Orkut's velvet rope

social networking is all the rage, or at least it seems to be. i keep hearing about it everywhere i turn (NPR, friends, blogs, san francisco magazine, the checker at the grocery store). i have my doubts about most of these players, but there is a recent entrant that pushes a different set of buttons: orkut

orkut was one service with which i was not familiar (negative web geek points). it’s a "google-affiliated" social networking application that, from what i read, is a combination of friendster and tribe and ryze and [insert other social networking app here]. there was recently a party to celebrate the launch of orkut, and reading the descriptions made me slightly queasy.

bubbly anyone?
the social networking craze definitely seems a bit "bubblish". whenever i hear about launch parties with people slapping each other on the back for being www-celebrities, and launching a service with no viable business model or clear value proposition, alarm bells go off and i feel like puking over the side of the boat. commentators and reporters have been noting the hype factor for some time now, and don’t take this quite as seriously as insiders do…

still, one gets the sense that VCs are swimming these waters like sharks, and people are thinking they can build the first money-printing machines of the 21st century web. i have no doubt that money will be made, but only by relevant applications that offer something beyond vague, and possibly undesirable, promises of expanding your network of friends.

the net’s velvet rope
the thing that troubles me about orkut is the thing that some are claiming is so cool: it’s invitation only. for me, this feels like the net equivalent of the velvet rope at some too-cool-for-school metropolitan club. no one likes those either, except for the people who get behind the rope and feel more socially relevant as a result. eventually these ropes become more fit for the gallows, in my opinion – exclude and die.

but it’s about the community
forgive me if i’m being impolitic, but…bollocks.

the orkut web site proclaims the following:

"We’d love to immediately include everyone who wants to participate; however, we’re also trying to ensure that orkut remains a close-knit community. Over the next few weeks, hopefully, the network will grow to a point where everyone who wants to join has the opportunity to do so."

one source indicates that orkut has around 130,000 users at present. in what sense is this a close-kit community? studies have shown that the social channel capacity of humans is about 150 people (see Malcolm Gladwell’s Tipping Point, p.179 and references cited therein)…that’s to say that 150 people is about the maximum number of individuals with whom we can have genuinely social relationships.

a service like orkut was destined to grow rapidly. it follows from basic six-degrees-of-separation arguments (see The Small World Experiment and related links for more information, if you’re unfamiliar with the concept). the people who built the system had probably watched friendster, and knew what they were up against, especially with the name of google floating in the background.

my point is that it’s ludicrous to say that a web service (a la orkut) is invitation-only in order to maintain a close-knit community. there is no such thing in a social networking application like orkut, one that has the power of google behind it and that grows to hundreds of thousands of users in the space of a few months. many communities will exist within the orkut meta-community, defined by the relationships between its members, but there is no orkut community per se – a city, maybe, but no community with close social relationships amongst all of its members.

exclusion, hype generation, and business obfuscation
the invitation-only requirement on orkut simultaneously creates a sense of exclusion (for those not invited) and exclusivity (for those who are). i can come up with a few possible reasons for the invitation only policy:

  • limit the service to the technorati elite: this doesn’t make much sense…even with an invitation only policy, exponential growth through densely connected social networks would guarantee that many members would not be a part of this ill-defined group
  • limit the service to those who really care about networking, as opposed to tourists: this is equally unlikely. in fact, by making it exclusive, they have probably generated more interest among people likely to be tourists. i can just imagine the party conversations…"are you on orkut?" [pause] "orkut? what’s that?" [pause] "oh…you don’t know about it?" [person A drops person B’s hipster quotient, person B wants to get on orkut to regain status]
  • generate buzz and differentiation from the anyone-can-join melee (and concomitant growth issues) happening at friendster: this seems much more likely…after all, everyone is on friendster, right? who would want to join such chaos? [you wouldn’t, probably, but perhaps for another set of reasons beyond the scope of this entry.] orkut is a little late to the party, and they want to generate interest. it just seems to me that this is an insulting way to do it, one that sends the wrong message to people interested in being a part of new online communities.
  • manage the (pedestrian) technology problem of scaling: this is possible, but depending on how deep the google affiliation goes, it’s hard to imagine. google has to have an infrastructure that could easily support something like this without a great burden on their systems. maybe i’m wrong…

the real reason for the invitation only policy is unimportant. what matters in my mind is that the stated reason is so blatantly false…this immediately leads to the conclusion that there is some other reason that’s not being stated, and that it probably has something to do with manipulative marketing, generation of (possibly undeserved) hype, and the obfuscation of true motives. business are by no means required to state all of their objectives to the marketplace, but at least come up with more convincing lies (or don’t say anything at all).

the power and peril of open doors
in my partially informed opinion, social networking applications should allow anyone to join, but should transparently protect users from scale issues and other problems associated with mob dynamics (see Shirky’s a group is its own worst enemy). if you want to facilitate more close-knit communities, then allow users of the system to create invitation-only groups. what they do in those groups, and what value they derive from them, is their business (provided that said groups don’t violate other laws etc. etc.).

the problem with any open door policy is that sometimes the "wrong" people come through the doors. maybe they’re not cool. maybe they don’t have the interests that organizers were hoping for. maybe they’re disruptive or crude or insulting or generally ill-mannered. but that’s ok – sufficiently stable, open communities have ways of dealing with people who actively disrupt and act to the detriment of the community (e.g., charters, rules of conduct, etc.). they also welcome and benefit from diversity and openness; this is their strength.

closed-door groups deal with this problem in a more proactive way – they set up a barrier to keep others from getting inside the walls in the first place. their community is defined more narrowly. in some cases, for very small groups of individuals with a focused interest, this makes sense (e.g., ex-employees of the Acme Widget Design Company of San Francisco). in other cases, closed-door groups act more like country clubs – the requirements for entry have little to do with shared interests, and everything to do with things like economics or social status.

the (un)egalitarian web
one of the things i always liked about the internet was the sense of egalitarianism (perhaps it’s illusory, but the spirit seems there). everyone had access to about the same content and interaction potential, with exceptions for places where public/private distinctions make clear sense. blogs and social networking applications have been expanding and enhancing these ideas in many ways, by increasing the number of geniune voices on the web and establishing communities with new and unusual contexts.

applications like orkut, or rather the exclusive policies associated with the application, are a step backwards and to the right. in my opinion, they establish a bad precedent, one that i suspect others may start to follow. get ready for the country-club web…

a side note about orkut’s T&Cs
independent of my feelings about their entrance policy, orkut are also doing something that, in the words of one commentator, is unconscionable. take a look at orkut’s terms and conditions before you sign up:

By submitting, posting or displaying any Materials on or through the orkut.com service, you automatically grant to us a worldwide, non-exclusive, sublicenseable, transferable, royalty-free, perpetual, irrevocable right to copy, distribute, create derivative works of, publicly perform and display such Materials.

in other words, whatever content you create or post on orkut, they own. period. that just plain sucks.