That Other Social Network that Almost Took Over the World
Maybe it was Orkut Büyükkökten’s difficulties making friends in elementary school that led him to create Orkut. If this were a Hollywood movie, we would go through a 60/30 dip in and out of black. Suddenly our senses would swell with an astounding montage of glowing type effects, clever edits of footage sped up 50% (naturally). A flurry of keyboards, exhausted people, resolute engineers with their faces practically in the computer screens, sweating beer, sweating people, pranks, dancing, students shrugging off what we in the audience know will eventually be a masterpiece. “hypnotic electric piano motifs with computer data loops & scientific synth sequences over technological rhythms.” (Audio Network, 2019)
Okay, it is starting to sound like a film that has already been made. As with the leading player in the 2010 film, “The Social Network,” Büyükkökten was a social media pioneer who created a popular social networking site. And it came pretty close to taking over the world.
But it didn’t.
THE OTHER SOCIAL NETWORK
Orkut, the social platform, was a nutty potpourri of ahead of its time inventiveness, a massive portion of communality, with a pinch of sophomoric amoralism. And it was all chased down with an air of digital exclusivity, and mothered by the, even then, formable mothership that was Google.
Orkut was way bigger than you ever realized, (if you ever heard of it at all).
Sure, looking back at it now, Orkut in the United States could probably be explained away as a less popular failure than Myspace, that failed similarly to Myspace. With Orkut being your backyard party that no one wanted to show up to because you use mustard in your macaroni salad, which is terrible. Oh, and you live at your mom’s house. Versus the epic Myspace Hindenburg, that was the Ja-Rule, Fyre Festival complete with sad cheese sandwiches.
Even as fun as it was to type the out that silly analogy, Orkut was pretty huge in its own right and was a big deal overseas. Where in some places it is even looking to make a comeback.
IN THE BEGINNING
Büyükkökten moved from Germany to Turkey when he was 9, and when he got there, he was picked on frequently. “Years later he ran into one of the bullies in [an] Istanbul bar and sought an explanation” according to the bully “they were envious,” of how easy he made it look to be such a good student. (Hasan, 2019)
After failing to connect with his classmates as a child, he would go on later in life, “trying to find ways to connect people.” According to Saad Hasan of TRT World, an international Turkish news channel. “Along the way, he created Club Nexus, one of the earliest social networks.” Which btw, according to “David Kirkpatrick, author of The Facebook Effect,” the Club Nexus site “was probably…the first real social network ever launched in the United States.'” (Hasan, 2019)
“At Google, employees were encouraged to work on their own projects besides their routine work,” and so Büyükkökten decided to create a prototype social networking site. Which he then brought to the top brass at Google, who must have dug it as Orkut.com were to go online in January 2004. Which was “two weeks before Mark Zuckerberg started his own experiment, Thefacebook.com,” wrote Saad Hasan in TRT World. (Hasan, 2019)
“The fledgling site was Google’s first foray into a social network in the days before anyone knew what a ‘social network’ was,” said Forbe’s Ellen Huet. Google launched Orkut “fresh [after] a failed attempt to buy hotshot-of-the-day Friendster.” (Huet, 2014)
“Orkut’s interface was clean, simple and sophisticated, making it easy for users to navigate and join communities,” and the site “carried a high prestige factor due to its invite-only membership list.” These and other factors helped the networking site shoot out of the gate with “50,000 established communities,” and within only one year, the number of communities reached 1,500,000. (Mahoney & Tang, 2017)
GET A ROOM
As I hinted at earlier Orkut had a bit of a promiscuous side. There was a feature where “you could add your friend to your crush list, and…if your crush added you” to their crush list you would get a notification telling you as much. (Ladage, 2014)
And as Wired describes in an eye-grabbing, albeit dated headline, “did google patent the ‘hot or not’ sexiness ranking system?” Never mind the salacious, to Gen Xer headline that conjures a mental image of a group of lusty bro’s surrounding a failing Packard Bell in a college dorm room ranking competing headshots while swilling cheap beer. Wired had a point, even if the “sexy” ranking were created inocently, it certainly plays out a bit like “Hot or Not.” And, seriously, who innocently creates a sexy-meter? (Baldwin, 2012)
Google filed a continuation of a patent granted in August 2011 titled, “Methods and systems for rating associated members in a network.” (Baldwin, 2012)
Their system outlines such dull categories as “Trusty” which could “indicate the trustworthiness of [a] member” and a “Cool” rating which could “indicate how trendy or popular the person is.” All of which seems harmless enough, humans are famous for apotheosizing other humans. But the “Sexy” category for “[indicating] how attractive the person is,” would undoubtedly cause concern today in any human resources department. (Buyukkokten & Smith, 2011)
And conversely “According to other embodiments, rating categories can comprise negative ratings such as untrustworthy, non-sexy, or uncool.” And if the negative rankings were to snowball on someone, it could lead to tanking egos. With rankings described as “very uncool, super uncool,” and although they don’t mention it in their filing one can imagine that “very non-sexy, and super non-sexy” was in play as well. (Buyukkokten & Smith, 2011)
So, while Orkut looked to be great place in the online world for sparking a love connection, it also may have incited a few thrown fists IRL.
ORKUT’S PLACE IN THE WORLD
Speaking of the world, Orkut found some serious success out there in it. “With 15.6 billion page views monthly…in Brazil, where Facebook and MySpace [were] virtually unknown, Orkut [had] become a smash hit,” and one that seemed to be largely a lucky fluke. “The site hadn’t made any special appeal to Brazilians, and only began to offer a Portuguese-language option in April of 2005, long after it had become the social network of choice in Brazil.” (Greenberg, 2007)
“There [was an] unintentional instant association between the words Orkut, Iogurte, and Yakut in Brazil. Orkut sounds like Yakult or ‘iogurte’ (yogurt). Yakult is the Brazilian version of the popular Japanese Yakult yogurt drink,” contended Loren Baker on Search Engine Journal about why the Brazilians loved Orkut so much. “Everyone drinks,” the Yakult yogurt drink “in Brazil when they’re kids.” (Baker, 2006)
Even though Orkut never intentionally marketed itself to Brazilians when “it became the biggest player in the market, Orkut’s operations were moved to Brazil in 2008.” Where Orkut reigned supreme for nearly four years and “at that time, it had 32.7 million users in Brazil — three times as many as Facebook — but that didn’t last long. Six months later, Facebook took the lead, and Orkut never reigned again.” (Huet, 2014)
Orkut also got pretty huge in India. Poulomi Banerjee of the Hindustan Times wrote in an Indian Gen Z retrospective that “Orkut was [their] first brush with social media. Long-lost acquaintances were traced, new friends made even as love blossomed, all via Orkut.” (Banerjee, 2019)
“Orkut had a fiercely loyal fanbase in the initial phase. To become an Orkut user, you needed an invitation. ‘That was a big thing, it accorded you a sense of pride, after all, you had to be invited, and the medium was not open to all.'” Navroze Dhondy was quoted in ThePrint, a digital news platform based in New Dehli. (Venkatesh, 2019)
“While the rest of the world had turned to Facebook, Indian social media users in large part stuck around with Orkut, until about 2009. During this period, Orkut gave tough competition to Facebook,” said Mahua Venkatesh in ThePrint. (Venkatesh, 2019) But the end was nigh for Orkut’s India adventure. “In July 2010, after dominating the Indian social networking space for six good years, [it] lost out for the first time to Facebook. In September 2010, Facebook’s surge was confirmed, when its user base grew to 24.3 million as compared to Orkut’s 18.7 million.” (Ananth, 2014)
WHY IT FAILED
Some say that Google “could have tried to strengthen Orkut with new features…Google stayed away from improving upon Orkut, [and] Facebook kept updating itself with time.” Prasanto Kumar Roy, a technology analyst, told ThePrint. “Though Orkut was simple to operate in the initial phase, it got complicated and slow…Facebook, on the other hand, kept changing its features and design to keep up with the demands of the users.” (Venkatesh, 2019)
Google also launched an altogether new product with similar features and goals: Google Plus. The two programs running concurrently could have cannibalized their audiences, leading to the idea that “the writing was on the wall [for Orkut] once Google Plus was launched.” (Venkatesh, 2019)
Ultimately what it came down to was that “Orkut stopped meeting the needs of the culture and audiences,” and those audiences moved on to other “culturally appropriate cross-platform social media endeavors.” (Mahoney & Tang, 2017)
HELLO? THERE’S STILL HOPE FOR ORKUT (BÜYÜKKÖKTEN)
Büyükkökten has a new social media platform called “Hello.” In which he is hoping to make a comeback in the places where Orkut had made its last brave stand against Facebook, “We started in Brazil in July 2016… About 35,000 users were a part of our beta testing in the Indian market. Orkut was huge in India, and I’m delighted to say hello to India once again,” Büyükkökten said in Live Mint. (Live Mint, 2018)
“We need a fresh start. Hello is built around interest-based communities where users with same interests can connect, leading to true connections,” Büyükkökten said in Live Mint. “If you look at social media today, it has isolated people instead of bringing them closer. It has become more about broadcasting than sharing.” (Live Mint, 2018)
The Hello app feels a bit like Instagram, which probably makes sense due to Instagram’s mega-popularity there. “In India, everyone is on Facebook – not just your friend or boyfriend, but also your teacher and grandmother…awkward, right? Yeah, that’s why so many young people in India are looking at Instagram these days,” said Nirmalya Ghosh in Awesome India. “Instagram is the ‘new cool’ – just as Facebook was about ten years back.” (Ghosh, 2019)
As of January 2019, “there [were] 72 million active Instagram users in India. India is only second to the United States when it comes to the number of active Instagram users.” (Ghosh, 2019)
Could Hello eventually rocket Büyükkökten back to his former Orkut glory days? Could we eventually get another social network film written by an Aaron Sorkin wannabe, retelling Büyükkökten’s rise and fall and then rise again? I guess we’ll have to just keep an open mind and an eye out for a trailer on YouTube.
Ananth, V. (2014, September 30). The rise, fall and subsequent death of Orkut. Retrieved from Live Mint: https://www.livemint.com/Consumer/zAYIirsyDYC2ZVcNxGkXcJ/The-rise-fall-and-subsequent-death-of-Orkut.html
Audio Network. (2019). FAINT CONNECTIONS. Retrieved from Audio Network: https://www.audionetwork.com/browse/m/track/faint-connections_1006912
Baker, L. (2006, March 9). Why Brazil Loves Orkut! Retrieved from Search Engine Journal: https://www.searchenginejournal.com/why-brazil-loves-orkut/3082/#close)
Baldwin, R. (2012, April 25). Did Google Patent the ‘Hot or Not’ Sexiness Ranking System? Retrieved from Wired: https://www.wired.com/2012/04/did-google-patent-the-hot-or-not-sexiness-ranking-system/
Banerjee, P. (2019, July 6). 20@20: Looking back at the first two decades of the millennium. Retrieved from Hindustan Times : https://www.hindustantimes.com/lifestyle/20-20-looking-back-at-the-first-two-decades-of-the-millennium/story-1kUX3FbDkptYXlqoTRPMvJ.html
Buyukkokten, O., & Smith, A. D. (2011, April 30). Methods and systems for rating associated members in a social network. Retrieved from United States Patent: http://patft.uspto.gov/netacgi/nph-Parser?Sect1=PTO2&Sect2=HITOFF&u=%2Fnetahtml%2FPTO%2Fsearch-adv.htm&r=1&p=1&f=G&l=50&d=PTXT&S1=8010459.PN.&OS=pn/8010459&RS=PN/8010459
Ghosh, N. (2019, January 21). Instagram India Stats 2019: How Popular is Instagram in India. Retrieved from Awesome India: https://www.awesomeindia.in/instagram-india-stats-2019-popular-instagram-india/
Greenberg, A. (2007, August 28). Google’s Secret Society. Retrieved from Forbes: https://www.forbes.com/2007/08/28/google-brazil-network-tech-cx_ag_0828orkut.html#4ce9f1ad46e5
Hasan, S. (2019, April 15). Before Facebook, there was Orkut Buyukkokten. Retrieved from TRT World: https://www.trtworld.com/magazine/before-facebook-there-was-orkut-buyukkokten-25878
Huet, E. (2014, June 30). Google Finally Shuts Down Orkut, Its First Social Network. Retrieved from Forbes: https://www.forbes.com/sites/ellenhuet/2014/06/30/google-kills-orkut/#1cad2125634b
Ladage, R. (2014, July 7). Top 5: Orkut Features We Will Miss. Retrieved from India Times: https://www.indiatimes.com/technology/internet/top-5-orkut-features-we-will-miss-159392.html
Live Mint. (2018, April 11). Hello, it’s Orkut again! Retrieved from Live Mint: https://www.livemint.com/Companies/UuVDfpDkyEykbZHJCMT9cN/Hello-its-Orkut-again.html
Mahoney, L., & Tang, T. (2017). Strategic Social Media. Chichester: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
Venkatesh, M. (2019, June 2). Orkut, the site where Indians made ‘frandships’ before Facebook came along. Retrieved from The Print: https://theprint.in/economy/brandma/orkut-the-site-where-indians-made-frandships-before-facebook-came-along/244499/