations, they feel slighted, aggrieved.

Lines have been drawn and sides taken but this is no longer an us and them fight, it’s now them and them and them as more factions wade into battle incensed by some fraction of an argument taken entirely out of context.

To quote the sketch which gives this post its title, Medium has recently been feeling like a mill where “one of the cross beams has gone out askew on the treddle.”

Streams drowning in self-help posts allegedly surfaced by unfair algorithms have caused friction but arguments such as those currently blighting the service only exacerbate any perceived problems. Arguments that end up dividing and alienating the community which they claim to support. Arguments which are ultimately self-defeating. Arguments which drive others away from the that very community.

Any intelligent debate has long since descended into Pythonesque farce.

Medium, to its credit, has been willing to offer explanation and transparency, recognises the frustrations of its participants and seeks ongoing feedback.

I just bet they didn’t expect the Spanish Inquisition.

Trouble at Mill

Inspiration and Flow

InspirationIn times of creative drought we can look back on our previous accomplishments almost with awe and ask “how did I do that?”

Questioning our current state, we wonder how we came up with the ideas. We demand to know where the required skills came from. And, perhaps most importantly, we demand to know what changed.

We stopped!

That’s right, we stopped; stopped doing whatever it was that got us to where we were. We stopped playing, writing, running, painting – no matter what it was, we stopped practicing.

Forget about the theory of practicing something for 10000 hours – we could do so and become an “expert” but, as soon as we stop practicing, that expertise starts to diminish until, if we stop for long enough, it is eventually lost.

Forget about the 10000 hours theory because it doesn’t matter how long we practice: after we have stopped and the benefit has gone we will look back in wonder at our achievements in exactly the same way after only 100 hours as after 1000 or 10000.

We are our own inspiration.

When we practice we open ourselves to the experience, we train our bodies and minds to behave in a certain way such that they know how to act. For physical activities we refer to this as muscle memory but for creative endeavours we can call it flow.

Flow is when things happen unbidden, when the process takes over and you feel almost as those you are a passenger carried along for the ride. Patterns form seemingly of their own accord; thoughts and ideas thrust themselves into our consciousness; the perfect words reveal themselves at just the right times.

When we are in those creative droughts we beg for inspiration and wonder how we ever achieved the mental states we used to find ourselves in feeling that we might never return to them.

But flow is not an accident.

Flow is the result of that practice. Flow is the result of all of the hard work even though, when it happens, it feels effortless and almost otherworldly. Flow is what happens when we experience epiphany after epiphany, when what is hidden inside is released and (except in the rarest of instances) that can only occur because we have practiced.

Inspiration strikes because we allow it, because we train ourselves to receive it. Inspiration strikes because we put gradually place ourselves in those mental states; bit by bit, day by day, until we are ready.

All we have to do is practice.

Inspiration and Flow

New Beginnings

In light of my rethink about how I write I have decided to go a stage further and expand my workflow. Now, posts will go from the Drafts app on my iPhone to WordPress and then cross-posted to Medium.

That’s right, I have decided to return to my blog but in a very casual manner. There is a new, very minimal theme and all old posts have been moved to an archive so it is a fresh start without completely removing what was already there.

Being a geek I still wanted something beyond a stock site so installed a plugin to give Medium-like sharing of selected text (without the images) which works on both mobile and desktop.

Desktop

Mobile

With any luck, this post will appear on both the blog and at Medium.

Here goes!

New Beginnings