Zude Offers New Technology in Social Networking

The past couple of years have been such a fertile period for social networking ideas that words like “revolutionary” should be demanding hazard pay. But Fifth Generation Systems has been causing enough buzz to make one wonder if there’s more than mere hype behind it. Indeed, at least one observer has described the company’s latest project as THE web of the future.

 

It’s called Zude, and it is currently in public beta. What makes it special? It boasts what Fifth Generation Systems calls a “unique cross-domain drag-and-drop interface” to allow users “to quickly and easily create their own personal Web pages.”

Fifth Generation Systems claims that those who use social networks want an even greater ability to customize their personal web pages than they currently have. According to Jim McNeil, CEO of Fifth Generation Systems, “Our research has show that Web users want more freedom to fully express themselves online. Zude enables people to finally use the Web to express what they want, how they want, to whom they want. No templates needed, no profiles required, no code to write.”

Zude’s path to the future has been a little rocky. It raised $5 million in VC funding at the time of its private beta rollout in May – and quickly discovered it couldn’t stand up to the huge demand. So it closed its site, regrouped, improved its capacity, and relaunched a few months later.

If the reviews are to be believed, you really can drag anything from the web or even your desktop onto your Zude page, provided that the site isn’t blocking Zude. Zude’s technology takes the item dragged and puts it in a container. The user can then edit the item to act in various ways based on how other users interact with it, such as clicking on it or mousing over it.

One more thing worth noting before we go to the site itself to see what it has to offer – and it’s interesting that only one reviewer mentioned this, Candace Lombardi from Webware. “The drag-and-drop feature that allows you to add objects to your pages will not work at all unless you make a pop-up exception for the site and download the software.”

There may be some confusion on this point, or Zude might have updated its technology since Lombardi did her review. When I finally started creating my Zude page, I did not have to download any special software. I did have to make some changes to my browser, however, which I will note when I get to the relevant section. This article will mostly cover the kind of help Zude offers to help you use their interface; it’s not immediately as easy to use as they would like you to believe.

Here’s a look at Zude’s friendly and inviting home page:

 

I wasn’t sure where to start exactly, but who could resist that large yellow-orange “explore” link on the upper right? When I clicked it, I was in for a surprise. Zude saw fit to give me (and all guests, of course) my own personal guide:

 

Sorry, I had to shrink and crop that to fit. The Zude guide is a pop-up over the regular page that you can move around; you can also close it with the X in the upper right. It doesn’t come back unless you activate it again, and as you can see from the screen shot, it clearly explains the one-click process involved in getting it back. And what IS the guide, exactly? “The Zude Guide is an intelligent application that learns from your experiences in Zude. The information is private and only used to help you. This allows the guide to always provide the most relevant information whenever you need it.” In my experience, the Zude guide actually did update the options offered to some degree the more I used Zude and referred back to it, so there is some substance to this statement.

This description is followed by a list of links to investigate:

• Introduction to Zude
• Navigation guide
• List available Zude tutorials
• Cool Zuders
• Cool Zudescapes
• Zude in the News
• Zude help resources

The list of links, as is inevitable, includes one to let the user “sign up now – it’s free!!!” Since I always like to know what I’m signing up for, it’s time to take the tour.

It’s worth noting that none of the links for the Zude guide will work unless you have pop-ups enabled for the page. In fact, the whole site is addicted to pop-ups; if you don’t like pop-ups, you’re going to be thoroughly annoyed. On the other hand, many of these pop-ups are fairly useful, so it’s best just to think of it as how they chose to do their interface. 

The link that is supposed to introduce you to Zude takes you to a video (no audio, not even music) that goes by so fast I had to replay it a couple of times to understand what it was presenting. It showed how a user could grab a user profile, choose a background, then choose other items (such as audio) and even search Google for other images and such to put on their profile.

The navigation guide was a little more useful. In about five screens, it leads the user through the items typically found on Zude. You can mouse over each item to pop up a tooltip that helpfully explains what it is and what it does. There are a lot of clickable items in the Zude interface; it’s easy to get a little confused and overwhelmed (which explains the need for the guide).

There are currently eight tutorials available for Zude that can be accessed through the Zude gude: introduction, user’s manual, tags, channels, profiles, files, objects, and pages. The Zude introduction was not the same video labeled “Introduction to Zude” that you could access directly from the Zude guide. This 50-second video featured someone enthusiastically explaining all the things you could do with Zude: “Zude lets people like me do awesome things on the Web without being a geek.” It emphasizes how you can share video from YouTube, your favorite music, various images, entire web sites, widgets, and more. “With Zude, I control the world!” In other words, it was a slightly-more-informative-than-usual commercial.

For some reason I couldn’t get the Zude user’s manual to work, but the other videos functioned just fine. They combined narration with a visual presentation of what to click and how to use various features. The longest video was the one that explained Zude profiles; that was about two and a half minutes. The rest of them were at most a minute and a half, and some were under a minute. This emphasizes how easy it is to use the site.

Cool Zuders simply takes the user to pictures of several Zude users; you can click on those images to go to their web pages. I remembered seeing something about the ability to rate users in the navigation guide, so I’m guessing that might have something to do with determining which Zude users are “cool” enough to display when this is clicked. I think this is worth noting, by the way, for possible inspiration – as has often been observed, it’s very easy to put together an ugly-looking page when you have unlimited self-expression. Here’s an image from the page of one of the cool Zuders that showed up when I clicked this link:


Cool Zudescapes seemed to focus more on the subject matter of the pages being cool rather than the user being cool. There are tribute pages to beer, dead musicians (in general as well as specific ones), Corvettes, the inevitable cats, and more. The topics covered are as varied as the users covering them; there’s even an Unofficial First Edition Guide to Zude Terminology and something called Mashup Camp and Mashup University 2007. All of these pages are rated; since they are considered cool Zudescapes, as you would expect, most of them have at least four out of a possible five stars (displayed underneath the thumbnail for each page).

Here’s another quick note about using the site. When you click to a Zuder or a Zudescape from the Zude guide and try to use your back button, you might have a problem. This happens because the Zude guide is a pop-up; it can be moved and affected by your mouse, but it isn’t actually controlled from the controls on your browser.

When I clicked the back button after going to a particular cool Zuder or Zudescape from the ones displayed by the guide, my browser simply redisplayed the same Zuder or Zudescape. This was very annoying, but it was easy enough to go directly back to the Zude guide; there’s an icon in the upper right hand corner for this purpose. Still, it’s a little annoying when things don’t work the way you expect them to.

The link to Zude in the News took me to a list of stories that covered Zude; this was exactly what I expected. I’d already read many of them, having done my homework before visiting this site.

Zude Help Resources offered me five links: online documentation (with a search box), community forums, “Why Zude?” (a presentation discussing the platform), the Zude support center, and an FAQ. All of these seemed well organized. Of particular interest was Tip-Z in the Zude support center, “the resident (virutal) Zudette known for her friendly help and assistance.” Maybe it’s just me being dense, or maybe it’s the fact that the site is in beta, but I couldn’t figure out how to start a chat with her. 

Surprisingly, I received a message from Steve Poppe, a spokesperson for Zude, not long after I started building my page. When I told him I was having trouble understanding some of Zude’s capabilities, he had another Zude employee contact me. The messaging interface, at least, is easy to understand:

 

And I have to say, the help I’ve received from real people, both in e-mail and through messages on the site, has been first rate. These people are very enthusiastic about what they’re doing, and what they’re bringing to the web. They’re also very knowledgeable, and clearly enjoy sharing that information. They know that the only way to gain and keep users is to make sure they have a fun experience with the site, and they do their best to achieve that goal.

It’s nice that Zude offers all of these different ways to understand the site, but I suppose it’s a little ironic that the most useful help I found (aside from the personal help), in terms of organization and understanding it, was on the toolbar that’s at the top of every page, under “Help.”

The biggest issue with the site, from my point of view, is that users MUST have pop-ups enabled in order to get the most out of it. Another issue with the site is that it can be a little overwhelming, at least at first. A friend of mine who checked Zude over before letting me use it on his computer (I had some concerns as far as possible download issues) commented that it looked like a rip-off of MySpace. As more than one reviewer noted, it’s very easy to make an ugly-looking page; MySpace taught us that, and cruising Zude provides additional proof of this.

Zude claims to be a lot more than just another social networking site. We’ll check out that claim in the next article. In the second part of this review, I’m actually going to build a Zude page and talk about some of the uses for this technology.

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