In Brazil, the Google-owned social-networking site Orkut far surpasses Facebook as the country’s go-to choice for online schmoozing, friending and all things social.
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Orkut Buyukkokten, the mastermind behind
FOR 12 YEARS, Ubirajara Gomes da Silva lived on the streets in the Brazilian city of Recife, a metro area of nearly 4 million people. But despite having no bed to sleep in, the young beggar didn’t give up. He read three newspapers a day, and he used his spare change for Internet access in cybercafes. Then, one day, through the social network Orkut, Brazil’s most popular online network, he learned of a contest for potential government employment.

Da Silva asked his new online Orkut friends for tips, studied in libraries for the entrance test, and ended up scoring 117th out of 19,000 applicants. Then 27, he landed a job as a clerk for the Bank of Brazil, and now he’s recognized as a national celebrity — a testament to Orkut’s influence and power.

While Facebook may be the world's most pervasive online social network, Brazilians prefer the streamlined Orkut. The site, based on common-interest groups, is simple, virtually advertisement free and wildly popular. In Brazil, if you’re on the Internet, you’re on Orkut — through which families keep in touch, young people seek new friends, and celebrities are measured by their numbers of Orkut communities. Nearly half of the world’s 100 million Orkut users come from Brazil.

But what’s most astonishing is that Orkut’s niche success is a total fluke. Originally developed by Google to compete with Friendster and MySpace, it never gained a foothold in the United States. In fact, Orkut proved to be a colossal failure. Until it came to Brazil and India.

LIKE MOST INTERNET IDEAS, Orkut began with one person — a young, Turkishborn computer-science student at Stanford University who happened to be named Orkut Buyukkokten.

Predating Facebook and other social networks, Buyukkokten built a small community for his fellow students in 2001, a service he called Club Nexus, which allowed members to create a profile, chat with friends and invite people to events. According to David Kirkpatrick’s social-network history, The Facebook Effect: The Inside Story of the Company That Is Connecting the World, Buyukkokten bragged that Club Nexus was unique mostly because “you can create really big parties.”

Not surprisingly, Google recognized Buyukkokten’s entrepreneurial spirit and hired him as a programmer.

Since Google encourages innovation among its employees, Buyukkokten spent his spare time designing a prototype of a new social network. Friendster and MySpace had only just launched, and the field was wide open. Google executives liked Buyukkokten’s project, and because its creator had already reserved the domain name, they named it after him.

Orkut launched in January 2004, and although it initially attracted some interest from American users (which eventually tapered off), by the end of the year, Google had noticed an enormous uptick in users from Brazil. Part of the reason for the American downturn was that the network was slow, and U.S. users craved instant gratification.

Another factor was that the enthusiastic Brazilians eagerly waged a grassroots campaign to register friends in order to eclipse the number of U.S. members — a type of social-network coup. The campaign worked — Americans drifted on to MySpace and Facebook, as did most of the world, and Orkut grew into the de facto social network for Brazil.

Because of all the Brazil traffic, Google kept the network up and running, and after a year, the company unveiled a Portugueselanguage edition. Then, in 2008, the company moved the Orkut headquarters from Silicon Valley to the city of Belo Horizonte. But the question still remains: Why Brazil? What is it about the national character that resonates so strongly with Orkut?

Racquel Recuero, a professor at Universidade Católica de Pelotas in Brazil, believes the popularity stems in part from a culture of political causes, where people use social networks to communicate and share ideas within a country where freedom of speech has historically been forbidden.

Others point to a natural tendency of Brazilians to remain cautious when meeting others, and Orkut allows users to preview a potential friend before inviting them into their circle. To people living in Brazil, bombarded by a cacophony of billboards, radio infomercials and cars blasting messages from loudspeakers, Facebook and MySpace seem too cluttered with advertising and marketing. The ad-free Orkut is a welcome breath of fresh air. Also, the very name Orkut strikes a familiar chord, because it sounds like Yakult, the Japanese Yakult yogurt drink that is popular in Brazil and a favorite of every Brazilian child.

Popularity also comes via sheer numbers. Brazil is the world’s fifth-largest country, in both population and geographical area. It boasts the largest and most sophisticated communications and entertainment industry in Latin America, with more cell phones, more Internet users and more cable-TV subscribers than any of its neighbors. When a new cultural phenomenon emerges, especially involving technology, Brazilians immediately embrace it.

Although 20 percent of Orkut users come from India, the network is much more identified with Brazil and is a point of national pride for South America’s largest country. Behind Google, it is the nation’s second most popular website. More than 50 million Brazilians use Orkut, and travel blogs even suggest that visitors en route to Brazil become Orkut members before they arrive, in order to gain access to circles of friends and to better understand the culture. Orkut permeates so deeply into the Brazilian way of life that Google vice president Marissa Mayer has even admitted, “You talk to people in Brazil, they’re like, ‘Oh, Google — you mean the subsidiary of Orkut?’ ” But while it continues to spread virally around the globe (Google now offers versions in 42 languages), the tech buzz has largely moved on. If you don’t live in Brazil or India, it’s likely you would have never even heard of Orkut until now. And in the overheated race for more sophisticated and profitable connectivity, it’s yesterday’s news. Rival networks chew away at Orkut’s numbers. Facebook is already neck and neck with Orkut in India. Rumors swirl in IT circles that Google is developing a next-generation “Facebook-killer,” tentatively called Google Me, which may include social games like the newly acquired FarmVille. After the dismal performance of social-network attempts like Google Buzz and Google Profiles, and the purchase and cancellation of location-based Dodgeball, the Internet giant hopes to finally overtake the online community marketplace. But, throughout all the hype, Orkut chugs along, uniting people across the great swath of Brazil. When you think about it, there’s something of an Internet-culture old soul about Orkut. It’s named after its inventor. It has little advertising. And, it earns a pittance compared to the competition. It simply exists because it is a good idea, and people love it.

JACK BOULWARE is a member of Orkut, Friendster, Facebook, MySpace, YouTube, Yahoo, Google, Amazon, PayPal, Hotmail and eBay, and he wonders where all this is going.