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Thirteen Ways To Save Orkut

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In: Articles

By Rebecca Blood

Published on February 25, 2004

As nearly everyone knows, Orkut is Google’s entry in the crowded “social networking” field. Orkut seems to be relying on the combination of the powerful Google brand combined with an invitation-only policy to create interest in a service that otherwise would be regarded as late to the game. Like other social networking services, which are designed to connect people who want to date, make friends, or do business together, Orkut’s aim is to create an environment of technologically-enabled serendipity in which users can easily make personal connections that would otherwise be much more difficult. And like all the other social networking services, Orkut has been designed to promote a set of pre-determined behaviors instead of enabling users to do what is most interesting and useful to them. As a result, Orkut is too inflexible to succeed.

Orkut has one advantage: Unlike most services, which are focused on promoting a single type of social connection, Orkut has designed a system that will augment all aspects of users’ lives—personal, social, and professional. Some commenters find this problematic, pointing out that people present different personas to different people, depending on the situation. But I think the approach is likely to be popular. For most people, managing a single service will be more attractive than the prospect of managing a different service for every aspect of their lives. But instead of trying to direct user behavior, Orkut must refocus on building an infrastructure that will enable user-directed “Better Than Reality” connections. Building pre-specified user interactions into a comprehensive service is a waste of time. Building a solid system that will enable users to connect on their own terms would set Orkut apart. Otherwise, users will move to the next social networking application as soon as it is unveiled.

In its current form, Orkut is plagued with a broken relationship model, a too-strong focus on dating, a problematic interface, and features that seem to be barely considered. Orkut must correct these faults if it wants to become the first social networking service with staying power.

1. Change the user agreement. Orkut’s current terms— “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.”—are unconscionable. Individuals who are aware of these terms are unlikely to contribute anything of substantial value to their profiles or to community forums. Artists, writers, and creative people of all kinds—sought-after members of any social network, online and off—will especially be inclined to use other services with friendlier terms.

Instead, adopt the friendly and progressive terms of competitor Flickr: “We claim no intellectual property rights over the material you provide to the Flickr service. Your profile and materials uploaded remain yours. You can remove your profile at any time by deleting your account.”

Google has, through innovation and excellence, accrued a huge reserve of public goodwill. Retaining Orkut’s restrictive terms risks damaging the respected Google brand.

2. Allow a graduated acquaintance scale. Let users designate “Friends”, “Acquaintances”, “People I Know”, and “People I Admire”. Let them add anyone to any category. When two people designate each other at the same level, add an icon, or brackets around that name to indicate that it is a mutual relationship.

I accept “Friends” invitations only from people with whom I have had some prior contact. On Orkut, my list of friends contains people I see regularly, people I see irregularly, people I have met, people whom I have emailed, and one person whose site I follow, and who follows mine. In spite of this very low bar, I have not made connections with many of the people whose work I know, or who read my site.

My rationale is that designating anyone who asks as a “Friend” completely strips the term of meaning. But promiscuous users have a point: What is the use of a social networking appliance if you use it only to list the people you already know? Without a graduated acquaintance scale, Orkut is reduced to being an extraneous address book or a redundant blogroll. Neither offers enough value to retain users once the novelty has worn away.

3. Let anyone be a fan. I frequently admire people I haven’t met. Making “Fan” a function of “Friend” renders Orkut little more than a large, cliquish high school. Grownups won’t regard this service as anything but a novelty as long as it behaves like a teenager.

4. Stop promoting popularity contests. Stop telling me to “rate my friends.” In fact, rethink your ranking criteria altogether. In a business or social context, “Trustworthy” might be a useful measure; “Cool” never will be. “Sexy” is a personal decision: no matter what others think, I’m going to make that decision for myself. Get rid of it.

5. Allow me to delete birthday reminders. You are not going to induce me to send a card. Leave me alone.

6. Give users something to do with “Friends of Friends” besides spamming each other. Help users reach members of their network in a more targeted way. Search is Google’s core competency. Allow users to search their network for keywords so they can connect with others for mutual benefit. Even better, devise a way to suggest connections between people with mutual interests or goals.

7. Add “Want” and “Have” categories to user profiles and find a way to search and match them among users. Rival social network Ryze includes these categories in user profiles, but relies on individuals to find them by browsing. If I mention to everyone I know that I am looking for a used surfboard, I might find one, but I can do that without a computer. If I tell Orkut that I am looking for a surfboard, and Orkut directs me to a member who wants to get rid of one, that is a modern technology success.

8. Make all aspects of Orkut more configurable. Allow members to specify the number of Communities that show on their homepage. Allow them to choose the number of forums that are listed for each Community they join. Allow forum posts to be read in ascending or descending order. Allow friends and community members to be sorted alphabetically, or in the order added.

9. Allow users to designate more than one industry on their professional profile. Some people have several vocations and avocations; some have worked in numerous industries; and some are interested in moving to a different profession. Shape your service to real life.

10. Prompt users to add keywords to Communities as they create them. This will allow Orkut to add “Related Communities” to every Community’s sidebar, further connecting people of like mind.

11. On my home page, show which of my Communities have been updated. Simply bolding the title of updated forums would be effective and unobtrusive.

12. Improve your page-to-page navigation. Place the “more” button on the bottom right, in order to evoke the turning of a page; the “back” button should be on the bottom left. Place any other buttons somewhere else entirely.

13. Make “My Network” useful. “My Friends” contains a list of my Orkut friends. “My Network” contains the same list with less information, in a different order. Get rid of the second view or use it to give me information that is not contained in the first view. With a graduated relationship scale, “My Friends” (or “People I Know”) could include everyone I link to, and “My Network” could include everyone who links to me.

These thirteen changes alone won’t make Orkut the ultimate in social networking. But they will make the service more useful and give it a good base for further innovation. With its integrated personal, social, and business functions, Orkut has an opportunity to outstrip it competitors—but only if its creators make smart choices that support the genuine needs of real people.

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Rebecca Blood is a writer living in San Francisco. Her acclaimed book, The Weblog Handbook: Practical Advice on Creating and Maintaining Your Blog has been translated into four languages. She can be found online at www.rebeccablood.net.

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