With Social Media becoming an increasingly powerful genre, it was only a matter of time before it started to spawn innovation along the lines of our world – it’s full of people in different times and places. Notable in the time axis is Twitter whilst Rummble, Gowalla and FourSquare have done their bit for making sure Social goes places. So what could possibly be new in Zubworld?

Where Places become Social

Described by TechCrunch writer Steve O’Hear as “where Facebook meets Monopoly”, Zubworld takes places into a new dimension by connecting them with people who live there. Places – or Zubs – are bought for real money with most places starting at an affordable $5. If you fancy a high profile name like New York the cost goes up to about $50 and many of these obvious choice locations are taken. There’s a throttling on how fast you can accumulate places with a first time purchase of up to 3 locations followed one Zub a week thereafter.

Cost thereafter is free for life with a caveat that you must update your Zub at least every six months or risk removal. Apparently there will be the ability to sell Zubs at a future point which gives users an incentive to become a property tycoon. And that’s where the deal lies – build your Zub up by filling it with interesting content and you attract followers. A well developed Zub rises through the rankings of Camps to Hamlets to Colonys to Ultimate Zubs. Accordingly your valuation should rise although no details on how that happens are currently available on the Alpha or BETA sites I tested.

A Beautiful Landscape

One of the instantly striking features of Zubworld is it’s visual appearance. Cheerful might be a good way of describing it’s aesthetics with plenty of strategically placed user avatars making the places human. There’s the mapping tool which allows you to find locations to buy or view, either by searching or hitting a lucky dip button. Powered by Google it has all the slickness of Google Maps yet is capped with the 3.2 million places available to purchase on Zubworld. For instance, Wimbledon is available, however Merton and London are locatable but not Zubs or purchasable.

Screenshot from Zubworld BETA

Screenshot from Zubworld BETA

Zubworld also has it’s own language derived largely from Twitter’s syntax. You @msg people and you can use hashtags to create searches. There is also a new exclamation mark which links to places or Zubs – !Wimbledon for example goes to Zub. Whether Twitteresque tags appeal and are widely enough understood by the wider audience is something time will tell. Twitter’s trademark 140 character limit make it well suited to abbreviation and txt spk; some users cite it as being incomprehensible as a result and prefer Facebook’s plain talk.

Naturally the bigger inherent risk here is that if Twitter were ever to expand it’s vocabulary and use an exclamation mark for something else, such as companies, we’d see an embarrassing language clash not seen since the Americans tried to bring “fanny packs” to the British public.

There’s A Few Dandelions In Your Lawn

Sadly borrowing from syntax is where the Twitter integration ends. Whilst you can log in using OAuth through your Facebook or Twitter account, you won’t currently be notified when someone writes on your wall. Nor will you get informed of updates to Zubs you follow unless they tweet it out or post it to their Facebook. I mentioned this to them several times and they’ve assured me that notifications will be happening sometime soon; the site is still in BETA as I write this.

The Facebook like User Interface has a slick look and feel and yet hides the fact that some things do require more clicking to reach than you’d expect – your Zubs being the most notable example. Whereas I’d expect to be able to click straight into the places I own once logged in I found the experience of having to click through to a screen to click them to get into managing them and their followers messages too complicated. They need to be one-click if you’re making an experience about those places.

Drilling for Oil

Motivation. It’s the fuel that powers social sites. We get LinkedIn since as professionals we need to network. We Facebook because we like to hang out with friends and share experiences. Is the bait that you could one day sell the place you were born in or your favourite holiday spot sufficient to make you its tourist board?

Right now it seems to be working on the fact that it’s a relatively small community of people who actually like each other. If it drifts off into relative nerddom and becomes about chronicling the history of places then it’s hard to see how it’ll capitalise on its potential. Afterall I own the !Wimbledon Zub and yet my hometown has well over 100,000 inhabitants in real life. Do they really care for my amateur history of their town? What’s more the borough of Merton itself has over quarter of a million residents and that’s to say nothing of the London and Surrey populace who visit daily. In that sense I’m finding Zubworld is not defining itself clearly as a game; there are not Community Chest cards and no taxes to stimulate play so what we’re left with is similar to a collection of Facebook fan pages for places.

However, unlike the Facebook fan page, it’s much harder for us to exploit these pages for commercial revenues. If, as a Zubber, I could have started showcasing Wimbledon’s enviable reputation, just 6,972 steps down the ladder from Silicon Valley, as a veritable hotbed of tech start ups, I might have been able to advertise my get togethers for like minded locals. I might have been able to get sponsorship from the local businesses that support that eco-system and it might have paid me to take Zubworld quite seriously. But it’s not.

Zubworld lacks a real world thrust that makes it social like Meetup whilst at the same time failing to have the gamepower that virtual social worlds like Evony enjoy where you can build things that don’t really exist, create alliances and nobble your neighbours. As such it’s landing awkwardly in the gulley between game and network. Founder Paul Woodman was quoted as saying he’s “not very impressed or interested” in Social Networking and doesn’t use it. Possibly doing some market research into why people connect socially may help him realign Zubworld with a big fat helping of user-centric “what’s in it for me?” and take what is at the moment a cute concept through to being a fully fledged business model and user experience. Rome wasn’t built in a day and there’s enough potential in this idea for it to grow into a flourishing empire. I’ll wait and see.

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