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Orkut and Why Facebook Beats Out Local Social Networks

BY Rebecca Chao | Thursday, July 10 2014

Orkut, Google’s social network platform once beloved in Brazil, will soon shutter with Facebook taking its place. Mark Zuckerberg's social network currently not only operates but also dominates in every time zone, making it at this point in time, an empire upon which the sun literally never sets.

In 2009, Facebook competed with 16 other social media networks around the world, according to the World Map of Social Networks, a website created by Italian digital strategist, Vincenzo Cosenza. His latest snapshot taken in December 2013 shows Facebook currently dominates in 127 out of 137 countries analyzed but has only five major competitors worldwide. The Economist has similarly mapped Facebook's success, drawing striking similarities of its growth to that of the British, French, Spanish and Portuguese empires of yore.

Even though Google only announced last week that they will close Orkut in September, the platform lost its momentum way back in 2012. Just two years before, Orkut still held 60 percent of Brazilian users, but in that year alone, Facebook grew by a stunning 192 percent and Orkut trailed at only 5 percent. Nowadays former Orkut-ers pine after it like they would any rite of passage. A Brazilian friend of mine says she considers Orkut as “life before Facebook.”

Bia Granja, who is the co-founder of Brazil's leading Internet conference YouPix, explained to techPresident in an e-mail:

Orkut was the door of entry to the internet for 82 percent of Brazil’s population back in 2006. We had 14 million internet users and 11 million of them were on Orkut. It was very important because it gave a voice to people that had never before been able to express themselves. There were people from rural parts of Brazil who didn’t have an official government ID card but had an Orkut profile. They where not only digitally included, they became part of a culture... the beginning of Brazilian Internet culture as we know it.

Dakshita Singh, a user of Orkut in India where in its heyday, the platform had captured 18 percent of the population, recently wrote the social network a eulogy in Quartz detailing how in its uniquely themed chat rooms, she had met the man whom she would later fall in love with and marry:

And not to forget the elaborate ‘Profile’! There were columns like “The first thing you will notice about me…” and “Things I learnt from my past relationships…”. It may sound corny now, but in those early days of social networking, the profile proved quite a handy guide to finding your way to a new friend. As I recall now, under the column for ‘Looks’, my spouse’s profile read “mirror-cracking material”. I knew it instantly—I had found The One.

It was something that the corporate-feeling Facebook could never do.

With Orkut as a gateway to the Internet and a fuel for substantive social activities, why and how did Facebook knock out this popular network and so many others like it?

Granja states simply, "something better came up." But that "better" wasn't initially Facebook:

As Orkut was only big in India and Brazil, [Google] was not making any efforts to make it better, to change it, to innovate or to continue launching things that would keep people on their website. So people started to lose interest in it. Twitter started growing in Brazil and, most importantly, Youtube. People migrated from Orkut to Youtube as a platform for self expression. After that, Facebook came and it now represents what Orkut represented, a door of entry to many brazilians online.

If we look at how other locally grown social networks declined as Facebook grew, we find a similar story. In the case of Mixi, the once reigning social network in Japan now also deposed, it wasn't necessarily "something better" but something much more useful.

Initially, Facebook debuted poorly in 2008 and stagnated because culturally, the Japanese do not readily share personal information, particularly on the Internet. Many popular social networking sites including Mixi allow users to create a pseudonym and so the switch to Facebook’s real-name requirement felt too invasive.

Then without much warning in the spring of 2011, Facebook users began increasing in proportion to Mixi’s decline.

The date was not random, however. In March 2011, Japan was struck by a 9.0 magnitude earthquake, killing over 15,000 and leading to the nuclear meltdowns in Fukushima.

Arvind Rajan, Asia-Pacific managing director for LinkedIn, which is also trying to crack the Japanese market, told Bloomberg Businessweek that Facebook helped families locate each other and find aid and for the first time, those in Japan found real value in a real-name social networking site.

Another user, Takanori Kobashi, a 26-year-old who works in wholesale, told Bloomberg that he uses it for business. “It’s useful because they will remember me after I comment on their posts,” he said. “People started to recognize it’s suited to business because it uses real names and is not anonymous.”

Finally, Facebook is now a universal cultural brand, made especially popular after the Justin Timberlake-starring blockbuster, “Social Network.” Kobashi joined shortly after watching the film.

The four markets where Facebook still has yet to gain a foothold are in Russia, China, Iran and Latvia. Latvia is a small fish and the first three countries have banned or are trying to ban Facebook.

Then again you wonder if these local social networks failed simply because they lacked authenticity. Even Vkontakte and QZone often get dubbed the Russian or Chinese Facebooks. When faced with a “version” of the real thing and the real thing itself, most often choose the latter.

Personal Democracy Media is grateful to the Omidyar Network and the UN Foundation for their generous support of techPresident's WeGov section.

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