The most distracting thing about early Orkut is Marc Canter’s open marriage.
Orkut, if you don’t know, is a social networking website. There are several of these services, of which the best-known are LinkedIn, good for professional networking, and Friendster, for turning friends of friends into “activity partners” (snicker). I’m waiting for Dumpster, myself.
Orkut is the private bootstrap project of a Google engineer, which was enough to start buzz when it launched last month. Cunningly, at launch it was invitation-only, creating further ripples of vanity. I don’t know how the original Orkut Mayflower community was chosen, but here’s how it works now:
Someone lists you as their friend on Orkut. You get an email asking you to visit the site and acknowledge that person. “Is Chris Locke your friend?” Orkut asks, like MacCarthy’s Senate committee. Shyly, I admit that he might be. “Are you sure Chris Locke is your friend?” it demands. Oh God. When I was seven, the wrong answer to that kind of question meant social death. It still gives me the playground heebie-jeebies. I press on, hoping the world won’t shun me.
Invitation in hand, I now create my own Orkut profile. I puzzle out the Brand Called Me with the help of leading questions. Which religion are you? What ethnicity are you? List your favourite books, movies, and music. Have kids? Do they live with you? Check boxes to describe your sense of humour. (There is no box for ‘None’.) What lesson did you learn from previous relationships? Orkut, it seems, is the hectoring date I’d send straight to voicemail the next day.
When my profile has been polished I can invite friends of my own, though mostly I prefer to wait to be asked. My flesh-and-blood friends aren’t online types, and anyhow I know how to find them. But of curiosity I invite some far-flung friends to join my gang, hoping to balance the current tilt towards American tech-workers. Doesn’t work. They send email excuses.
Tiny photos of my Orkut friends are tiled on my home page, a little mosaic of love. They are listed in order of who has most friends.* In most cases I’ve never met them. They can write testimonials, or rate my coolness and sexiness. This makes me anxious. Perhaps I should write a voting-bot to inflate my rankings. Below my friends’ photos are their names, their availability, and their number of friends, which for entertainment value I choose to read as age instead. Betsy is married and 78. Peter is committed and 26. I am 11.
I click on Jeneane’s name and see her mosaic of love, tiled in self-reinforcing popularity order. Marc Canter is top-left. Marc is 442 and has an open marriage. His photo shows a slight Salman Rushdie leer. I click on another name and there he is again, top-left, looking relatively fresh for his age. And up he pops on Frank’s page. Who is Marc Canter, the Orkut MVP? I start to think about his open marriage, which seems like none of my damn business except that the fact of it occupies prime real estate on every Orkut page I visit. In my mind, ‘Marc, Open Marriage, 442’ becomes the Orkut tagline. (In fact, the real tagline is even dorkier: “Expand the circumference of your social circle.”) I am slightly disturbed by this brand, and feel, perhaps unfairly, that friendship is the wrong term for 442 connections.
The directness of Orkut and Friendster is clunky. Real people don’t say “Are you my friend?” and, past the playground, they don’t get others to ask on their behalf. Worse is the lack of shading, the Friend/Not Friend binary that belongs in a videogame. And the popularity-contest aspects make me regress to touchy adolescence (which, granted, doesn’t take much).
Yesterday I got a plaintive group message: “Can someone explain what Orkut is all about and how I can use it properly? I’m feeling a little lost right now.” Good question. Orkut wants to be a bottom-up, emergent technology. Members can self-organize into interest groups, for example, Writing, Burning Man, Pet Shop Boys, etc. You’re allowed to send blanket messages to friends of friends, and you get to see how people are linked to you, which is fun. So far I am connected to 23,442 people through 11 friends, presumably thanks to the keeners. If I could control the minds of 23,442 people I could take over the world. More usefully, I could find kindred spirits no matter where I am.
Orkut and Friendster aren’t services I’d use much myself, given that I lurk in the kitchen at parties. I meet plenty of people here at Ego HQ, and if distance were on my side I’d spend more time with real people, not thumbnail photos. But the online world is a great source of likeminded people, even for cannibals. Those who don’t keep personal sites–and many of those who do–still want to tap into that. The strength of these services is that they takes the friction out of expressing interest, both in individuals and in groups.
*Update: They have now fixed the bug that sorted friends in descending order of their number of connections. Much better, Orkutters.