Wednesday, July 2, 2014

A Eulogy to Orkut and an Introduction to the Importance of Social Networks

"Orkut is dead. Facebook murdered it" - read the name of a facebook page which had millions of likes around the time I started using facebook.

If we can fall in love with social networks, Orkut was my first love. And like all firsts, Orkut was very special to me.

Everyone on Orkut had a scrapbook. It was like the facebook wall. Anyone could write in your scrapbook, and anyone could read your scrapbook (unless you've changed the privacy settings, of course). Back then, there was no ajax or continuous scrolling. One could see only 10 scraps at a time, and had to press "next" to see the next 10.

Scrapbooks used to easily fall prey to worms every now and then. One such Brazilian worm fondly called "Bom Sabado" (Good Saturday) spread when people clicked on a link in one of their scraps. It would send everyone a "Bom Sabado" scrap. Incidentally, this was asked in a tech quiz while I was in Class XI and I answered it right.

Communities were central to the Orkut experience. They used to have polls, events, and forums. Discussions in these forums were probably the first time I came across rationalism, and a lot of other beautiful stuff.

For a very short time, I was the moderator of Dr APJ Abdulkalam Fan Club which had over 2,00,000 members at that time. I was also the moderator of a cricket community for a long time, although I didn't have much interest in Cricket.

A couple of years after I quit it to concentrate on class 10, I met the owner of that community in a super-fast train following a series of bizarre events. Me, +Nishan Ansari, and +Rajendran Sir (our Physics teacher) were travelling towards Kannur from Calicut after a medical quiz organized by the Calicut Medical College. We reached the railway station just in time for Rajendran Sir to barge ahead of the queue and get a ticket for the Mangala Express waiting on the platform. In the hurry we got into a reserved compartment. The ticket examiner let us sit there till the next stop. As soon as we got down at the next stop and got into the general compartment right next to it, I realized I didn't have my Nokia 3120 Classic with me. I ran back to the first compartment to see if it had fallen where we were sitting. Rajendran Sir followed me, but Nishan stayed back in the general compartment. The train had begun moving when I discovered that the phone was inside my own bag. In short, we had left Nishan alone in the general compartment and come to this compartment for no reason.

And then, while we were standing at the door reading Nishan's SMS about how his compartment was filled with cigarette smoke, a man with long hair that stood out like it does when you touch a Van de Graaf generator, emerged from the toilet side, and shook my hand asking if I was Akshay. He revealed himself as Unmesh Menon, aka Arcadian, the owner of the cricket community I was talking about. He was on a family trip to Kerala temples during his holidays between the PhD course he was doing in Optics at some German university. And that became the strangest coincidence in my life till then, and it remains so.

Orkut allowed us to see who visited our profile. Pretty much like how LinkedIn allows it now. This was both good, and bad. Good, because you could find out if someone is looking at your profile, and bad, because you can't stalk at other's profile.

There was also testimonials - you rate people and write a paragraph about them. And crush detection - you could tell Orkut if you have a crush on someone, and if the other person does the same to you Orkut will notify both of you about your crushes.

Above all, Orkut gave a huge prominence to our "about me", much unlike facebook. Maybe facebook ditched that because "How would you describe yourself?" is a tough question in interviews.

I signed up and operated Orkut for a long time using a dial-up connection provided by BSNL. I think BSNL still provides this dial-up facility. All you had to do was connect your phone line to the modem of your computer, and then create a new dial-up connection with *99# as the number, our phone number as the username, and "bsnlten" or something as the password. The billing was based on the duration we remain connected and not on how much we download.

When I made it impossible for anyone to reach my home over phone, my parents had to get a broadband connection. And after that, I'd shuttle between school and Orkut all the time of my life.

On December 21, 2010, all my online accounts were cracked. My facebook account was defaced, my username changed to asdofpakishthan, (from asdofindia). My Google account was deleted, along with this blog, and so was my Orkut account. I could repair the damages and recover almost everything. Except the poor Orkut account. A new Orkut account was created automatically when the Google account was restored, and the old account was lost forever.

And for me, that was the end of Orkut.

Google decided to say bye bye to Orkut yesterday. And I have no data to take out from it.

Cliché, yet human beings are social animals. We can not live without social validation of our thoughts. That is why we communicate. That is why we debate, fight, and struggle hard to prove ourself right. Heck, that is why I write this post even.

Maybe this is an evolutionary trait. If we do things that are accepted by others, they cooperate with us. And then we copulate.

A less rudimentary way of looking at it is that our brain likes to have an accurate and complete idea of the world around it. It keeps updating its world-view to fit facts and observations that keep pouring in.
Lose a tooth. Now try to keep your tongue away from the hole that leaves. Impossible? Because the brain wants to make sure what it thinks is missing is actually missing.

When the knowledge is incomplete, the brain seeks feedback to make it complete. If you see someone moving, you look up at his face to know who he is. If you hear something fall, you turn around to see what it was.

When it comes to ideas, brain seeks feedback from other brains. This is what I called validation. We express ourselves so that others agree/disagree with us so that, in turn, we can strengthen/correct our idea. That is why authors love feedback and artists perform better when audience applauds.

Social networks make this process easier.
They bring people together on a single platform so that people can exchange their views, and give feedback on others' views. They let our brains relax and feel at home.

This also makes them an essential part of the internet. The internet is analogous to the world. The users are us people. And the discussions on social networks are the conversations we have in real life. It is difficult to lead a life without communicating - in the real world, and on the internet.

Orkuts will die. But social networks will live on.

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