Earlier this year, Google decommissioned one of its earliest ventures into social networking, Orkut. On Tuesday night, the site will go permanently offline, marking the end of a 10-year old journey, which typically saw several ups and downs. Orkut was founded in rather curious circumstances. Google tried to buy a then-successful social network , Friendster for $30 million (around 180 crore) in 2003, but failed. Google then founded and launched Orkut in January 2004, a month before Facebook was launched. The product is named after Orkut Buyukkokten, Google’s Turkish software engineer, who had previously built online alumni communities such as Club Nexus (2001) and inCircle.

During its earliest days as an invite-only service, Orkut attracted some initial interest from American users but in July 2004, as early as six months after its launch, Brazilian users outnumbered North American ones by two to one. Towards the end of that year, Orkut saw a further spike in users from Brazil, a market (along with India), that would eventually come to define the product as we know it today. Such was its popularity in India and Brazil that the then product manager of Orkut (yes!) and now Yahoo! CEO, Marissa Mayer said in 2009, “If you go to those countries (India and Brazil), they often think that Orkut owns Google. And you talk to people in Brazil, they’re like oh, Google, you mean the subsidiary of Orkut?"

The rise of Orkut as a social network is closely identified with the gradual bridging of the digital divide in economies such as Brazil and India. In Brazil, especially, Orkut came at a time when the country’s middle class was slowly emerging, when technology, especially the computer and Internet became affordable. The country also saw a nascent but growing sub-culture of people who would start consuming the Internet in places other than their homes, a case in point being the phenomenal growth of ‘Internet/gaming cafes’. Typically enough, the space was occupied by a technological elite and as it caught on, the emerging middle-class joined, and virtually owned the network.

According to Internet analytics company comScore, as of June, there were four million active Orkut users in Brazil which gives us a fascinating insight about its unique place in Brazilian society. It helped them organize themselves into communities, now known as “digital favelas", discuss specific and local community-related issues or engage in broader debates of national importance, such as football, music and even express themselves freely on political issues. Bryan McCann, a professor in Georgetown University in his book, The Throes of Democracy, Brazil since 1989, writes, “The Orkut Rule holds that whenever possible, Brazilians will avail themselves of the possibilities of digital media to create subcultural niches and cross cultural networks in ways that defy traditional social hierarchies and the existing national cultural canon." In 2008, Google decided hand over its management and operations to Google Brazil, which is based out of Belo Horizonte.

India’s initial tryst with Orkut came around the same time as Brazil. It tapped into several social trends that have over the last decade or so, come to define India and Indians—a fervent desire to engage and communicate with each other, freedom of expression, and, like Brazil, the need among users to organize themselves as digital communities, mainly based on like-minded interests. It also came at an important time in India’s economic story, when the digital population was growing, initially in urban India and gradually elsewhere, and like Brazil, the Internet becoming both accessible and affordable. The India story for Orkut was only getting stronger, when in 2007, Google recognized its potential, and rolled out the site in six Indian languages—Hindi, Bengali, Marathi, Tamil, Kannada and Telugu. However, three years later, in July 2010, after dominating the Indian social networking space for six good years, it lost out for the first time to Facebook. In September 2010, Facebook’s surge was confirmed, when its user base grew to 24.3 million as compared to Orkut’s 18.7 million (according to comScore)

In June 2014, Google decided to kill its first ever foray into social networking. Explaining the decision, its engineering director Paulo Golgher wrote in a blog, “Over the past decade, YouTube, Blogger and Google+ have taken off, with communities springing up in every corner of the world. Because the growth of these communities has outpaced Orkut’s growth, we’ve decided to bid Orkut farewell (or tchau). We’ll be focusing our energy and resources on making these other social platforms as amazing as possible for everyone who uses it."

Tchau, we say too!

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