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Orkut at eleven weeks:
An exploration of a new online social network community

By Anthony Hempell
anthony AT anthonyhempell.com

April 16, 2004


Introduction

This paper is an exploration of the social networking site Orkut, which debuted in late January, 2004. The purpose of this research paper is to provide an initial observation and analysis of the creation of this social network, and discuss some of the design issues that have arisen in the site's first months online. Orkut's initial entry into the milieu of social networking software is explored, along with an initial self-reflective analysis of the Orkut experience by the author, including an analysis of the growth of the author's online network. The growth of the membership and its demographics are discussed in a statistical analysis, followed by a review of the methods used by site administrators to effect social control and combat perceived deviant behaviour. Some initial conclusions and suggestions for changes to the site's design and philosophy are suggested.

About Social Networking Software

Social networks and social networking sites and software are currently the new "hot market" of the Internet industry (Olsen, 2004a). Garton, Haythornwaite and Wellman (1997) define social networks as computer-mediated communication connecting people or organizations; or a group of people (or their social organizations) connected by relationships such as family, friendship or professional ties. Boyd (2003) suggests that "people naturally tend to use software as a means to advance personal interests and to interact socially" (Boyd, 2003, p.1); therefore, almost any software program could be considered social networking.

Social networking sites such as Orkut work by allowing their users to create connections with other users, based on making a link (sometimes called a "friend" or "buddy"). Not only is social networking a way to meet people, it is a way to market oneself or affiliations through links to personal or professional sites (Search Engine Journal, 2004). The original social networking site was SixDegrees, which debuted in 1996 (Schofield, 2004), although the roots of social networking can be traced as far back as bulletin board services (BBSs) in the 1980s and 90s (Holzchlag, 2004). Subsequent major developments have been Friendster (friends & dating), LinkedIn (business networking), Tribe ('affinity groups' for communities of interest) and MeetUp (meeting/events organizing) (Pasick, 2004).

About Orkut

Orkut, a social networking site named after creator and Google employee Orkut Buyukkokten, is "currently garnering the most hype among the Internet cognoscenti" (Pasick, 2004). Orkut combines many of the features of its competitors, encouraging users to create profiles about their interests, professional life and personal life. The site's design appears inspired by Buyukkokten's previous work on Club Nexus, a system developed at Stanford University in 2001 (Olsen, 2004a). Created by Stanford students, Club Nexus was designed to assist students' communication requirements (Adamic, Buyukkokten & Adar, 2003).

Membership on Orkut is invitation-only; new members must be invited to join by an existing member. This exclusivity has caused Orkut to gain a certain social currency that comes with being a member of a private club (Pasick, 2004). Some enterprising individuals have even gone as far as auctioning Orkut invitations on eBay (Olsen, 2004b).

Orkut members sign in and are asked to enter a broad swath of information about themselves, from personal contact information to favourite music, movies and TV shows to their sexual proclivities. All information supplied is optional. Users can upload a photo of themselves as well, although not all choose to do so. Once online, Orkut users can join discussion communities, or create their own. They are also encouraged to enhance their links with their friends, by ranking them ("karma" rankings on how "trusty", "cool" and "sexy" their friends are - this is borrowed straight from Club Nexus), being their "fans" (adding themselves to a "fan" list) and writing "testimonials" (a short blurb explaining why their friend is a great person, or sometimes a cryptic, amusing or bizarre bit of creative prose).

Google claims that Buyukkokten developed Orkut during his "personal project time" while at work with the help of "a few other engineers" (Olsen, 2004a). All Google employees are encouraged to spend part of their time working on personal projects in order to boost creativity and innovation. This "official" story about Orkut being a side project is not believed by the authors of rafer.net, who point out that Orkut is the "most fully featured social network in existence," and "grew from almost zero page views to serving (probably) 3 [million] pages per day... that is a lot of work... it wasn't the work of one man anytime in the last several months (rafer.net, 2004, p.1).

This challenge to the pervasive myth of Orkut being a "pet project" leads into the possible business case of why Google has sponsored such a project. According to Tribe founder Mark Pincus, revenues and profitability may not exist yet, but a possible business model exists in selling subscriptions, classified and targeted advertising (Naraine, 2004); Pincus calls social networks the "next generation of online classifieds" (Nariane, 2004, p.1). Some believe Orkut is another asset in Google's business strategy for positioning itself as a market leader before it goes public in the near future (Kim, 2004); others feel it is a way of creating a larger database of user behaviour for better data-mining capabilities (Zawodny, 2004). Conversely, Regan (2004) feels that the lack of explicit support and marketing (Orkut is only "sponsored" by Google) is a sign the company does not want to take too many risks before its IPO. One potential snag in any Google business plan to profit from Orkut is that some members of the Google board are investors in competing services such as Friendster and LinkedIn (SAP, 2004).

Methodology

The method of research for this paper is a triangulation of participant observation and longitudinal quantitative analysis. Participant observation research is a qualitative method that involves the observer participating in the group or community being studied, by becoming part of the community and observing community beApril 13, 2004 from: http://management.about.com/cs/generalmanagement/a/Pareto081202.htm

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Orkut at eleven weeks: An exploration of a new online social network community (c) 2004 Anthony Hempell