Biz Stone loves using technology to help people communicate. Sometimes it works really well: Twitter, which he cofounded, is used by 302 million people each month. Sometimes it doesn’t: Jelly, an app he cofounded in 2013 that lets people use text and an image to ask questions, never gained mass popularity.
Now Stone and Jelly cofounder Ben Finkel are trying again, this time with an app called Super that they launched in the fall and updated on Wednesday. As its name suggests, Super is fond of superlatives—users pick a brightly colored rectangle containing an all-capitalized word or phrase like “THE BEST,” “THE WORST,” or “I LOVE” and add their own message to it, plus a photo or an image that they can search for within the app.
Over lunch this week in San Francisco with Stone, his Super (and Jelly) cofounder Ben Finkel, and a small group of reporters, Rachel Metz, MIT Technology Review’s senior editor for mobile, asked him to talk about the failure of Jelly, the artsy inspiration behind Super’s bright, in-your-face look, and how he imagines social media fitting in with fast-maturing technologies in virtual and augmented reality.
Jelly, the question-and-answer app you launched publicly in early 2014, failed to take off. How did it lead to Super?
Three or four months into Jelly we just didn’t see it becoming a global phenomenon. It wasn’t fun enough. People were using it for homework, math problems. Like actually taking pictures of math problems. Which Ben was fine with because he was like, “Cool, I’ll help you solve this.” But I was like, “Ah, I don’t know how large this is going to get.” He wasn’t answering—he’d show them how to solve it. And a lot of people were asking, “What kind of spider is this?” and I was like, do we really want to be the kings of spider identification?
We got together and we were just like, how can we make this way better? Like, way more fun than it is now? At the time it seemed very simple—I just said, we’ll just turn Q and A into A and Q. We’ll just lead with the answer and the question is presumed. That was the original idea.
As you’ve said, you wanted Super to look as though conceptual artist Barbara Kruger put it together. Why did you want it to look like that?
I just wanted it to look crazy and fun.
Basically, we want people to be able to create a work of art as easily as they can text. Like, so easy that it’s like texting but it looks like a Barbara Kruger or a Shepard Fairey or a Jean-Michel Basquiat. [Kruger] takes these big black-and-white pictures and puts these big red rectangles or squares with big white language that says things like “I shop therefore I am.” They’re meant to be incendiary; like, you’re supposed to get pissed off, or at least think about it. And that was the idea—the original idea was let’s sort of channel people down, let’s have them—not force them, but encourage them to be very emphatic when they say things. So the first four starters were “The best,” “The worst,” “The craziest,” and “The sexiest.” And those are all superlatives, so that’s why we called it Super.
You’re an investor in the augmented-reality company Magic Leap, though like most people you still haven’t seen what they’re working on. How do you think something like Super specifically, or social media in general, will look in virtual and augmented worlds?
We jokingly ordered some 3-D glasses from Amazon … and we found out you can just shift the colors in Photoshop and it actually works to look at a mobile phone. You put on 3-D glasses and it’s in 3-D. I was like, “We could make a 3-D button on here”—as long as you’ve got the glasses. That’s why we decided to use 3-D glasses as an icon [in Super].
But no, I haven’t really given any thought to how you’d walk around, and I guess if you did, now that I’m thinking about it, I think my first pass at it would be to make it look like a museum. To make it look like you’re just walking around with all these walls and looking at these Supers. That would actually be kind of fun.
When I think about virtual reality, I think more about education and narrative fiction. I just don’t think of it as messaging. I think of it as going in deep, you know what I mean? Fully immersive.
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