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Orkut founder still dreams of a social media utopia

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Orkut founder still dreams of a social media utopia

Before the launch of Orkut in January 2004, Büyükkökten warned the team that the platform on which he had built it could only support 200,000 users. I couldn’t climb. “They said, let’s just launch and see what happens,” he explains. The rest is online history. “Grew very fast. Before we knew it, we had millions of users,” he says.

Orkut introduced a digital scrapbook and the ability to compliment people (ranging from “trustworthy” to “sexy”), create communities, and curate your own Crush List. “It reflected all the traits of my personality. You could flatter people by telling them how great they were, but you could never say anything negative about them,” he says.

At first, Orkut was popular in the United States and Japan. But, as predicted, server issues severed its connection to its users. “We started to have a lot of scalability and infrastructure problems,” says Büyükkökten. They were forced to rewrite the entire platform using C++, Java, and Google tools. The process took an entire year, and dozens of original users abandoned due to slow speeds and too many encounters with Orkut’s now-nostalgic “Bad, bad server, no donut for you” error message.

However, around this time the site became incredibly popular in Finland. Büyükkökten was puzzled. “I couldn’t understand it until I talked to a friend who speaks Finnish. And he said, ‘Do you know what your name means?’ I did not do it. He told me that orkut It means multiple orgasms.” Come again? “Yes, in Finland everyone thought they were signing up for an adult site. But then they left because we couldn’t satisfy them,” he laughs.

Awkward double meanings aside, Orkut continued to spread around the world. Besides exploding in Estonia, the platform went mega in India. However, his true second home was Brazil. “It became a huge success. “A lot of people think I’m Brazilian because of that,” explains Büyükkökten. He has a theory about why Brazil went crazy with Orkut. “Brazilian culture is very welcoming and friendly. It’s about friendships and they care about connections. They are also early adopters of technology,” he says. At its peak, 11 million of Brazil’s 14 million Internet users were on Orkut, with most connecting through Internet cafes. It took Facebook seven years to catch up.
But Orkut was not without problems (and many fake profiles). The site was banned in Iran and the United Arab Emirates. Government authorities in Brazil and India were concerned about drug-related content and child pornography, something Büyükkökten denies exists on Orkut. The Brazilians coined the word. orkutization to describe a social networking site like Orkut that becomes less attractive after becoming popular. In 2014, after hemorrhaging users due to slow server speeds, Facebook’s more intuitive interface, and privacy issues, Orkut went offline. “Vic Gundotra, head of Google+, decided not to have any competing social products,” explains Büyükkökten.

But Büyükkökten has good memories. “We had so many stories of people falling in love and moving together from different parts of the world. I have a friend in Canada who met his wife in Brazil through Orkut, a friend in New York who met his wife in Estonia and now they are married with two children.” he says. He also provided a platform for minority communities. “I was talking to a gay journalist from a small town in São Paulo who told me that finding all these LGBTQ people on Orkut transformed his life,” he adds.

Büyükkökten left Google in 2014 and founded a new social network, again with a simple five-letter title: Hello. I wanted to focus on positive connection. It used ‘loves’ instead of likes, and users could choose from over 100 people, from cricket fans to fashion enthusiasts, and then connect with like-minded people and common interests. Hello, which launched in Brazil in 2018 with 2 million users, enjoyed “ultra-high engagement” that, according to Büyükkökten, surpassed companies like Instagram and Twitter. “One of the things that stood out in our user surveys was that people said that when they open Hello, it makes them happy.”

The app was downloaded more than 2 million times (a fraction of what users enjoyed on Orkut), but Büyükkökten is proud of it. “He exceeded all our dreams. There were numerous cases where our K-factor (the number of new people that existing users bring to an app) reached 3, leading to exponential growth,” he says. But, in 2020, Büyükkökten said goodbye to Hello.
Now he is working on a new platform. “It will leverage AI and machine learning to optimize happiness, bring people together, foster communities, empower users, and create a better society,” he says. “Connection will be the cornerstone of design, interaction, product and experience.” And the name? “If I told you the new brand, you would have a ha moment and everything would be very clear,” she says.

Once again, it is driven by his enduring desire to connect people. “One of the greatest evils of society is the decrease in social capital. After smartphones and the pandemic, we have stopped going out with our friends and we don’t know our neighbors. We have an epidemic of loneliness,” he says.
He is fiercely critical of current platforms. “My greatest passion in life is connecting people through technology. But when was the last time you met someone on social media? It is creating shame, pessimism, division, depression and anxiety,” he states. For Büyükkökten, optimism is more important than optimization. “These companies have designed the algorithm to make money,” he says. “But it has been terrible for mental health. The world is scary right now and a lot of that has come through social media. There is a lot of hate,” he says.

Instead, she wants social media to be a place of love and a facilitator for meeting new people in person. But why will it work this time? “That’s a very good question,” she says. “One thing that has been very consistent is that people miss Orkut right now.” It’s true: Brazilian social networks have recently been full of memes and memories to celebrate the site’s 20th birthday. “Recently, a teenager drove 10 hours to meet me at a conference to talk about Orkut. And I thought, how is that possible?” he laughs. Orkut’s homepage is still up and features an open letter calling for a social media utopia.

This, along with our collective desire for more human social media, is what makes Büyükkökten believe their upcoming platform will truly stick. Have you decided on that important name? “We haven’t announced it yet. But I’m very excited. I really care. I want to recover that authenticity and that sense of belonging,” he concludes. Perhaps, as its Finnish fans would joke, the time has come for the second coming of Orkut.

This story first appeared in the July/August 2024 UK issue of WIRED magazine.

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