Pop wants to be more than just another quirky social messaging tool

By James Robinson , written on March 5, 2014

From The News Desk

My time with my phone is fairly well mapped out. For commuting and second-screening, I have Twitter. There's Facebook to distract me from work and sometimes Instagram if I’m in the mood to see other people make their lives look better through an automatic filter. Viber helps me communicate with friends abroad, plain old SMS to talk with friends in America, and, of course, streams of email is always coming in.

So when I consider a new, quirky social media tool I have to take into account its potential to grab a chunk of my mindshare. Even Instagram can slip out of my mind for a few days at a time, so something new has to offer something fantastic to make it into my daily or weekly routines.

The bad news for Toronto-based Pop, which launched last week, is that I can’t see it being that addictive. Not for me, at least. That said, I may not be its target audience, which seems to be college-age users. I probably wouldn't have seen much of a need for an online college "facebook" after I graduated university either, and that didn't turn out too badly for Mark Zuckerberg.

Pop allows a user to take two photos and send out a question with them. Messages can be sent out to people in your immediate geographic vicinity or to people in your own contact book. Some of the features that co-founder Thomas Lee explains to me make sense, like boosting engagement by making people answer one question to get to the next and posting “pops” -- the company buzz name for the two-photos-and-a-question combo -- to Facebook and Twitter.

If no one in your city uses it, it only creates an added layer of communication between you and your contacts if you have questions. Also, past a certain age, the desire to invite input and judgment on my life from a wide group of friends and strangers is nil. But like I said, I'm not its target audience.

Not that Pop’s existence isn’t a small miracle. Lee, a 21-year old student at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, came up with the idea with three friends in the second week of January this year, working up a beta version over a weekend. The group explored a business-to-business idea, but kept on returning to either or decisions -- option A or option B -- that they wanted people’s opinions on.

“When we started scraping Twitter, we saw that this type of behavior actually exists," Lee says. "There were 20,000 Tweets with the binary element to it and then we started exploring how we can build something that works with this existing behavior."

Kept afloat by a $5,000 dollar cash injection from a Toronto business incubator, Pop launched at the end of February and toyed with the top 100 in the Canadian app chart. It’s become popular at Queen’s University, where Lee studies, and he says that “thousands” of pops have been sent and answered since the launch. All too predictably, men are most likely to ask questions about sports, women about fashion.

Lee says that Pop for now is going to borrow from the Facebook playbook and target campuses one-by-one, but if it is going to succeed in the catty swamp of college campuses and high schools it will need to position itself as not just another way for strangers to be mean to one another.

And, of course, there’s the question of whether it can ever make money.

For that, Pop will have to be a lot better than simply quirky to stand a chance.

[illustration by Brad Jonas for Pando]