An Ode to Orkut

There was a time not so long ago which today would be difficult to even imagine having existed. I am talking about those ancient days when there was no way to meet people other than physically getting out of your house and encounter other human beings face to face. Young Indian people were the ones who suffered the most because thanks to Indian Culture, they simply could not meet other young Indian people of the opposite gender (I am not saying sex as that is against Indian Culture), other than those who were lucky enough to be studying in co-ed schools and colleges. For the remaining majority, the only way to decipher the mystery of the other half of humanity whose anatomy varied from that of their own was either to summon all their willpower to you know, talk to them without being called names by “society” or wait to appear as an entry in a diary of a depraved-looking uncle or as an advertisement in the matrimonial page of the local newspaper. Yes, life was tough. Then the internet happened.

In the final years of the 20th Century the world was gripped in a panic of apocalyptic proportions. The Y2K bug loomed large and threatened to annihilate the great digital civilization of 0s and 1s humankind had built up and send us back to the times when people wore ridiculous wigs and spoke things like “whenceforth art thou” and “The shit hath hitteth the fan-ith“. The world had to be saved and there was good money to be made out of it. Suddenly “IT” was everywhere and everyone was learning something or the other about computers and countless B.Tech victims were born. The new Millennium dawned without incident but India, us included, had discovered the internet, and the internet was good. Though it was the repository of all of humanity’s information and all that, none of us noticed. What we saw the internet as was as our preordained messiah who had arrived to release us from our eternal prison of female-lessness through Rs.100-per-hour internet cafes.

It was the year 2000. It was the age of exploration and Yahoo! Chat was the desired destination. For the first time in many centuries, the average Indian man could actually ‘chat’ with women without all the complications of face-to-face dealings and stuff! However, most of those hours spent in cramped cubicles with dim hopes that some anjali_19f or rohiniekm or sweetneha22 would take the bait and reply to the “asl plz” and “hi, you are so sweet“s of staggeringly puerile handles like krazydreams and johny4ever and jd_luvnjoy ended up just that, wasted. Y! Chat lost its novelty pretty fast but there was no stopping now. Since the “real” ladies around us had consecrated themselves on their lofty pedestals, divas nigh unattainable, astute and pristine, the only way to fill the holes in our souls was to turn to the proverbial ocean full of (virtual) fish, because like ARR sir said, (press play)

Then came along Orkut, which again, changed everything.

Those Were the Days (of Orkut), my Friend

Nobody knows how Orkut reached India. There were some other “social networking” (though they were not called so yet) sites like Hi5 and MySpace already around but they never aroused the kind of excitement Orkut generated. It’s rise was sudden; it was almost as if one day it wasn’t there and the next day it was and Indians, especially the youth fell for it hook, line and sinker. The craze was almost like an epidemic attracting people to it, many of them for the first time to the internet, amazed at the prospect of looking at and reading about people they could never have the courage or opportunity to chat up in real life. It was in 2006 April when a roommate sent me an invite to join Orkut. Having heard a lot about this new invention where you could add friends anywhere in the world and chat and upload photos and stuff, I took the plunge and then there was no looking back. Long hours were spent in college computer labs and internet cafes sending and replying to scraps, writing testimonials, uploading photos and of course sifting through profiles of people known and mostly unknown, trying to fish in its indigo-blue waters. Hours were wasted trying to find old and present flames, crushes and connections, every single person who we ever came across in our lives were searched for, located, analyzed, friend requests sent and chatted up, mostly unsuccessfully. Through their profiles, photos, testimonials and conversations we learned so much about people without even having to speak to them even once. Times were good and my affair with Orkut continued for exactly four long years, until I finally stopped using it in April 2010.

“Orkut helped shape life online before people really knew what ‘social networking’ was.”

Says the Orkut blog. Yes, Orkut was a revolution in the Indian social sphere. It opened up an entire world to the young Indian, his/her first experience of “online social” networking. The Indian Internet space lost its innocence with Orkut Before it, the Internet was mostly a bastion of academics and e-mail, Orkut opened it up to the average youngster while also teaching us the rules of social interaction on the web and many of its dangers and pitfalls, defining and shaping online behavior of the average Indian the in years to come. Our parents talk about the “good old days” of their youth when life was simple, things were easy and uncomplicated and fun and lament at how serious and impersonal everything has become these days. I feel the same about Orkut. Social networking those days was almost pure fun, there was nothing “serious” and “analytic” about it and no race to accumulate “Likes” and there were no “social media experts” breathing down your neck with their stats and jargon and metrics. At its peak, people used to send more scraps than they used to send SMS. There were no messy forwards, spam or ads. It was highly personal, yet at the same time, completely public. Best of all, there was no politics (except in some communities), hatemongering was not mainstream and there was no shouting. Like they say in that song, it was all “friendship”!

The End of Orkut – How it Went Under

As you probably know by now, Google has announced that Orkut will finally be shut down on September 30, 2014. Why did it have to fail, die? In 2004 it had 3.5 million users in the US alone, and at its peak in 2010 it had 20 million unique users in India and a total of 66 million users worldwide when it started to go down. In short, Orkut had a big ass number of users, 75% of whom were from Brazil and India. Orkut grew, it flew and it soared. Then suddenly it stalled and started to plunge, bleeding users and traffic as people abandoned it in droves. How did this happen? Contrary to popular belief, Orkut did not fail just because of the rise of Facebook, that was only one of the reasons.

Orkut was never really a “social network” in the sense of the term used today but more of a communication app. People used it to find and check out other people and message/chat with them through scraps. Only a minority participated in community discussions. As mobile phones, smartphones, GTalk and other communication channels became all prevalent they simply took over those core functions Orkut offered, because if a product does not change and evolve, its functions will be taken over by other cheaper and simpler channels rendering it obsolete. Orkut was not required to virtually talk with or find people anymore, there were a hundred other channels for that. Orkut never evolved into a real social network because it seemed like Google really never knew what to do with it nor did they have a concrete product strategy for it. At they same time they were going about building flops like Wave and Buzz instead. By that time, Facebook had caught hold in the USA and Indians saw their American peers move on to Facebook. To keep up with them, Indians started following in a trickle which soon became a torrent because of the most basic rule of social marketing: People go where their friends are. Indians found FB to be a much cooler place with lots of functions where messaging was just a part of. And today in the times of Whatsapp et al, Orkut looks like a joke.

My Orkut Profile Page Unchanged Since 2009. Time Machine!
My Orkut Profile Page Unchanged Since 2009. Time Machine!

As a product, Orkut’s features were good for the start but they never evolved. The “status post” was never of any importance. Orkut never had a “common space” like the Facebook wall, preventing it from becoming the ego-inflater that Facebook is where its denizens fall over each other to exalt their seemingly fantastically utopian lives where the grass is green and the girls are pretty, always. Friend farming was also limited on Orkut as there was no tagging of people in photos and posts. Orkut while high on the messaging part was very weak on the “connecting” part except for the glorious “who visited your profile” option. Incidentally, all these were also the very reasons for Orkut’s downfall. Let us not even talk about those screwed up “bling-bling” scraps and the absolutely horrendous UI redesigns.

But what really pushed Orkut over the digital cliff was all the bad press it generated. In those days of digital innocence, privacy was not taken seriously and initially all profiles and scraps, even potentially embarrassing ones, were visible to all including stuff like phone numbers. This resulted in countless Orkut-linked scandals including much cyber crime, swindling, narcotics, kidnapping, extortion and even two murders, arrests over “offending posts” and headlines in mass media on how Orkut “threatened” Indian sensibilities by having turned into a repository of porn and adult services. It is unfair to accuse Orkut on all these crimes, but in those days all that was new and voices were immediately raised against Orkut including demands for its ban. And then came the Orkutiya.

“Orkutiya” is a portmanteau of the words “Orkut” and “Chutiya” meaning a guy on the prowl on Orkut and (later) on the Internet in general looking for “friendship” from the fairer sex with sugary bios and brash and bad english, at an extreme the digital equivalents of the roadside romeo. An especially prominent hallmark of the Orkutiya was his weak command over English language, as explained by the now internet pop-culture meme of “fraand” requests and “Hi will you make fraandship with me?” messages women were supposedly inundated with. The Orkutiya was usually harmless and would go away if ignored or told off. But many started crossing the levels of the acceptable rules of engagement and started becoming aggressive and stalker-level dangerous, driving women off the site in gaggles. The Orkutiya of course was a creation of our societal norms forbidding contact between young girls and boys. The open-ness and easy accessibility of Orkut profiles especially those of girls and the anonymity it offered and presented much opportunity to the young Indian man previously starved of female contact and/or was too shy to approach them in public. Unsure on how to approach them, he turned to trying to do what his idols did in their movies. The worst Orkutiyas would grow up to become those internet trolls found in Rediff comment columns.

Anyway, Orkut is history and it takes with it a slice of Indian internet history. Many of you today’s youngsters might view Orkut in contempt (പുച്ഛം) but for us old timers, it was Orkut that really opened the internet up for us. We laughed, cried, flirted, found love, were heartbroken, had fun, played games and made camaraderie on its blue pages. It taught us the internet and many an internet specialist and expert today cut their teeth using it. Thank you Orkut for everything. You take with you a lot of love, laughter and memories! Those old scrap pages still resonate with our laughter and emotions, a huge part and a record of our young lives, those days when everything seemed possible and rainbows were on every horizon. As you ride into the sunset never to come back, I look back at those old times and wish they never ended.

Farewell, Orkut. You were awesome!

P.S. I too have an Orkut story. But it agonizingly fell short, because I was a stupid idiot and got cold feet.

goodbye-orkut

 

Note: September 30 will be the last day you will be able to login to your Orkut profile before it is shut down. You can download your profile, scraps, testimonials etc via Google Takeout until September 2016. After that, Orkut will be gone for good. Read more about this here.

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