Questions — Ask And Answer is an iOS app, pictured left, that’s using video to animate and humanise the Q&A format.
Spicing up the tried-and-tested Q&A format to make it fit for a visually obsessed age is energising plenty of startups at present. The very recent (and high profile) category entrant, Biz Stone’s new startup Jelly, for instance, is not just a Q&A startup; it’s a Q&A startup that let’s people frame their questions within its slick, photo-centric interface — which is one way to make the well-worn questions & answers format feel shiny and new, rather than, you know, like Yahoo Answers.
Jelly’s Tinder-style swipe interface helps too. As does its piggybacking on existing social networks to provide a little structure to who is providing the answers to your questions. And of course it’s mobile first. Point is, Jelly is more about execution and interface than freshness of the underlying idea. But that’s fine. Curiosity satisfied (aka Q&A) remains an addictive, motivating force. The day people run out of stuff to ask each other is the day Q&A startups should give up and go home.
Ask.fm is another Q&A startup that springs to mind as building momentum behind the format (although it’s since run into problems with teenage bullying). While search engines like Google are also a form of Q&A, albeit largely algorithmically retrieving answers to human questions. The dominance of algorithmic approaches by tech giants like Google has of course left room (and appetite) for startups to take a more human approach to Q&A. So enter Jelly, or hello Quora. And so on.
Returning to the Questions app, it’s tackling Q&A by reframing the format as a video conversation between askers and answerers. Founder, Oladayo Olagunju has previous pedigree in the video space. Back in 2011 he launched a startup called Nyoombl – which TC’s MG Siegler described as “a sort of hybrid of Skype and YouTube”.
Nyoombl as a social broadcasting platform hasn’t eclipsed YouTube but is still around — and has hosted chats between a plethora of individuals, including UK Prime Minister David Cameron and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, in one example. (The startup was seed-backed (mainly) by Chris Kelly, former Chief Privacy of Facebook, with a roster of advisors that included entrepreneur Adam Rifkin, Sun Microsystems co-founder Scott McNealy, and venture capitalist Lara Druyan.)
Presumably Nyoombl provided Olagunju’s inspiration for the follow up Questions app — although there are clear differences. Nyoombl hosts live broadcasts of up to seven minute-long conversations on its web platform, as well as playback after the fact. Whereas Questions is more ephemeral in its content — it’s about what you could call micro-conversations, with users recording 10 second video questions and other users replying to them with 10 second video answers.
Ten seconds is pretty throwaway, in terms of content — your question/explanation can only go so deep (although individual videos can end up chained together to build up a longer conversation) — but it’s enough time for personality to shine.
Questions’ user generated content can therefore be ephemeral in duration – but can have more of an impact than its length might suggest, because of the personalities on display.
Olagunju tells TechCrunch the short format video is designed to give structure to the conversations on the app by allowing people to start talking without worrying too much about the topic. “People need, psychologically and mentally, a convenient deconstruction of what a conversation is,” he says. “And by and large a conversation is a sort of concatenation of questions and answers.”
It should also be noted that Questions’ content is not literally ephemeral; the videos remain on the platform as there’s apparently no way for users to delete a question or answer once uploaded. And that is slightly concerning, being as the app is clearly aimed at appealing to teens (it didn’t take much browsing of the app to find one youthful-looking Questions user effectively confessing to having smoked weed on video — a video that’s going to stay up there for anyone to play and replay for as long as the app is in existence).
Being as users take videos of themselves asking and answering they are also typically identifiable. Which again isn’t great if you’re the kid publicly confessing to drug use, but the confessional video selfie medium may act as a general check and balance on user behaviour. That is important for a startup targeting the teen demographic — considering the difficulties with abusive content and teen suicide that Ask.fm has run into (for instance).
Using video as the medium for its Q&A format also means Questions becomes a repository of animated selfies — affording brief glimpses into the lives and personalities of an assortment of strangers. In an age obsessed with selfies the app’s living ‘human library’ of content, displaying a grid of faces tagged with their queries to click on, feels as if it has the power to resonate and captivate.
Certainly, it succeeds in humanising the Q&A format — although Olagunju actually says he does not view Questions as a Q&A app. For him, the mission of this micro-video medium is far grander than helping people find the right factoid with which to plug a particular knowledge gap. Its focus is on human curiosity and conversations. Qualifying that further, he says it’s about “everyday conversations” — meaning the resulting knowledge is necessarily colloquial. (But that of course can still be informative, or entertaining, or interesting, and so on.)
“Questions is not a Q&A app. Wonderfully, verbal stimuli (Q) and facial or verbal reactions (A) to those stimuli do form the basis of conversations,” he tells TechCrunch.
(To my mind, the app shares something with BBC Radio 4′s The Listening Project – a project to record and broadcast short conversations between two interlocutors that they choose to let the radio audience listen in on.)
“The goal is not just to get people talking… if you think about the world today, you find that in private we are who we really are and in public, when people are looking at us, we are our aspiration self. That we aspire to be,” he adds.
“We are not always who we are in private who we are in public, and vice versa. What Questions wants to do is how do we make us do in an app what we do in public — which hopefully is to be nice, kind, thoughtful.”
Olagunju also stresses that the focus is on the first-person video medium itself, as a form of expression that generates the positive public personas that Questions wants to encourage.
“I just feel we should give people a window to interact viscerally, to put their best foot forward, and we really want to crush the first-person video space. And so Q&A is a bridge, a means to executing that — it’s a mission to the vision,” he says.
“YouTube has not crushed the first person,” he adds, discussing where he sees the opportunity for Questions to scale up (he’s not disclosing user numbers at this time). “Most of the videos on YouTube are third person perspective, whereby the camera is videoing somebody else.”
Olagunju has a history of taking a stealthy approach in his startup launches — this was true of Nyoombl, and has also been true in the case of Questions, which quietly went live on the App Store back in
November October 2012. There’s also a serious streak to his startups — Nyoombl was about “democratising conversations”, i.e. by allowing others to listen in and learn. And although Olagunju doesn’t use the empathy word (as Biz Stone did, with Jelly), he does talk about having a vision for “what society should be”.
So Questions feels like it has an ultimate goal of improving humanity by helping people better understand themselves and each other. In other words: more empathy, less prejudice. Which is indeed a noble goal.
“We don’t gravitate towards trends or what may be comfortable. We have a vision of how the world and society should be, and we move with solemn conviction to bring it that vision to fruition,” Olagunju adds.
(Questions is also still very much a startup business — the sense of mission/vision and the desire to show humanity’s better side are part of Olagunju’s philosophy on how to build big. “To create a $100 billion company, a $400 billion company you really have to touch the hearts of mankind,” he says.)
So what sorts of questions are the current users of Questions asking? That depends on the user, of course, but there’s plenty of classic kids’ obsessions on display — favourite colour, food, how many siblings you have, how old you think they are, and so on.
The app does also include categories so you can browse Q&As in channels — such as sports & entertainment, religion, science & technology — if you want to view and target specific knowledge areas or opinions. It also sorts content based on popularity, or by the newest posts, and there’s a search function to seek out particular types of questions or to find other users.
Generally speaking, the sorts of questions you’ll find in the app are the sorts of queries that characterise humanity via its obsessions, large and small: so grand themes of sex, death and religion, rub shoulders with more quotidian concerns and curiosities, and/or the desire to fit in or be liked by peers.
It’s the sort of stuff people are always curious about — regardless of gender, race, religion. And the answers provided by other app users, though usually necessarily partial and/or subjective, are curiously reassuring because they show how similar people are, despite the visual differences on clear display through the video medium.
So, really, if you want to find an app that’s actually doing something to make the world a more empathetic place, not just sprinkling grand claims over a marketing-friendly interface like so many Silicon Valley Utopianism sprinkles, then Questions is a great place to start your search for answers.