Zurker: Social Network for the 99 Percent?

What do you do if your pet enterprise fails? If you’re a brave (or perhaps foolhardy) entrepreneur, you build something even more ambitious. Such is the case with Nick Oba. When his contributor-driven online magazine failed back in 2010, he came up with a bigger idea: take on Facebook, but make the members into shareholders. And thus Zurker was born.

As far as I know, no one has ever set up an online social network as effectively a co-op before, and as you’d expect, Zurker’s set-up isn’t quite that simple. As Zurker’s About page explains, “Every Zurker user becomes a co-owner (future shareholder) of Zurker.” As Zurker hasn’t had an IPO or anything of that nature yet, users earn vShares.

A vShare is a stake in Zurker; it’s the unit of equity the company is allotting to members during the alpha and beta testing phases. They aren’t actually stock. “vShares can be thought of as agreements between the owners of a startup about the size of their stake in the enterprise to be incorporated,” Zurker explains on its vShares page. One vShare equals one-millionth of a piece of the company. Users can earn vShares by signing up, and by inviting friends; they can also purchase them. “When 1,000,000 vShares have been allocated, Zurker will be restructured as a public corporation and vShares will become real shares,” Zurker elaborates.

That’s not the only surprising step that Zurker has taken. In part because it’s a co-op, Zurker has an open books policy. What does this mean? It means they have a page on which you can check their finances, line by line, for each country they’re in.

That’s another interesting difference: Zurker is an independent project in each country it’s in, owned by the members of that country only, with its own balance sheet. Oba did this because “different markets react in different ways.” He’s trying to avoid what he describes as “Friendster syndrome.” Friendster eventually became highly popular in the Philippines; in fact, the site quickly became dominated by members from that area of the world. The social network’s US-based management, which was unfamiliar with that area, didn’t know how to capitalize on the popularity and traffic. So the site ended up stagnating. Local owners will presumably not experience that problem.

So far, there are Zurker projects in the United States, United Kingdom, India, the Philippines, New Zealand, Canada, and Australia; there’s also a Zurker Worldwide, for all other jurisdictions. As near as I can tell, this only matters for which vShares you’re allowed to hold; someone from the US can’t hold vShares for Zurker UK, for example. However, you can connect and interact normally with members on other versions of Zurker. “A member of Zurker UK can subscribe to a member of Zurker India,” the site helpfully explains. This, of course, brings us to the interface.

Since Zurker is in closed beta, users can only join the network right now when they receive an invitation. If you want one, here’s a link: http://www.zurker.com/i-743-dtvkmbrkol. Disclaimer: I do get a vShare for each member who signs up, but regular readers know that this has nothing to do with my review. The company is planning to open their site to the public at the end of April.

I’ve seen easier sign-up processes, but Zurker’s isn’t too difficult; you’ll fill out about two short forms. You will be asked to include your name, create a password, include an email address, add an avatar and interests (mandatory) and a number of optional items, such as favorite music, favorite movies, professional interests, geographical points of interest (where you live, where you grew up, where you work, or anywhere that’s important to you), and affiliations. That latter may include schools you’ve attended or companies for which you’ve worked, among other items. Zurker lets you fill in the fields as you wish, rather than forcing you to choose from a list.

Be warned: since this is a closed beta, you may encounter minor bugs here and elsewhere; once or twice it didn’t recognize that I was signed in, and I couldn’t get the original avatar I wanted. Fortunately, once you ARE signed in, on your individual home page  you’ll find a link to “Settings,” where you can change things and control how, and how often, Zurker contacts you.

There are some subtle and not-so-subtle differences between Zurker and Facebook and Google+. Zurker has a user guide. Its equivalent of a “like” is a “zurk,” and to zurk something is basically to say “thank you for sharing that.” It may seem like a small difference, but psychologically it matters; I don’t know about you, but when a friend of mine on Facebook posts a link to a distressing news story, I don’t feel comfortable “liking” it. Facebook users have been calling for a “dislike” button for a long time; using “zurk” actually adds a certain clarity.

You can connect with other members; this is a two-way process, and the other person must approve the connection for it to be completed. If someone tries to connect with you and you’re not interested, you can click the “ignore” button. You can also subscribe to other members, and other members can subscribe to you. It’s a one-way follow, as you may find on Twitter. But “members are not notified when someone subscribes. This is to discourage indiscriminate subscriptions aimed solely at generating reciprocal subscriptions, also known as SPAM,” Zurker explains.

You don’t need to worry about someone stalking you, thanks to Zurker’s use of tags. Tags are what you use when you connect with other Zurker members, and function somewhat like Google+’s Circles (without some of the cool graphics – remember, we’re talking beta here). You can use default tags like friends, family, colleagues, and losers; you can also create your own. As with Google+ Circles, no one else can see your tags, and you’re the only one who knows how you’ve tagged someone.

So what does this have to do with subscriptions? When you post an update, you can click on tags to decide who will see it – and who won’t see it. So you don’t need to make all of your posts public.

Tags also come into play when you’re reading updates from others. In fact, they help prevent information overload. Before I explain how, let me first tell you that Zurker divides the updates you see into two categories, Home and Street. You can switch between the two by clicking clearly marked buttons. Home updates directly affect you – someone commenting on a post you made, initiating a convo with you, etc. Street tells you what your contacts and subscriptions have been doing – when they post an update, upload a photo, etc. You can check and uncheck tags on the Street to filter what you see. Uncheck “family” and you won’t see any updates from those you’ve tagged as family; uncheck every tag BUT “family” and you’ll see updates ONLY from those you’ve tagged as family.

I mentioned convos above. They’re basically Zurker’s equivalent of personal messages, seen only by those in the conversation. You can start a convo with one member or several. Zurker also has “walls,” where you can leave notes for members, but these are more public, rather like posting something on someone’s Facebook wall. Other members can also see and comment on these posts.

In addition to your usual text-based update, you can post photos (with captions, comments, attributions, and use licenses), and finds. Finds are web links. On your home page, Zurker shows you how many convos, photos, finds, and updates you’ve made.

There is more I don’t have room to cover, including a few unique features (you can give people nicknames that only you see, for instance), and there is more coming. For instance, I mentioned that you can only have one account, but you will be able to have a number of “entities,” which will be pages for businesses, organizations, bands, etc. They’ll function like users, but if you want to set one up, you’ll be required to pay a small fee.

So could Zurker unseat Facebook? There’s no telling. When Facebook started, after all, no one know that it would get as big as it did. But Zurker offers a number of fresh ideas, and is trying to avoid the mistakes that their predecessors in the social network field have made (and continue to make). It will be interesting to see how it develops.

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