Social Climbers

When I first moved back to Brazil, the three questions I was most often asked were: “When did you get back?”, “How do you like it here?”, and “Are you on Orkut?” I certainly was on Orkut, even when I lived in the US I was on Orkut. But whenever I mentioned Orkut to my friends in the US I was met with a blank, if not confused, expression. “It’s like the Brazilian MySpace”, I’d explain; an explanation I’d never have to give my Orkut-obsessed Brazilian friends.

Orkut, named after the Turkish software engineer who developed the site for Google, isn’t a Brazilian-owned or managed website. But in spite of that — and yes, its ownership is an important factor — Brazilians have embraced Orkut. That is not puzzling in itself; social networking sites can be universally popular. No matter where you are, or who developed the forum, by using it you can be just as easily connected to someone halfway around the world as you are to a next-door neighbor. Some people genuinely want to keep in touch with old friends while making new ones; others are more practical and use these sites as modern age stalking aids. Regardless, most of us can understand the allure of such networks.

What is surprising about Orkut, though, is who is dominating its use. According to its demographics page, 70 percent of Orkut users are from Brazil (the US trails behind in second place with 12 percent of users). That wasn’t always so. Right now, Orkut has almost 20 million members. That’s nothing compared to MySpace’s 80 million plus, but it’s a huge number for Brazil, where less than 30 million people have internet access. So why did Orkut become so big in Brazil? Well, it’s a very Brazilian kind of thing. In fact it’s so Brazilian, that Portuguese, the official language in Brazil (Spanish, English and French are also common languages among Brazilians), became Orkut’s second ‘official’ language after English, and that’s a very important differentiating factor from cyber communities such as the English-dominated MySpace.

Brazilians perceive themselves as warm, friendly people. They tend to think that they are a lot more open to making friends and acquaintances than Americans are, so it’s only natural that they’d be the bigger presence in a social network comprised largely of Brazilians and Americans. Of course, this line of thought is also somewhat lacking. If Brazilians really were that much more socially adept we should more overtly participating in other networking sites such as MySpace, but we don’t.

Looking at such comparable international cyber social circles from another angle, maybe Orkut isn’t so much uncommonly popular in Brazil — maybe it just has a weak following in the US. The site’s target users were already registered on Friendster, MySpace, or Facebook by the time Orkut rolled around and it offered them nothing new. Those who did use Orkut grew increasingly annoyed at the Brazilian contingent that would go on communities and hijack discussions by posting in Portuguese only. Several communities tried enforcing English-only posts and failed. Users from other countries spread rumors that the site would run slower for users who declared themselves as Brazilian in order to get them to switch their nationality. Many Brazilians did so, changing their country of origin to Iraq (presumably so they could still stick it to the man). The irony, though, is that Brazilians not only embraced a service offered by an American Internet giant but also used it to express anti-Americanism. Yes, it’s popular to talk shit about the US. Now can we move on?

What essentially made Brazilians the largest group of users on Orkut was the fact that they wanted to be number one. No one else really cared, but Brazilians made their numbers on Orkut a collective goal. The press covered this ascent. To help its boost, several articles were written on what the site actually was and its popularity. Folha de São Paulo, one of the country’s major newspapers, even reported that invitations to the network were on sale on eBay and other local auction sites. (In order to join the network, users must be invited by someone who’s already on Orkut.) The paper’s web version, Folha Online, published a story about how Brazilians were closing in on Americans on the site. Communities dedicated to raising the number of Brazilians on Orkut were following the numbers closely, planning gatherings and flash mobs to coincide with the inevitable. When it was reported that Brazilians had outnumbered Americans registered on Orkut parties, planned via Orkut, were thrown in celebration. Shortly after this, Época magazine featured a story about Orkut on its cover with the headline “Festa Brasileira na Rede” (Brazilian Party on the Net touting Brazilians’ position on Orkut as a major accomplishment.

Being Number One on a social networking site plays to Brazilians’ pride, by giving us, at least in this little arena, a false sense of superiority. Our economy might not be able to grow at the same pace as China’s, but hey, at least we took those Americans down on Orkut, huh? As if being the majority of users on Orkut matters, somehow…

More important than Brazilians taking over Orkut is that Orkut has taken over our lives. Friends will often bring up things they have seen on Orkut, usually gossip — who hooked up, who screwed up. It’s hard to get away from Orkut when even the slightest change to the service gets press. For instance in April, Orkut added a feature which allowed users to see who had been browsing through their profiles. Newspapers and magazines met the change with a certain sense of outrage. Veja stated that the profile views feature, added without warning, put users in a “state of national commotion“. Even when feature changes on Orkut isn’t the central story, stories related to Orkut permeate our media. For instance Folha de São Paulo’s coverage of Suzane von Richthofen, a middle-class teen accused of planning her parents’ murder, included a story on how over 100 Orkut users became members of Richthofen fan communities.

Most of the Brazilina population with Internet access is middle or upper class, but there are initiatives to bring the Internet to the country’s poorer populations. One of these initiatives, the E-Government project, is designed to make more information available through the Internet by providing government-backed computer centers, also known as Telecenters. Telecenters, which provide between 10 and 20 computers, allow users to spend up to an hour daily online, free of charge. Their numbers are expected to reach 6,000 locations by the end of 2007. Orkut use has exploded even in smaller, poorer Brazilian cities and towns, where people can’t afford personal computers. If there isn’t a Telecenter nearby, users will find LAN houses (often improvised terminals in snack shops or even garages) where they can get cheap Internet access. The initial allure, I would argue, is less the opportunity to garner information, or meet new friends outside of one’s own small community; but rather to access the online gossip. The gossip can be ferocious.

Two months ago a law student’s profile was hacked and naked pictures of her with two men were posted on her profile. She insists that the pictures were montages but that is beside the point. Word spread through Orkut and several offensive scraps (messages) were left on her page. It wasn’t long before people in the city of Marília (some 450 kilometers from São Paulo where the student lived) were gossiping about those pictures. Soon after, she couldn’t even leave her classroom, where 300 fellow classmates gathered, without a police escort through a crowd of young men who groped at her while yelling ‘whore’ and other epithets. Women viewed her as amoral and thought she deserved the public persecution, too. (Notably, a school official was quoted as saying that no disciplinary action would be taken towards the harassing students because “it’s a private matter“.) The police are investigating the case to find out who put the pictures up in the first place, although if caught, whoever did it will probably not go to jail for it. Meanwhile, other misuses of the site continue.

The network is so popular that even drug dealers use it to conduct their business, as it were. Dealers form member-only communities where they can pitch their drugs and negotiate with potential buyers. Of course there’s only so much that can be done online and once the buyer and dealer have come to an agreement, drugs and money are exchanged face-to-face or in some cases, credit cards are charged and the drug is mailed to the recipient. Prosecutors have also been looking into several reports of racism as a number of hate communities like “Elimine a Raça Negra” (Eliminate the Black Race) emerge on the site. While certainly disturbing, this sort of activity is echoed in other networks, along with concerns of pedophilia and other social vices that run rampant in cyber communities.

On the other end of the Orkut spectrum are the Katilce Mirandas of the world. When U2 played a show in São Paulo earlier this year, Bono picked Katilce out of the audience to join him onstage during one of the songs. The show was broadcast on TV and by the next day Miranda was an Orkut celebrity: she quickly received close to four million messages on her page from admirers, effectively forcing Orkut to take her profile down because it was slowing down the site. While these are not typical examples of Orkut behavior, they are representative of how ingrained Orkut has become in our society.

There has already been some backlash from users who think Orkut interferes with their lives by allowing others too much access to personal information. Spouses, parents, ex-boyfriends or current and potential employers can find out more about you than you’d like. While some only have themselves to blame for providing that information in the first place, others fall victim to scraps and testimonials left by friends. Do you really want the world to know how many beers you had before you passed out at that party last weekend? A worker at a school was fired recently after being accused of helping students cheat. He alleged there was no just cause for the firing but the Courts sided with the school after admitting Orkut testimonials, where students thanked the man for his cheat sheets, as evidence.

Thus, those who have had enough, those who simply can’t take anymore, commit “Orkuticídio”: Orkut suicide.

But as the number of computer literate and connected Brazilians grows, new users will continue to flock to Orkut, and our domination of the site will continue. As for me, well, though I feel I’m immune to the obsession, I haven’t been able to commit Orkuticídio. I just want to hang around and see how much bigger it can get in this country… and how long Brazilians will hold that title.