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March 9, 2004

Fear and Glowing at the Orkut Launch Party

Recently one of our elite operatives, Irina Slutsky, went undercover to infiltrate the launch party for Google's new friend-network thingy Orkut. Irina has now resurfaced with this report:


Accidentally on purpose, my friend Scott Hirsch and I ended up at the San Francisco launch party for Google's invite-only social networking service, Orkut.

Let me set the scene.....Tenderloin district, 8pm, sharp.....

A giant bouncer in requisite leather and shaved head is clutching a handful of printed Orkut profiles in his left fist, telling people trying to get into the club that they'll have to "get someone from inside to vouch that they are on Orkut" before they can go in.

I feel special as Scott and I hand over our profiles and the bouncer pulls back the red velvet rope, showing us into the inner sanctum of this brave new world. After all, the invitation-only site has garnered over 130,000 very special people as members as of this writing.

Inside the red-lit room, a sprightly man in a shiny silver t-shirt and black leather pants flits about, throwing his arms around partygoers, screeching hellos and smiling for photos. Nerdy technorati -- their fragile social personas buoyed by the recent success of online friend-making -- swarm through the bar, looking nervously around the club.

Here and there, incarnations of San Francisco hipsters appear, seeming surprised by their own attendance at this event. A blond bombshell with Betty Page bangs. A delicate black-clad Asian beauty sucking down a martini. A rockabilly girl with dark red pigtails, plaid pants, and Buddy Holly glasses.

The Orkut launch party is in full -- if slightly awkward -- swing. And sightings of www.celebrities like Sergey Brin and Peter Merholz promise an interesting evening.

Orkut -- Google's own social networking system, birthed on Jan. 22 -- is the reason for this semi-swank affair reminiscent of the boom parties of yore, minus the free food, free drinks and invincible attitude of millionaire twenty-somethings.

Instead of bravado, these techno-worriers now seem, well, worried.

"No, I can't talk to you about this," one good-looking bespectacled geek said. "I work at Google. Uh-uh" -- he shook his head, his flowered shirt glowing under club lights. "No way. I ain't talking to you."

Apparently, the newest silicon valley phenomenon is a social networking website tinged with a healthy dose of paranoia.

So I set out on a mission. Where is this genius, this engineer who designed the latest in a barrage of "Friendsters," "Tribenets" and "Myspaces", this Google worker-bee rewarded for his free-time tinkering with a web service named after him?

Who is Orkut Buyukkokten? And what does he want from us?

Wandering into the men's bathroom, Scott and I find not Orkut, but a couple of straight-looking "regular" guys willing to dish.

Jeremy Johnson and Evan Anderson, bio-design students at Stanford, said they came to the Orkut party to see what the deal was. "I heard that Google was goign to launch Orkut and I thought, 'Oh good, I hope it will kick Friendster's ass," Johnson said. Anderson said he wasn't sure exactly what Orkut was going to be like. "It seems kind of mysterious right now," Anderson said. "I want them to tell me what it's supposed to be."

Finally, a hot girl walks into our perimeter -- the Betty Page blond with the tattoos and the piercings and the boobs. Friendster doesn't get off easy here either.

"Friendster is run on someone's server in their grandmother's basement," Dona Croston said, her bosom heaving with disgust. "Friendster is like spam from hell."

Croston, a fetish model who runs a specialized modeling agency, said she likes many of the features on Orkut. "I like the way it's set up better, I like the capabilities, I like the added extras," Croston said. "And, it sounds snobby, but the only way you can get on is if you get invited."

As the night wore on -- and Orkut partiers multiplied -- Scott introduced me to Peter Merholz, the man credited for coining the word blog. Merholz is the former creative director of epinions, and founding partner of Adaptive Path.

"Right now, Orkut is for demonstrating that you know the right people," Merholz said. "The main reason I wanted to get on is because I'm interested in it somewhat professionally." Merholz said he hopes to glean from Orkut "the professional value of social networking." He calls Orkut a combination of Friendster and Tribe, of friends and communities. "But it's a whole lot easier to use than Friendster or Tribe," Merholz said.

His professional opinion?

"Social networking systems will prove very valuable and can take advantage of the capability of the internet to be used in a variety of uses," Merholz said. "My single biggest frustration is ...... who owns my personal network? I cannot take the links I have created between myself and other people on Orkut or on Friendster anywhere else. I have to recreate the links anew -- to use a geek term, it's my network in the real world, but Orkut owns the instantiation of it."

Which brings us to the million dollar question: What is Google's interest in Orkut? There had been much talk last year of Google's unsuccessful attempt to purchase Friendster, but the company declines any comment on what they call "a rumor."

Before I miss my chance to speak with Sergey Brin, Merholz kindly points out the Google-founder as he walks briskly into the crowd. I meander about, finally steeling my eyes on the back of Brin's neck. I follow him down the stairs, into another room decorated with annoying flowery curtains that get in my way. He walks into an area guarded by another velvet rope, which I calmly ignore and head straight for my target.

I introduced myself, and Brin seemed about as pleased as if I was Jon Abrams.

"Orkut has been a great success and has surpassed expectations," Brin, 30, said. Though he did not explain what the expectations were, he did say that "A big success means that it's useful to a lot of people." Brin said he had no plans of changing anything about Orkut, including Google's relationship with the system. I had no time to ask any other questions before Brin got up and began thanking me for coming to the party.

As Brin led me toward the velvet rope, out of the private area and into the invite-only-but-not-VIP fray, I asked how much money Google has spent on Orkut, Brin said, "It's a small investment for a great return."

But what the "great return" is from Orkut's site remains uncertain.

Some internet experts have questioned the intentions of Orkut, and criticized their far-reaching privacy policy, but company spokespeople say the policy is "no different" from those at "similar" websites. And while Merholz's prediction that social networking systems will prove valuable may be true, it is unclear how they will become valuable to users and profitable to owners.

Prominent NYC-based blogger Anil Dash agrees with Merholz.

"At some point, hopefully, they've all learned they're going to need to make some money on it," Dash said. "But they're acting like they dont need to. They're going to have to start looking into ways to make money."

Dash said that in order to lock people in and make them want to pay, services like Orkut would have to make themselves part of people's everyday lives. "But the problem is I can't take that network and apply it somewhere else," Dash said of social networking sites. Dash predicts that social networking sites may become another function of applications already on our computers.

"At the end of this, it could be that a social network is only another feature of applications that manage your life," Dash said. "It's like a spellchecker -- you're not going to go out and buy a spellchecker, but it's already a part of your other applications."

One of Orkut's biggest problems is that the connections it sets up are "pretty binary," Dash said. "It's 'this person is my friend' or 'this person is not my friend,'" Dash said."I have far more gradations than that in my connections with people."

Dash cites Flikr, a photo sharing network with a degree of friendships. "People who are friends can see certain photos that others can't," Dash said. "Just like if someone lives with you they can rifle through your drawers, some people have a key they can use only when you're out of town, and so on."

"It seems pretty unlikely to me that my Orkut network is going to be able to be transferred to Friendster," Dash said. "I'm certain there's so many geeks around this stuff, they're going to try to make it interchangeable to transfer networks." But Dash said he does not expect competitors to join together and make one friendly social networking family.
"There's a lot of backbiting and infighting" at this point, he said.

It appears that everyone is still fighting for the biggest piece of the pie. Yahoo is staying out of the kitchen, waiting to see how -- if at all -- any of the services can make social networking a profitable enterprise.

Dash's theory is that social networks will have a much higher degree if success if they can be passive. "Where I don't have to say this person is my friend, this person is my buddy, this is someone I used to like....it should just know -- I emailed this person 50 times, so it should just know that this person is my friend. But that's a much harder software problem."

Back at the party, having exhausted my sources of information, from the company spokesperson to Google co-founder to drunk and drunker Orkutians, I'm still looking for Orkut, the man.

"But that's him," someone points, but all I see is a woman handing out glowing and blinking Orkut pens. A crowd surrounds her and the strings attached to the pens get tangled in her hands, but people impatiently pull on the multi-colored lit-up devices, frazzling the woman. "Hold on," she says.

Where, where is Orkut? I look at a crowd of men. A silver sliver shines through between torsos. "There, don't you see him? In the leather pants...."

I think, "That's Orkut? The tiny man in the skin-tight silver t-shirt and the black leather pants?"

I shrug my shoulders.

As I walk up to the man of the hour, notepad in hand, Orkut beams at me with a mega-watt chemically charged smile. "Hi, Orkut, my name is Irina and I'm writing an article about....." as I reach out my hand to be shook, Orkut explodes with excitement and hugs me.

"It's my birthday!!!!!!!!! I'm 29!!!!!!!!!" his thick eyebrows shoot up high on his face.

Instantly, a trio of tall blond men surround the diminutive Turk.

"This is not a good time for an interview," one says.

"Not now," says the other.

"It's his birthday," says the third.

Orkut is carried away from me. I lose him in the crowd and then stare at Orkutians gleefully playing with their light up pens.

Posted by jsmooth995 at March 9, 2004 4:14 AM

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