The man who created one of the first social networking platforms tells TRT World how too much information is altering attitudes and how he intends to fight it.
As a young boy, Orkut Buyukkokten was bullied. Some of his classmates made fun of his accented Turkish and pushed him around because he was thinner and shorter than rest of the kids. He was nine years old and his family had just moved to Turkey’s central Anatolian region of Konya from Germany.
Afterwards, he often wondered why he had faced such treatment.
“I thought maybe I am short and nerdy. I could not figure out what was wrong.”
Years later he ran into one of the bullies in a Istanbul bar and sought an explanation.
“And he said that I always made school seem so easy, I always had good grades while they were struggling. They were envious,” he told TRT World in a recent interview.
“I was happy to have my closure but I wish I had someone in school to talk to.”
Buyukkokten, 44, has since spent his life trying to find ways to connect people. Along the way, he created Club Nexus, one of the earliest social networks and later created Orkut.com, which at one time had more users than Facebook.
As one of the social networking pioneers, he has watched with concern how timelines and instant messages have shaped relationships and attitudes. People have become superficial and too scared to be who they really are, he says.
“I want to change that.”
Going to the US
In the early 1990s, Buyukkokten decided to become a software engineer when he was in fourth grade. That’s when his parents bought him and his older brother a Sinclair ZX Spectrum computer.
“You would plug it into TV to programme or play video games,” he says. His brother taught him how to use programming language BASIC and very soon he was writing his own games.
After finishing school, he got accepted to California-based Stanford, the same university where Larry Page and Sergey Brin had conceived Google.
There, he and a friend, Tyler Ziemann, launched Club Nexus in late 2001. David Kirkpatrick, author of The Facebook Effect, says: “It was probably also the first real social network ever launched in the United States.”
The Turkish programmer wanted to make it easier for students to find like-minded friends.
“I noticed that during their freshman year most undergraduates make friends in their immediate vicinity, which is the dorm or fraternity. And I thought that was such a narrow way to meet people.”
Club Nexus was months, if not years, ahead of similar networking websites. Users could make a profile, list interests and invite friends who had Stanford-issued email addresses.
“In two weeks, I signed up to a third of our undergraduate student body. So it was successful,” he explains.
After graduation, Buyukkokten and Ziemann formed a company, Affinity Engines, to market an enhanced version of Club Nexus called InCircle, which was made for college alumni groups and within a few years had spread to more than 30 schools.
Buyukkokten wrote the entire code for the website and set up its servers, but left the company soon after to join Google as a programmer in 2002.
Some people say InCircle’s focus on alumni was a mistake since the real appetite for social networking was among students.
And that’s exactly what Buyukkokten was about to do at Google.
The age of profiles
At Google, employees were encouraged to work on their own projects besides their routine work.
During one such break, Buyukkokten designed a prototype for a social networking website and took it to senior management.
Eric Schmidt, the then CEO, and Marissa Mayer, another senior executive, suggested it be named after Buyukkokten.
“They said Orkut.com was easier to remember and I was the person who designed it. But I was really surprised,” he says.
Orkut.com went online in January 2004 just two weeks before Mark Zuckerberg started his own experiment, Thefacebook.com.
Over the previous year, a couple of similar websites had introduced the American public — mostly students and youngsters — to the concept of online networks.
Friendster and the immensely popular MySpace, the two most prominent websites, were already vying for users as people were just beginning to enjoy faster broadband internet.
Teenagers around the world flocked to social networks as they made profiles, uploaded pictures, and searched for old classmates from the comfort of their bedrooms.
Advertisers followed. By 2006, MySpace, Friendster, Facebook, Orkut and others were raking in more than $200 million revenue in the United States alone.
But Orkut never quite became part of everyday life for users in North America. Instead, young people took a liking to it in unexpected markets such as Brazil, Estonia, India and Pakistan.
In Brazil, almost every internet subscriber was using Orkut (easily pronounced as or-KOO-chee in Portuguese) within two years of its launch. It remained the dominant social network there until June 2011 when Facebook took the lead.
“People actually thought that Orkut owned Google. That’s how popular it was in Brazil,” says Buyukkokten.
What drove youngsters in Brazil and India to Orkut instead of Facebook has remained a subject of debate for years. But there could be socio-economic reasons for it, says Danah Boyd, a technology scholar.
Facebook started off from Harvard as an invitation-only network and quickly became a necessity for students in Ivy League universities. When it spread among high school kids, a similar dynamic played out.
“Facebook managed to benefit by being constructed as an ‘elite’ site. That is precisely what happened in Brazil and India. In short, Orkut became the MySpace of those countries,” she told TRT World in an emailed response.
Buyukkokten says the difficulty to get in was one of the reasons that drove Facebook’s popularity.
“It’s almost like a nightclub. If there’s a line round the corner then you really want to get in and if there’s no line then you are not interested.”
Orkut’s failure in the US primarily had to do with the time it took to for the website to load. Buyukkokten wrote the website’s source code on programmes such as C Sharp and Windows that could handle only few hundred thousand users.
“But right away we had millions of visitors and there was so much demand that we ran into issues,” he says. The transition to C++ and Java took almost a year and it was during that period in 2004-05 many people switched to other networks.
It was around this time that Buyukkokten, who doesn’t like confrontations, faced a personal setback.
Affinity Engines, the company he had co-founded with his friend Ziemann, filed a lawsuit against Google, claiming Buyukkokten had used same source code for Orkut that he built for InCircle, the network for college alumni.
The matter was eventually sorted out in an out-of-court settlement. Ziemann didn’t respond to TRT World’s request for comment.
“It was a really sad period of my life but I won’t blame my co-founder for any of it. Lawsuits happens all the time in the US without any valid reason.”
Despite having a website to his name that at its peak in 2009 had 300 million users, Buyukkokten didn’t come under the spotlight like creators of other networks - after all he was just a Google employee.
“A lot of people didn’t even know that it was a person’s name.”
Google, which primarily focuses on online advertisements and search technologies, didn’t see social networks as its priority, says Buyukkokten, who moved to another project within the company in 2008.
Orkut’s operation was also moved to Brazil where it remained active until 2014 when the company finally pulled the plug.
Buyukkokten left Google in 2014 and two years later launched a new social network called Hello.com in Brazil and India.
“We have built the entire Hello experience around communities. We want people to have meaningful engagements and connect in real life,” he says.
Over the years, Buyukkokten says, he has seen the social media landscape morph into something where people often feel miserable.
“We are bombarded with a cascade of passive information from other people that we never needed, wanted and were ready for. We have a generation that is just looking at their feeds and pictures and everyone feel they can never do enough.
“As a result we have a generation, which is insecure, anxious, depressed and isolated.”
Hello, which at the moment has been introduced in few markets, encourages to interact around similarities such as a common neighbourhood, school and interest, he says.
“If you look at the feed on Twitter, Instagram or Facebook, you see content from people you follow, or your friends or you see advertisements,” he says.
“On Hello we take into account not just your network but what you are interested in, your loyalties, your personality and reputation. We surface a lot of content that is interesting for you.
“And that’s how we create magical moments.”