Zurker’s short unhappy life: an interview

POSTED: October 8, 2014

This is an edited version of an email interview that I did about Zurker, a “Facebook replacement” that was founded by Nick Oba. I can no longer remember who interviewed me, nor where (or indeed whether) the interview was published.

Zurker had an in-site virtual currency which was supposed to make members wealthy as the site grew, and many people began to suspect that it was a ponzi scheme. Nick Oba could never convincingly explain how the value of the “zen” was determined, and how new zen could be created without devaluing the existing “currency”. The site closed very suddenly in strange circumstances in 2012. This, according to Spinfold.com is how it ended:

Zurker which was evolving slowly into a social networking giant with an unique idea of giving away shares to the users who had accounts in Zurker. The platform was getting better every day. More and more members were actually using Zurker on a day-to-day basis. This was a sure sign that the project was on a steady course towards success. All of a sudden Zurker.com has been temporarily suspended as it does not comply with the jurisdictional laws. The founder has been investigated by the US Securities and Exchange Commission. Berzurker the founder of Zurker has reported that it might be necessary to shut Zurker down and rebuild Zurker with an emphasis on regulatory compliance, or to modify it in a different and more welcoming jurisdiction.

Why zurker is suspended? It was suspicious that Zurker came under investigation right after it started getting significance and succeeded in getting a very good Alexa ranking below 10000. BerZurker has mentioned that he is worried that someone in or near San Francisco might have triggered the investigation suggesting that some company which could not bear the growth of Zurker might have raised a complaint.

The founder has not yet revealed as of why Zurker has been suspended because even he was not been able to ascertain which laws or regulations they have violated.The sad news is that even the people who have contributed and funded this project believing in the idea and who did not even have access to Zurker data have been undergoing investigation by SEC.

Berzurker’s lawyer suggested him to suspend the operations of website or the project till the SEC prosecution ends as it would help in faster recovery and emerge again and thrive for success. Hope that Zurker starts its operations again in near future.

A few members have subsequently tried to restart it in various guises: either as Zurker or ZurkerNation. For all I know it may still exist (again).

What follows is the text of the question and answer session held by email on October 8, 2014.

Q: Every Zurker member has their own story to tell about how they joined and perhaps became an investor in the project. What were the circumstances under which you first discovered the Zurker.com website, and what were your immediate thoughts and reactions?

I discovered Zurker through a serendipitous procedure of random link-jumping. I had been interested in the idea of what constitutes a social network for some time, and I had been concerned about the ways in which Facebook in particular seemed to be moving to establish a radical monopoly; that is a monopoly over what we mean by “social network”. I did some googling and ended up with some articles that mentioned Zurker. I found the site and joined it, initially as research, and then decided to stay around.

I was given a small amount of money to invest in cultural projects and I decided to use some of this to buy “vShares” in Zurker. I did this in a spirit of optimistic scepticism, because I wanted to see what would develop from the inside, and I am glad that I did. I never expected this to be more than a donation, and I was surprised to discover that a whole bunch of people were apparently expecting this to be a path to riches.

I thought the site worked well, although it was frustrating to use in some ways. I thought that the invention of the Zen was either impossibly naïve or deviously fraudulent. It was never a currency and never could have been. I posted about this and got shot down by people who were (to my mind) too busy being deceived to stop and think.

I thought Zurker raised interesting questions in relation to my original desire to work out what a social network might look like. I thought Nick Oba was self-destructive in the way he ran it, and lo and behold he brought it all crashing down round him. The intervention of “government forces” during the latter stages of a somewhat dopey election period was either grossly exaggerated to give him a get-out clause, or the result of the ill-thought-out creation and promotion of the Zen.

Q: I’m aware that you have cited Zurker in some of the course material you use with your media students at Arcada University. How would you describe the appeal Zurker had for you personally and professionally, was it more objective or subjective and how did this evolve over time?

The appeal of Zurker was both philosophical and practical. Philosophically it was an example of someone attempting to will a social network into existence, which was fascinating to watch and participate in. Practically, it raised issues about designing a website to make it easy to use without being shallow or unattractive, and enabled me to set assignments for my students in terms of making them offer critiques of the current site and draw up proposals for redesigning it.

My interest in Zurker had objective components and subjective ones. I met some interesting people there. I had some fierce arguments. These served to clarify some of my thoughts. The election process was an interesting slow motion car crash.

My only major regret is the I stupidly (and unusually for me) forgot to back up some of my longer posts, especially the ones in which I analysed the reasons why the Zen was not, and could not be, a currency. They were arguments that stood on their own and should have been reposted on my own site. If anyone has backups of the site then I would be interested in grabbing those two posts.

I took three things away from the whole experience.

Firstly, the idea of a democratic social network is flawed, unless you clearly specify what this means. On its own (“democracy makes us different”) it manages to be both meaningless and misleading.

Secondly, a digital currency cannot be willed into existence. It has to have a rationale and it has to be related to something. The “basket of currencies” idea that Nick claimed anchored the Zen has no economic basis whatsoever.

Thirdly, Zurker, like Facebook, seemed to require constant growth to maintain itself, and this raises a series of very interesting issues beginning with “why is this necessary?”. In a world in which I can own, operate and maintain my website as a hobby for less than $100 a year, why does a social network need to cost anything to run?

This, in turn, raises the question: when is a social network quorate? If I ask 10 friends to join my network and they each ask 10 friends, can we just stop there? We have less than 110 people (some people will have overlapping friends and so some people may be invited more than once)

We could achieve “democracy” through creating federations of small autonomous networks. Why do we need one big global one, or two or three or thirty big global ones? This, in turn, depends on the model of sociality that you use in the background. Facebook, Zurker, Ello all seem to use a big world hierarchical model, in which I am more important than you because I have 1,234 friends and you only have 321 friends. Path, on the other hand, only lets you have a maximum of 140 friends and Avocado only allows you to have networks of 2 people.

These are some of the things I was thinking about while I was in Zurker, and because I was in Zurker wondering why I was there.

Q: One of the key elements in the promotion of Zurker was the implied “right” to remain anonymous, which for many people underpins the fundamental ideas of freedom of expression and non-exploitation of personal data. Recently we have seen these issues arise once again in changes to Facebook policy and Twitter demanding the right to release surveillance information to the public, yet you generally use your real persona and are seemingly quite open about your personal life over the internet. Where do you see yourself in this debate, and how important are these issues in your opinion?

This is a complicated debate because there is some merit in both sides. However, I personally believe that the idea of anonynimity on the net became normalised early on, with the early chat-room “handles”, and has carried on with little real discussion. What discussion there is usually takes the form of scare stories from one side about the other. If we have to use our real names then Group X will be victimised! If we are allowed to use pseudonyms then perverts and drug dealers will go about their business with no chance of being caught! Think about the children!

The real issue here is that both sides are completely correct. The other real issue is that there is no way to choose sides if you regard this as a questions of sides and use these questions as your starting point. So you have to start somewhere else.

In times past pseudonyms were accepted only in certain limited circumstances. Spies, whistleblowers, Deep Throat during the Watergate period, the Lone Ranger: all have used masked identities. All used them because they had defined “special circumstances” that made it necessary for them to depart from the norm of identifying yourself, and standing behind what you said and did. In other circumstances using a false identity was considered a breach of trust, and raised serious questions about your probity.

The decision to use pseudonyms and amusing handlers on the web arises partly from web history and partly as a result of people deciding to compartmentalise their lives. I demand the right to do things in my private life that I don’t want my workmates to find out about – and I demand the right to post pictures on Facebook about both aspects of my life using different names for the two so that nobody knows everything about me. I demand the right to post racist comments under the name TrueBrit while working for the Equal Opportunities Commission where I post under the name EqualOpsGuy.

The only time I have used another identity in preference to my own was in Second Life where it was not possible to use my own name, and where I wanted to play immersively. That is, I wanted to be in Second Life as a small, fat Italian immigrant to the island of Rosario called Chico Bertone. I played in Second Life in persona, treating the whole thing as a soap opera, as did many others. In that guise I maintained a strict split between SL and RL – and never asked anyone anything about their RL identities.

In my personal life I have tried to deal with bullying, not by hiding or turning away, but by confronting it. I have tried to do the same online. This is easier for me than for many people, because I am not part of a persecuted minority. Having said that, in my opinion many people take refuge in anonymity pre-emptively, fearing that they might be bullied or harassed unless they hide behind a mask. This is a peculiarly passive aggressive form of hubris.

Q: We now have a new “challenger” social network in the form of ello.co, whose founders are voicing the same objections to facebook’s business model and practices as Nick Oba encompassed in founding Zurker. While criticism of Mark Zuckerburg and facebook is by no means new, and other social networks have managed to find unique ways of establishing a market in the face of competition, is the rise of an “alternative facebook” inevitable and
do you still see Zurker as being a valid concept in this regard?

Trying to create an alternative Facebook is like trying to create an alternative Unilever, because you don’t like how they produce their washing powders. Even if you succeed, by the time you are as big as Unilever you will be producing washing powder the same way as them, because maintaining, and trying to grow, a global corporation of that size will impose severe limits on your ability to change your methods.

If the tobacco companies are changing then they are changing because governments have passed laws and as a result people have stopped smoking, not because they had to respond to alternative tobacco companies.

So I come back to my answer to the first question: what do we want social networks for, and how do we want them to work? If we want Facebook then we have got it. If we want a Facebook that doesn’t grab your data and sell it on, then we have to explain what the business model of this alternative will be. Perhaps it will charge a subscription fee. In that case it won’t be a FB alternative, it will be something else: smaller but, perhaps, owned by its subscribers in the way that a tennis club is owned by its members.

I am not sure that Ello is a challenger to Facebook and its founders have claimed that it isn’t. At the moment it certainly isn’t. It is more of a micro-publishing platform than a social network, and much more based round images than text. Sharing your photographs is very easy. Meeting people or getting responses of any kind to written posts is very difficult. Finding other people’s posts is very difficult. It may grow into a social network but if it does it will be after it has become a playground for designers, photographers and other visual artists. This will help determine the way in which it will grow, and I do not think it will ever grow into a place where families exchange gossip and old friends from university or prison reconnect.

Zurker hid behind a confused and contradictory set of premises. It wanted to be “democratic” without explaining what that could possibly mean in the context of a global network. It seems to me it had four options and chose none of them. It could have been a members’ club, as outlined above, where the members voted a committee in, and the committee employed designers, web hosts and so on. It couldn’t be this because the designer also wanted to be king. It could have been a workers’ cooperative, except that it didn’t produce anything. It could have been a consumer cooperative, like the Rochdale Pioneers, except the vShares were not intended to buy something to be shared by the members.

Finally, it could have attempted to be a micro-nation. This was closest to what actually seemed to be happening, except nobody spoke about it in these terms. If that was the goal then Zurker should have aligned itself with existing micro-nations, and abandoned any worry about Facebook and other businesses. See http://www.wikihow.com/Start-Your-Own-Country for an example of what I am talking about.

Is Zurker still a valid concept? I don’t know because I still don’t know which of those options is the one that Zurker stands for. Is a membership club a possible model for a social network? Possibly. It would certainly be interesting to find out. It would be democratic in a real sense. Is a micro-nation, with laws and a pretend currency a possibility? Certainly, and that too could be democratic in a sense.

There is a fifth model: diaspora* The creators of diaspora* intended it to be a decentralised, federated software that enabled everyone to make their own network and link it to any other networks they wanted. This is democracy through autonomy, and would be very interesting. Unfortunately the diaspora* software has problems in that everyone who runs a micro-network has to run it as a server, and running it is not as simple as joining FB or Ello or Zurker.
Personally I am in favour of any of these last three approaches!

Q: The anti-facebook doctrine essentially provided a causative approach to the development of Zurker, exemplified in the “Democracy Makes Us Different” motto and the drive towards a universal “Zurker Constitution”, with the parallel Zen currency and vShares systems providing the means of member ownership. Much of the interface itself was also shaped as a reactive response to the facebook feature list, although some facets stood out as being different in their own right. In spite of this, what if anything would you consider to have been truly revolutionary or genuinely innovative and new in the Zurker concept?

Let’s start with the idea of member ownership- There was no owner membership in Zurker at all, which is where some people might begin to look at Zurker as an example of fraud. There was much discussion of member ownership; there was much activity based on the assumption that member ownership existed; and Nick Oba encouraged people to believe that they “in effect” were owner members, but this was all bullshit.

People paid real money to buy “v-shares” which, allegedly would be turned into real shares at some point in the future when Nick Oba decided to float Zurker. The value of the v-shares would be determined by Nick Oba at that point. The Zen existed primarily as a way to outsource the business of collecting the money and handing it to Nick. The value of the Zen was essentially made up. It was money in the same way that a coupon in a newspaper offering you a free Big Mac is “money”. This is a different longer conversation which I posted as an essay on Zurker and forgot to save locally.

I am stating this at length because there really is nothing simpler than starting a network or a club that is owned by its members. You ask people for money for a specified purpose, either as a subscription, a membership fee, or a share, and each unti purchased buys you a vote. The group once quorate elects a committee who then buy or build whatever the group together to own (a social network in this case), and there you are. You have a membership owned social network. There is nothing hard about this yet in Zurker it was held out as a difficult goal to be attained at some time in the future. Primarily, I suspect, because Nick Oba had no intention of giving Zurker away.

This prevented Zurker from being the “different” it claimed to be and pretended to be in order to get members. In the end it meant that Zurker became a social network banded together around the issue of what was going on in Zurker. The network itself became the main topic of conversation in Zurker which meant it slowly ate itself.

There were however some interesting and innovative things there in the way that the site was designed. Essentially there were only people and hashtags. There were no pages, not threads, no groups, and this made for an interestingly different flow. I felt that the idea could have been improved but I was in awe of the concept. In theory, when the software was fully developed, you would start a group by filtering on a set of tags. The Anarchist Philosophy group, for example, would just be a collection of members who had agreed to filter posts using the tags “anarchy” and “philosophy”. This meant that groups were always potentially public and were as permanent or as temporary as the mutual agreement to meet round a particular collection of tags.

From this came the idea of three tabs for selecting main views: one gave you a timeline of every post on the site; one gave you a timeline of people that you followed; and one gave you a timeline of tags that you followed. The simplicity in this was very effective and could, given time and a few tweaks, have been rendered even more effective. It made all discussions open enough that people could join in, and it allowed discussions to flow into each other. Someone looking at the tag “philosophy” would see a wider range of posts than the Anarchist Philosophy group saw, for example. This apparently technical innovation actually affected the social flow inside the network, and I think that was genuinely innovative, and an idea that others could learn a powerful lesson from.

Q: Continuing with this theme, in light of your experiences in interacting through the platform with other users and taking part in the historical evolution of Zurker as a social network, what were some of the most interesting moments, whether positive or negative? In your opinion, what discoveries have been made, what lessons can be learned which would be of real value in any future project such as this?

It made me ask myself the question: why would you start a social network, and I thought of three reasons, each of which has different consequences for the founders and the network.

Firstly, you could start a network as a business proposition. Arguably Mark Zuckenberg has done that. In that case your drive would be to get and keep members. Who they were, what they did, and where they lived would be of little interest. Whoever they were and whatever they seemed to want, you would try to keep them and get more of them. If you started a network and it accidentally attracted football fans you would add stuff football fans wanted. If it suddenly attracted teenage Korean girls you would add things they wanted. Your purpose is simply to make money from the network as a business.

Secondly, you could start a network because you always liked organising things. Whenever you joined a club or organisation you always ended up as the chair or the treasurer and now you had thought of starting a network. Unlike the entrepreneur you wouldn’t want your network to keep growing, but you would want the glow of satisfaction in knowing that your members loved you. If your members loved you because they were discussing fishing that would be fine. If they loved you because they were discussing anarchism that would be fine too. You like organising, and the network is fun to organise.

Thirdly, you could be looking for a social network, fail to find one that you liked, and decide to start your own, with your own specific requirements. In this model you would be part of the discussions since that is why you started it. You would care very much who the other members were, and if the site was flooded with anarchists, fishermen or Korean teenagers you would probably sigh, leave it and start another one. In this model you are not looking to make money from the network, just to keep it going, and there is no need for it to grow any bigger than the size it needs to be to host decent conversations.

Zurker was doomed because Nick Oba either wasn’t clear or wouldn’t say which model he wanted. Some people saw their v-shares as a chance to become rich, and wanted to grow the network. Others saw it as a haven of like-minded people and wanted it to be the sort of network they would like to belong to. Nick encouraged both beliefs at once even though they were in flat contradiction.

If we want a network of like-minded people then we would need to ask ourselves the same kind of questions we would ask if we decided to hold a party. How many people do we want? How many people do we need, so the hall doesn’t feel empty? Are these two numbers compatible? (In other words if we want to invite 60 people but need to invite 600 to pay for the hall and catering then the 60 we actually want probably aren’t going to have the party they want to have, because the other 540 will get in the way.) In terms of a network we would need to ask how many people do we need to have to keep the conversation and the amusing uploads fresh enough that members check in regularly to see what’s new. We would then need to ask if this is enough to finance the network.

Since such a network could be built on top of Buddypress and stored on Amazon Web Servers the answer is probably yes, if the members are willing to pay an annual subscription of 10€. There is no reason for the network software to need constant new features. It just needs to manage people and tags in the way Nick Oba did, only with a few tweaks that would be easy to implement inside Buddypress.

The “anti-Facebook” would not, in my opinion, be another global network that is more democratic. It would be a federation of micro-networks, each self-sufficient and autonomous, each owned by its members, each built on open-source software so that networks can come and go, live and die, and each capable of exchanging posts with other networks within the federation. And each capable of pushing individual posts out to Facebook, Ello, Twitter, Tumblr and so on if its members wanted, because sometimes you want to say something to those friends who have not yet joined the federation.