THE BLOG

Brands Made Jelly Dead on Arrival

19/01/2014 19:44 GMT | Updated 19/03/2014 09:59 GMT

Barely a week after social question-answering app Jelly launched in a blaze of glory, I'm uninstalling it.

I do think the app has - or had - potential. Sure, the notifications were a little annoying, and the inability to filter limited its usefulness. But for a newly-launched app it wasn't bad, and I'd normally give a new app a break, even one with Biz Stone's money and hype behind it.

But not this time. Because within days of launching the number of interesting questions and curious experiments was overtaken by clickbait questions from brands popping up with irritating frequency.

I don't blame the brands for trying something new. And I'm not naive enough to think these platforms can exist without the advertising that brings in revenue. But the speedy rise and fall of Jelly teaches us an important lesson on the role brands play in the life cycle of a social network.

Facebook is free to use and funded by increasingly intrusive advertising which now takes up around half my feed. But it wasn't always that way. When I first signed up, seven years ago, it was just a new forum used by people at university. No one - not even Mark Zuckerberg - knew what a media giant it would become.

Over time, we each found our own uses for it, first to exchange messages with small groups, then interest groups, then share content. Only then, once we'd all used it enough to incorporate it into our daily routines and find our own uses it for it, did it become a useful platform for brands.

Twitter began life as a group SMS service, and evolved as people began to use it. Former Twitter CEO Evan Williams described its evolution:

With Twitter, it wasn't clear what it was. They called it a social network, they called it microblogging, but it was hard to define, because it didn't replace anything. There was this path of discovery with something like that, where over time you figure out what it is. Twitter actually changed from what we thought it was in the beginning, which we described as status updates and a social utility. It is that, in part, but the insight we eventually came to was Twitter was really more of an information network than it is a social network.

Like every social platform - and indeed, innovations from the printing press onwards - it takes time for people to discover the full potential of an innovation. In German there's a word for this, nutzungoffenheit, which loosely translated means that technology and its features don't precipitate its usage. That is, that it takes real people getting their hands on a tool or platform and using it for it to develop its true potential.

The evolution of Facebook and Twitter are two examples of this phenomenon in action. It's taken years for these tools to become our go-to communication media. And only when they were things we looked at every day, and when there were established 'rules of engagement' for the way that we use them, did we as audiences feel prepared to engage with brands on them.

And this is where Jelly has hit the buffers. We've not even had a chance to try it out properly before mobile phone companies began asking us monotonous questions in an attempt to get us to click through to their page. Before we've had an opportunity to understand what it's for, we have brands throwing themselves in our valuable phone real estate, tipping the content balance from 'interesting and maybe useful' to 'annoying' in a stroke.

It's good to see brands experimenting with new platforms, but in doing so before the platform and community have established their role and purpose, they've left Jelly a stillborn social platform.