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Thumb draws opinions from the crowd, enhances iPhone app

The opinion-based social utility Thumb, approaching its second birthday, has overhauled its free iOS app and added direct like/dislike voting to its core ask-a-question feature. The new 3.5 version of the service delivers tighter social integration, in-app messaging, leaderboards/rankings and an easy way to save likes or dislikes to your user profile.

The basic experience of using Thumb is "take a picture, ask a yes/no question." Whether it's a product, a restaurant, a vacation destination or a lifestyle choice, within a few minutes you can get opinions and comments from scores of your friends or fellow Thumb users. It's like a focus group in your pocket -- an answer service like Quora, AnswerQi or Yahoo Answers but boiled down to hot-or-not simplicity and tuned for speed and fun over detail and depth.

CEO Dan Kurani told me that the inspiration for Thumb came when he was among several recipients of an email from a family member. The subject line was "What do you think of this?" and the message was simply a photograph of an anniversary ring.

Within hours, the replies started coming in, and Kurani began to imagine how a mobile service might deliver real-time, actionable opinions on questions like that one. Thumb launched in July of 2010, and has been evolving since then as Kurani and his team tweaked the platform to make it easier and faster to connect with other users. While they originally anticipated a tighter focus on consumer products and shopping, the audience led them to widen the category set -- "It turns out that people want opinions on everything," says Kurani.

While the 2.0 version of Thumb that arrived in November of 2010 included some social functionality and messaging, the new version "is all about embracing social discovery & [providing] more tools to communicate with fellow users," according to Kurani. Users who are particularly active and helpful in a category will get a star rating for that type of question, making them more likely to show up in future queries on those topics. The new version's ability to "pre-rate" an item with a thumbs-up or thumbs-down means that users can state (and share, to Facebook/Twitter/email or SMS) an opinion rather than just asking a question. Comments ride along with votes to provide additional context to user opinions.

What's surprising is how responsive the Thumb community is, and how fast. Even a casual/gag question like "the coffee at the office: thumbs up or down?" garnered more than 40 votes and a handful of comments within minutes. For more weighty questions ("Should I buy this TV?" or "Is this assisted-living facility a good place for Grandpa?") the response rate shoots up dramatically. Granted, the depth of context and experience you might want for technical help or full product evaluation (such as you might find on gdgt or in our comments) isn't really there, but that's not where the service is aimed. It's built to help people connect around preferences -- creating affinity groups, if you will -- and it does that pretty nicely.

Even if you're normally in the habit of turning to your Facebook, Twitter or other social networks for quick opinions, Thumb is fun and fast (and free); it's worth checking out. The new 3.5 version is available via the iPhone app and sister Android app, and via the soft-launched redesigned thumb.it website.

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