Blogging was where we began, and how we built our company so we have preserved this archive to show how our thinking developed over a decade of developing the use of social technology inside organisations

The flight of the Orkut

by

The flight of the Orkut draws a sad arc across the memetic sky that really makes me wonder about the nature of the virtual world I inhabit. A developer’s personal project within Google designed to create Yet Another Social Network (YASN) Web site has gone from being the hot new thing to a failed experiment *in under a week*
After seeing some early reports and pondering an invitation to join, I noticed Lilia tracking the hype curve. Elsewhere, Liz Lawley liked Orkut and set about comparing and contrasting Orkut with other online social networking sites, as did Stuart Henshall
Following a few brief notes from others, Clay Shirky got down to some serious link traversal analysis: “…even as more users are joining, average path length is falling. It was 4.4 a few hours ago, and its down to 3.8 now.” Martin Roell, on the other hand, made some sensible comments about the endemic problem of classifying relationships in online social networks and how this was affecting Orkut too
Cory Doctorow, who obviously gets invited to way too many parties already, remarked that Orkut sucked (just like all the other YASNs) and said Google is missing a trick in combining social networking with search. In response, Marc Canter does the only sensible thing, which is to attack the ‘British Intellectual Etech crowd’ who all have their own personal FOAF servers (presumably to hide the fact that we are *all* personal friends with Saddam Hussein and secretly admire France). Marc, who admits that some folks seem to delight in attaining the most friends (like me!) for no reason at all – except to do it”, also argues that we need centralised organisation of our FOAF files to take the social networking craze forward and reminds us that although YASNs may seem trivial now, they are just a precursor to the wonderful functionality that will emerge when we embed social networking into other, everyday applications. To be fair, he is right on both counts
And then …. poof! ….. it disappeared. Normally a cheerleader for the YASN business model, even the esteemed Ross Mayfield stepped up to bury Orkut and explain why it doesn’t work: “orkurt doesn’t work because it lacks constraints. Nothing holds people back. Nobody knows what a friend means. No social capital on the line. Its so fun and easy, choices and incentives are irrational.”Chris Heathcote went further and pulled out his cluedo figures to point out some of the obvious flaws in the YASN approach, not least the fact that these systems depend on ever more people joining to create new connections which seem to inexorably lead towards binary relationships – friendship comes to mean one-degree connections only. You could argue that Chris is a cheese-appreciating surrender monkey, but actually his point reminds me of the pyramid selling schemes based on “how to make money” or “how to network your way to wealth” that were so rampant in the 1980’s. Indeed, Thomas Power’s simply stated philosophy for Ecademy is based on this idea, it seems to me: contacts = money; more contacts = more money
Finally, Jason Kottke illustrates the absurdity of the YASN scene with his advert for an online social networking assistant to manage his profiles and traffic in the various YASNs to which he is invited
So, what does this all mean
First, the YASN novelty has worn off and we must now surely just assimilate its basic features into specific applications with specific purposes for specific groups of people. This is what we at Headshift have been wrestling with in the area of mental health service improvement in the UK for over a year – yes, that said “year” … as in 52 weeks, and we are engaged with several other stakeholder groups to slowly and appropriately introduce these concepts into their online communications activity. When we do this, we should also remember that notions of friendship and relationships formation are remarkably varied across national and organisational cultures. If anything, the American model is the exception, not the rule. Indeed, networks/cultures with greater levels of real-world social capital have far less need for technology-mediated relationship formation, but they may find other uses for the ideas behind online social networking
Second, though, I can’t help thinking there is something rather odd about the geek culture that supports the YASN hype. Maybe in years to come, people will look back on the limited phenomenon of the online social networking sites and wonder at our complete idiocy, decadence or both. When my daughter grows up and asks what I was doing whilst a corrupt elite and its allies were taking the world to hell in a handbasket, will I tell her I was sitting in front of a powerbook counting my friends …. over and over again
The Slovene philosopher Slavoj Zizek makes two points about our postmodern condition that are ringing like bells in my head when I watch intelligent, well-connected and privileged people wasting hours of their lives telling websites who their friends are every time a geeky engineer decides to put up a YASN site
In “On Belief”, Zizek talks about the ‘future shock’ that is such a part of postmodern living

“Before one can accustom oneself to an invention, it is already supplanted by a new one, so that more and more one lacks the most elementary ‘cognitive mapping'”

He sees this as a key driver behind our adoption of Western Buddhism, Taoism and (dare I add) network fetishism, which allow us just enough critical distance from the accelerating rhythm of technological progress and social change whilst simultaneously comforting us with the notion that we cannot change the natural flow of things. We don’t just go with the flow these days, we measure its viscosity and count how many nodes it is connected to
In “Welcome to the Desert of the Real,” he picks up on Alain Badiou’s idea that the Twentieth Century began with the pursuit of the “real” in all its bloody, violent technicolour, but ended in pure spectacle, whilst the postmodern era seeks spectacle but ultimately results in self-harm, fundamentalisms and other symptoms of a desperation for authentic “real” experience:

“The ultimate American paranoiac fantasy is that of an individual living in a small idyllic Californian city, a consumerist paradise, who suddenly starts to suspect that the world he lives in is a fake, a spectacle staged to convince him that he lives in a real world, while all people around him are effectively actors and extras in a gigantic show … The underlying experience of Time Out of Joint and of The Truman Show is that the late capitalist consumerist Californian paradise is, in its very hyper-reality, in a way IRREAL, substanceless, deprived of
the material inertia.”

This is not to suggest that online social networking has no “real-world” role to play in our work, our social lives or in bringing people together in pursuit of mutual understanding and collaboration – quite the contrary – but unless we can progress beyond the childish instinct to prove how popular/connected we are, and show some more meaningful uses of these technologies, then nobody will believe us
There are some incredibly exciting ideas and developments (mostly coming out of the united States, I should add) such as Del.icio.us and work on underlying protocols such as RSS, Atom, FOAF, etc. We need our YASN pioneers, just as we needed early weblog pioneers, to help us learn lessons and develop tools and techniques that can be used more widely within a social software context. But if we are to convince the next wave of organisations and users to engage with this stuff, then we need to build on this experience and show some compelling real-world examples of online social networking in action, rather than social networking for its own sake
Just in case I don’t see you in Orkut or another online social networking system: Good morning, Good Evening and Good Night!


icarus.gifThe flight of Orkut: implications for online social networking

18 Responses to The flight of the Orkut

  1. By Conversations with Dina on January 27, 2004 at 3:13 pm

    My Blog is my Social Software and my Social Network

    All the uproar over Orkut – the crazy frenzy with which many of us signed on and went on a ‘social networking’ binge – the race

  2. By Lilia on January 27, 2004 at 3:19 pm

    Thanks for the great overview and making me smiling 🙂

  3. By Dina on January 27, 2004 at 4:22 pm

    A terrific piece Lee – thanks ! Made me smile too 🙂

  4. By Ton's Interdependent Thoughts on January 27, 2004 at 6:00 pm

    Orkut and the failure of social networking platforms

    Martin Roell reflects on the shortcomings of Orkut, and utters reservations I wholeheartedly agree with. The same goes for Ryze, LinkedIn and others. In an attempt to do something with the suggestions Martin gives to Orkut, I have added a…

  5. By Mathemagenic on January 27, 2004 at 6:02 pm

    Networking: YASNs vs. blogs

    I’m supposed to work on a paper abstract, but I find all reasons not to do it (I guess next to studying my own multitasking habits I have to study what turns me into “can’t write right now” mode 🙂 In such a case my favourite distractor is my news aggrega

  6. By Das E-Business Weblog on January 29, 2004 at 11:23 am

    Playing around with Orkut

    I have been playing around with Orkut.com a lot in the last 24 hours. One thing I don’t understand about these Social Networking Platforms is why they ask for useless information and why they don’t ask for the interesting things.

  7. By apophenia on January 31, 2004 at 7:09 am

    venting my contempt for orkut

    As i write this, it’s down again. But that doesn’t mean that i haven’t been thinking about it. And dear god, everyone and their mother has written about it. At the bottom of this rant, i’ve included some of the ones that have been making me think (and …

  8. By apophenia on January 31, 2004 at 7:09 am

    venting my contempt for orkut

    As i write this, it’s down again. But that doesn’t mean that i haven’t been thinking about it. And dear god, everyone and their mother has written about it. At the bottom of this rant, i’ve included some of the ones that have been making me think (and …

  9. By Online Business Networking Blog on January 31, 2004 at 9:05 am

    High expectations of social networking sites

    A number of people, including Ton Zijlstra, Earl Mardle, and Martin Roell have written about the “failing” of social networking sites, Orkut in particular, to represent relationships between people in a meaningful way. They say that the sites are…

  10. By Lonnie Taylor on February 2, 2004 at 5:52 am

    I don’t like their privacy policy. They themselves will not give your information to a third party, but will give it to Google which they are affiliated with. Any privacy policy that Google has does not apply to the information that Orkurt gives them becuase they get it from Orkurt, not you. Therefore Google could do what they want with it. Google has its own marketing and advertising department.
    Information you will give Okurt which would help marketers is not strictly your email address. They are a personal interest website regarding hobbies, dating, and business. They or Google could use your information for market research and analysis.
    Also note that they are by invitation only at this time. They know who originally recieved the invitation and more than likely know those people’s interests and market behavior. That means that anyone who is invited by those individuals can be tracked according to the original data.
    This setup is much like the former “6 Degrees” website where people were linked together by relationship. It’s a marketing jackpot.

  11. By thinkabout it on May 4, 2004 at 10:28 pm

    “Maybe in years to come, people will look back on the limited phenomenon of the online social networking sites and wonder at our complete idiocy, decadence or both. When my daughter grows up and asks what I was doing whilst a corrupt elite and its allies were taking the world to hell in a handbasket, will I tell her I was sitting in front of a powerbook counting my friends …. over and over again?”
    umm, i don’t think you get it. at all. this is the future of information dissemination and knowledge management at its finest. In fact, I think these social networks and other ONLINE COMMUNICATIONS are going to be the way that the non-corrupt people take back the power from the corrupt elite. Take moveon.org.
    Lately, it seems the people that are most informed about the world and the people in it are the same people sitting in front of their computers.

  12. By Lee Bryant on May 5, 2004 at 10:20 am

    Orkut is *not* the future of Info dissemination and KM – trust me on this. Moveon.org and Orkut are very different beasts (and moveone.org is excellent, BTW).
    The future of knowledge sharing *will* incorporate social networking and more people-based approaches, but the early YASNs such as Orkut are way off the mark for most normal people.
    Regarding your last comment, if that is the case (and I don’t necessarily disagree completely) then please explain why the Iraq war was allowed to happen, why Berlusconi is Italy’s longest serving PM for some time and also why there is no outcry at the US effectively abandoning even a pretence of respect for international law.
    You should not overestimate the ability of the virtual world to impact on the real.

  13. By Bill Myong on July 1, 2004 at 1:44 am

    This is my personal homepage.
    Bill Myong o

  14. By Heather on July 14, 2004 at 3:11 am

    FunHi invite plz.

  15. By Muhammad Asif on December 20, 2004 at 9:54 am

    Hello:
    i want to be a member of Orkurt.com……………kindly help me.

  16. By Ste on August 16, 2005 at 8:37 pm

    Great article. To find out more about ecademy…
    http://ecadeblog.blogspot.com/
    Blogging about the frequently bizarre underbelly of Ecademy

  17. By Headshift on May 9, 2006 at 2:31 pm

    ETCON: Social networking tools

    A roundup of some key ideas and demos relating to social networking tools at ETCON 2004

  18. By ZACHARY on February 12, 2009 at 12:17 pm

    You know, I’m affraid that our own children will live in the time when they will theirselves rather tell us something by some utilities or through Internet, than face-to-face… So I do not think they will think about us as about geeks…