Have a Question? Ask a Fluther: BP Interviews Fluther.com Founder Ben Finkel

“I hate my mind, how can I fix it?”

This question was posted on Fluther.com, a hybrid chat/forum Q&A site, not too long ago. Answers for the disillusioned poster ranged from “Deal with it” to “Listen to Pink Floyd.” Meditation also ranked as one of the more common answers.

Fluther isn’t your typical Q&A site. Its strength lies in its community-based interactions. Users ask and answer questions in a format that makes them feel like a group of bantering friends. Questions get matched to people, in real-time. The result: An intimate, fun setting that takes the sci-fi out of the concept of a collective mind.

Fluther describes itself as being analogous to a family unit:

Imagine having five Uncle Franks to answer your car questions, eight Aunt Marthas to ask about astronomy and six Grandma Gerties to advise you on your garden dilemmas.

From what I read on the site, however, people are usually less annoying than six Grandma Gerties might be. The point is that the site collects wisdom from individuals in a format that makes users feel warm, fuzzy, and welcomed. Answers aren’t necessarily by “experts.” Rather, they’re for humans, by humans.

Business Pundit caught up with CEO and founder Ben Finkel to ask him more about the unique creation that is Fluther.

BP: What prompted you to come up with the idea for Fluther?

The idea for Fluther came to me in a moment while taking a bath, not really thinking about anything. But the refinement and development of the idea was a collaborative process that was born out of a few things.

The first source of inspiration was the computer lab (called the Sun Lab) at Brown University; when you were working there you could answer almost any problem just by asking the right people sitting nearby. I realized that there are millions of people “nearby” on the net who would be happy to help a stranger, if they could be properly organized.

The second source was really what I view as a missing piece on the Internet. Somewhere between search, newsgroups, and IRC, Andrew and I realized there wasn’t a simple way for a normal user to get a human answer to a question. We built Fluther to fill that hole.

BP: What makes Fluther better than competing products like Yahoo! Answers?

Fluther has a few key advantages over competitors like Yahoo! Answers. First of all, we have an intelligent, insightful community that constantly amazes me and is like nothing I’ve seen before on the internet. When you’re a part of Fluther, you don’t just feel like an anonymous fly in a mess of immature users; you feel like a part of a collective that’s making the world better. We think our community is really special.

Secondly, we’ve focused a lot of our resources to make our design really stand out. We sweat every detail of our interface, and we think it shows. We were very proud to be listed as one of the 10 great web designs/redesign of 2007 by Webware.

Finally, we provide a whole different level of technology at our core than any competing Q&A site. Instead of just browsing random questions, we actual pick questions for you to answer based on your expertise, ensuring the right people in the collective are finding the right questions.

We start with your profile, and then factor in how you use the site to figure out which questions to send to you. As our site scales, this continues to become a competitive advantage in facilitating great answers from our community.

We also provide real-time discussions inside our questions, so the experience of answering and asking can feel like chat. The combination of these technologies, we believe, creates a whole different kind of tool that provides a relevant, live experience that’s totally unique to the field.

BP: What do you see as some professional applications of Fluther?

For now, Fluther is a global tool that is used for problem solving in the same context Google search (of course, Fluther allows you to solve a whole different class of problems). So for now it can be used as a reference tool on a per-user basis.

We have long-term plans to build out more specific tools for businesses and teams. A Fluther business application will provide knowledge management in an internal sense, much like mixing a wiki with IM. We have tons of ideas, and are really only limited by how quickly we can build things.

BP: What would a huge, mature Fluther.com look like? Say, if you had 2 million registered users?

I’m hoping when Fluther.com reaches that size it will feel a lot like it does now. Community plays such a strong role in the site, and we’ve found that growth often runs counter to community. Because of this, we’re developing social features that will allow scaling so smaller groups can coexist in a large community, much like the way they do on Twitter.

There will be a lot of great improvements a bigger Fluther will see, too. A lot of our technology advantages compound with size, so we’d hope to be seeing fabulous matching (between user and question), and near real-time responses.

At that size, our real vision would be a common user experience: You ask an interesting question, it gets instantly matched and broadcast to a set of users who can help, and within seconds you’re chatting in real time about the answer. I’ve had that experience, and it’s jaw-dropping. The more that happens, the more compelling Fluther will become.

BP: Can you tell me a little bit about your iPhone feature? Do you think that will be Fluther’s home for many users?

We built the iPhone app and have found it to be surprisingly popular. Of course, because we’re a small team, we never have enough time to put into it as we’d like, so that’s why we’re building out our API. We’ve already had our users build a few apps, and with a proper API we’re hoping our users will continue to grow Fluther in new and interesting ways.

But we’ll keep up the iPhone app and make sure it provides a great experience. As iPhones become more and more common, we think our users will appreciate having a great mobile experience when you need answers away from your computer.


And what would be a better mobile experience than a comment like the one EmpressPixie just posted?

“Oh, Fluther, you say the sweetest things! I’m glad you don’t think I look like a Chupacabra.”

Makes me want to ask what a Chupacabra is.

And so the Fluthering begins…

Written by Drea Knufken

Drea Knufken

Currently, I create and execute content- and PR strategies for clients, including thought leadership and messaging. I also ghostwrite and produce press releases, white papers, case studies and other collateral.