My name is danah boyd and I'm a Principal Researcher at Microsoft Research and the founder/president of Data & Society. Buzzwords in my world include: privacy, context, youth culture, social media, big data. I use this blog to express random thoughts about whatever I'm thinking.

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irritated by my own Orkut profile

This morning, i voiced my belief that it is my responsibility to be respectful to the creators of social software by trying to follow their intentions. Marc Canter dropped me a note this morning that truly upset me: “with 135 friends – you’ve now made it to the elite top 9. Congrats.” Marc’s right: this is truly disturbing, apparently hypocritical and not something that i’m thrilled to realize at all.

When i joined Orkut, i made the decision to accept all friendship requests from people that i have spoken with, have actively read, or have an otherwise loose connection. I decided that i would never invite anyone who i don’t consider a friend or colleague, nor ask to friend anyone based on the same metric. Although i would accept friend connections from people that i recognized, i figured that this policy would limit the number of people that i linked to. This has not happened. And now, i’m faced with a profile that makes me look like i’m trying to win some popularity contest. Yuck. Very yuck.

This is precisely why i’m beyond irritated at these things. I am not in a totally social awkward position, wanting to be hidden amidst the crowd, but sticking out like a sore thumb. Yet, how does one proceed properly? Do i start deleting “friends” who i don’t know that well? Where does one insert a black line into a gray continuum? In many ways, Friendster was much more organic for me. I joined with my friend group, connected to people who i intimately knew and was rarely faced with the situation of having to turn away colleagues or people i know from the digital only. I didn’t ask them; they didn’t ask me.

So, this makes me think… what is it about Orkut that has made this an incredibly uncomfortable situation? Is it because we’re a year into YASNS? Is it because we’re tired of regulating boundaries? Is it because the site further promotes popularity? What is it?

Personally, i have a partial guess. I think that because the site advertises people’s popularity at every stage, people are far more likely to connect to the popular people that they recognize because they’re right out there, in front. (Ah, yes, power laws.) Thus, i’m guessing that by inviting a stack of my friends and showing up high early on, later adopters who normally wouldn’t have searched for me saw me and added me, even though i’m not one of their closer friends, but simply a partner in the social discussion space. Perhaps this feature is quite a cultural flaw?

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28 comments to irritated by my own Orkut profile

  • While I believe orkut.com could have done quite a bit to make friend-connections more meaningful, defined, and valuable, I would argue that what you’re seeing is a symptom of (particularly American) society, and not something exclusively blame orkut for.

    Think about how overused the word “friend” is. “So I saw some friends at at the bar last night” and in yearbooks, “You’re a great friend!” and in introductions, “I’d like to introduce you to my friend…”

    Especially in the latter case, would anyone DARE say, “I’d like to introduce you to my acquaintance” or, with truth telling serum, “Um, I guess I’m obligated to introduce you to Jake, some boring guy I used to work with a few years ago and maybe had one beer with”?

    Nope. It’s Friend inflation. Everyone isn’t just a buddy or a pal, but a bonafide FRIEND now (and hey, I’m frankly about as guilty as the next person, so I’m not claiming to be all F.C. here)

    The solution? I’m not sure. If orkut, for instance, encouraged people to elucidate on their connections, it’s a no-brainer to assume that feelings are going to get hurt, REALLY hurt pretty quickly.

    So basically, I’ve just reiterated the problem without offering any answers. I think it’s clear that I’m cut out to be a consultant! 😀

  • Something simpler, I think. Orkut became a number-of-friends game. People are playing to collect friend cards, so they invite all their acquaintances.

  • I suspect a lot of this has to do with the way in which Orkut makes it (relatively) easy to hook up connections, and at the same time was built largely around the semi-professional connections of people who knew people who work at Google. Friendster built much more organically and slowly through networks of friends, while LinkedIn seems to have built around actual business connections. In contrast, Orkut built what is nominally a social network around a community that is by nature very business-focused, then grew out from there. The overlap of the business/personal connection is making a lot of people uncomfortable in ways that wouldn’t occur on sites with a more defined focus (e.g. I don’t link to friends on LinkedIn unless I’ve worked with them, while I have connections on LinkedIn who I don’t think would classify me as a friend elsewhere). This compounds — vague here, vague there, it pushes against the concept of drawing that line anywhere. As noted elsewhere, the ranking system is fairly useless as well.

    The more I use Orkut as a whole, the more I feel like it’s a system designed by someone who solved the technical problem but failed to think through the user experience, and it shows.

  • I think that the interface amplifies that game-link aspect of having lots of friends. On the #joiito IRC channel, Orkut was the fodder of a bunch of “play” and now my profile looks like a visualization of the IRC channel among other things. I usually avoid uncomfortable situations by ignoring them. I think that whats happening to Orkut is that the interface drives people to add too many friends which creates either an uncomfortable or not-so-useful situation. Also, as you start running out of “low hanging fruit” the surfing is less fun. I can see how unless new features are added, I could end up just moving onto the next toy…

  • Orkut’s the first one of these sorts of services I’ve used (unless you count Livejournal, which maybe you should, but they seem pretty different to me).

    Some of the communities on Orkut have been fun, although the Orkut community features are generally not good.

    The other thing I’ve tried to do is track down old acquaintences and friends. I haven’t been that successful at this in general, as not a whole lot of people I’ve known offline have accounts. However, this is how I found your account (if you don’t remember who I am, which would be pretty reasonable, I know you from the co-ops about, hm, I guess 1996 or 1997).

    Probably the greatest benefit I’ve gotten so far is finding people with interesting non-Orkut blogs or livejournals or what have you.

    These last two reasons are a reason why I find myself ending up with a bunch of Orkut friends who I have a somewhat tenuous real-life relationship to — if I find someone I know even slightly and who I like (or remember liking or whatever) there’s a reasonable chance that they’ll either eventually come into contact with someone else I know, or they’ll know someone else I find interesting.

    This is all probably pretty obvious, but I thought I’d throw my two cents in as a near-complete neophyte.

  • joe

    delete some “friends”… you can delete me… I’ll know that you’re still my friend. I like Orkut for the forums… you get some interesting stuff in there… like the Black Metal Forum… or the hot-rodding one… there’s some seriously interesting folks out there that I don’t know… although I’d never contact them to tell them so… which is why any divulging of my bookmarks would be the end of the world! 🙂

  • Joe – you’re a huge dork, but that’s why i adore you. The goal isn’t to de-represent me… I see you every day and consider you a dear friend, silly boy. Why on earth would i de-friend you publicly?

  • I have to admit the word friends bothers me as well. Part of the problem is that the word friends has some interesting emotional baggage with it.

    LinkedIn and Spoke use the word “connections” which has at least is emotionally neutral, though it may be too much so.

    When I first started using this software, I thought that I’d like to see more categories of connections: close friends, friends, acquaintances, etc. However, the problem with this is reciprocity. If they can see what category you have put them in, it has a social effect. For instance, the ‘fan’ effect on Orkut.

    I’m not sure what the solution is.

  • Ah yes – the woes of the ‘academic’. Here you were trying to be hidden and analytical, and all of a sudden – you’re Ms. Popularity – sticking out like a sore thumb!

    But don’t worry – none of us will use that against you. You’re popular because you’re smart, intelligent and have something to say. We call that being a A-list blogger.

    If you don’t want the notoriety – then just shut up.

    You suspect that it’s the software, but it’s really you.

    YOUR what it’s about and that’s why you do what you do. There’s nothing wrong with that. Sure – it falls into this uncomfortable zone – as it’s the same area where you make your living, do your research, write your dissertatation. But that’s life.

    The discussion on explicit versus implicit – brings up the real issue – which is more sincere and real. I think we all agree that implicit is (bar far) the more real social connection – yet here we are – discussing the pitfalls and harm of explicit systems.

    Since we find ourselves in the midst of this YASNS craze (for better or worse) you’d better get used to it – ’cause it’s just he tip of the iceberg. What we need to do is keep studying these phenomenas – yet realize that NONE of them is a pure lab situation.

    Jonathan Abrams tainted his laboratory and Orkut is doing the same. You certainly don’t think that having listings shoved in your face – makes for a pure social environment either – right?

    So if you or I or Joi end up sticking out – it’s probably because we do stick out. We’re just as much bacteria for the petrie dish as any other participant.

    I’ve been to jail three times now – and I won’t stop till I figure out why. You SHOULD go and delete all those names who aren’t your real friends. Then see what happens next.

    🙂

  • friendster grew more organically, as you were saying — people slowly discovered it over time, in waves. in fact, that was my favorite thing about it: seeing who would appear and when. smaller ovals and circles discovered the site, and to me, it was more interesting trying to figure out which group of people it was that week. (oh look, all my friends from job X have found it. oh shit! now one of my students has found it. soon enough, they’ll all be here.)

  • Some time ago (pre-Orkut and even pre-Friendster) I realized that I used the same term to apply to everyone from nodding acquaintances to bosom buddies: they were all my “friends”. I am now taking the effort — in real life — to distinguish betwen the many different kinds of friends I have: acquaintance friends and ally friends; best friends and buddy friends; online friends and offline friends. Some people do this automatically, but I haven’t because I realize that static categories do not define the volatility and exuberance of real every-day friendships and friendly relations between people.

    My $0.02 Canadian (about $0.015 American)

    –Ryan the Shameless Friendster Slut
    http://friendsterslut.blogspot.com

    P.S. the letter from your friend in the Congo helps to remind us that in the there is still a wider world of people out there who have more urgent needs than whether or not to treat a new social networking site as a game. Thank you so much for sharing it with us.

  • I, for one, have given up trying to reserve my friends list for friends only. If I’ve exchanged a couple emails with someone and they want to be my friend, fine, whatever. I guess I just don’t care anymore.

    I have definitely noticed more random people contacting me via orkut than ever happened over friendster. (Has anyone else noticed this?) I think at least part of it is that orkut is fast enough that people actually browse through lots of profiles, and it doesn’t take ten minutes just to send someone a two-line message.

    Or maybe I just need to change my profile. I don’t know.

  • metamanda : I think the speed definitely increases the likelihood of contacting someone. It totally appeals to the ADD in me. Write some mail, clickity click click on orcbutt, check IRC, click click on orcbutt. Who would have guessed that friendster’s SLLLOOOOWW response was actually a feature!

    I have stopped inviting new people, but have stopped trying to decide whether to accept invitation and am now viewing my orcbutt friends page as a pretty little collage of people sharing a space with me. Eye candy, not heart candy.

  • Scott Moore

    Forgive me for shooting in the dark, I’m not yet on orkut so if I sound off base, please correct me. In addition to the things I have read about the ease of linking, I noticed that orkut seems to push the popularity in terms of numbers. Actually all of these SNS keep a clear and public record of the quantity of links to a person.

    There’s an adage I picked up from the MMORG crowd. “If you display a chart, it will go up” Meaning that if users are exposed to a number, there is a general tendency to keep pushing that number higher. It seems orkut is a trifecta of power-law, ease of use and score-keeping.

    Are there SNS that do not quantify the number of friends (links, connections) even for yourself? Where the focus is on *who* you know and not *how many* you know.

  • Kathy Tafel

    Well,

    I found my sweetie on Friendster, so don’t need the ‘dating’ aspect of it. I decided that since I already am blessed with an abundance of friends, that I would treat orkut more as “colleaguester” and not count things as ‘deep personal connections’ I also took out most of my personal contact info so my ‘friends’ don’t have my cell phone number 🙂

    I think it’s too weird to have both ‘personals’ and business networking in the same place. But, there’s so many geeks on there that it ends up being business.

    But then, you wouldn’t really want to have a distinction between ‘colleagues’ and ‘friends’ because what if someone thought they were your friend, but you considered them ‘colleague’ 🙂

  • Is Orkut Disruptive

    Hate it or love it it is hard to ignore. Drop out of the blogworld for a week and just start ORKUTTING your newsreader. Newsreaders make it so easy to catch up on posts and difficult to quote or capture…

  • orkut

    i got in to orkut. now I can find out about what people are talking about. I thought of exploring…but now it’s 3:30 in the morning and i just exhausted myself from just reading information they asked me to enter….

  • Liz

    I deliberately had a friend (not, mind you, an IT professional) invite me to join orkut so I could see what the fuss was about. But as soon as I set up my profile and explored a bit, I started feeling…icky.

    I can only corroborate what’s already been said: I dislike the emphasis on numbers (how many friends you have, those little “you’re cool” icons, etc.) and forced exclusivity that comes of releasing it first for Google people and their friends.

    (Although I should point out that non-computer professionals I know who have joined orkut largely enjoy it and are recommending it to their (also non-geeky) friends. The reason seems to be that it’s faster than Friendster.)

    But for me, since I *am* in the industry, there’s little boundary between professional/personal relationships for me on orkut (vs Friendster, say). As a result, the experience — as danah said — feels like it’s a metric of my personal and professional popularity. To be honest, it feels strange to see the friend-gap between myself and people like danah visualized so clearly.

    After all of three days, I now feel unpleasantly adolescent. There’s nothing wrong with trying to take a stab at calculating “popularity” within groups, but a link marked “rank your friends” is just too jr. high for words. I may be too sensitive, but why not just stick me in detention for passing notes in study hall and have done with it?

  • Quick redesign

    Did a quick redesign, based on the old design. I figured that I liked it too much just to scrap it, but I had an idea in my head that I wanted to try out. I still have some CSS-stuff…

  • I was just invited to Orkut, so it hasn’t sunk completely in yet, but I am finding the whole numbers game to be so ridiculous that it is incredibly easy to ignore. Numbers are so impersonal and do nothing to express the quality of friendship.

    I don’t know if it is just me, but it seems like people are not writing testimonials as much on orkut as on friendster. I think this is primarily due to YASNS burnout (and maybe winter depression 😉 The whole numbers game is an easy out for burntout or lazy people who want to express some level of friendship but don’t want to write a testimonial.

    That said, I think I will write testimonials for all my friends on orkut tonight. Thank god I’m not as popular as danah!

    -P

  • ORKUT: NOW I’M SPECIAL

    I resisted as long as I could, but here I am on Orkut. (I keep wanting to call it “Orkster.”) Others have griped about its flaws more fluidly than I can. For one thing, it’s biased towards Orkut superstars. In

  • Um, well, I was going to ask you to be my friend so I wouldn’t forget to visit your blog once in a while. But now … 🙁 Seriously, I agree that numbers are useless (especially when it comes to friend-of-friend broadcast messages: I’d like to be able to broadcast to all my friends who are also in a given network, for instance) but from a user-centric perspective having someone in your friends list is useful: These are the people I am supposed to keep up on. It’s like a birthday reminder bot. On the other hand, Orkut also has bookmarks. Maybe that feature’s not branded properly. “People to watch”? “Stalker list”? It would nice to be able to see you has bookmarked you to see if you want to become friends with them (or get a restraining order).

  • i knew you were just pretending to be my friend!

  • Orkut

    So, no blogging from the conference I mentioned earlier. Maybe I’ll write something about it later, maybe not. But now for something completely different: Orkut hit my social group heavily in the last days. I know, a bit late, but…

  • Orkut

    So, no blogging from the conference I mentioned earlier. Maybe I’ll write something about it later, maybe not. But now for something completely different: Orkut hit my social group heavily in the last days. I know, a bit late, but…

  • i don’t know. i’m stuck on tribe. and even wrote a sarcastic review of the orkut party.

    http://www.tribe.net/tribe/servlet/template/pub%2CViewListing.vm?messageid=76ad3256-4a64-465c-8361-8147a3c6a1ad&nextpage=%2Ftribe%2Fservlet%2Ftemplate%2Fpub%252CListings.vm%3F

    but i understand. i never meant to be a star. i haven’t invited a person that i don’t know outside digital for months. but i accept all those that ask me. now i don’t feel i can say no. i thought about trimming too, but it’s people i’m friendly with and think are interesting so i don’t do anything.

    i also keep a separate profile for just professional. they don’t really need to know more about me.

    i’m glad i found your blog through orkut. i’m just starting one myself but this is a lovely way. cheers!

  • i don’t know. i’m stuck on tribe. and even wrote a sarcastic review of the orkut party.

    http://www.tribe.net/tribe/servlet/template/pub%2CViewListing.vm?messageid=76ad3256-4a64-465c-8361-8147a3c6a1ad&nextpage=%2Ftribe%2Fservlet%2Ftemplate%2Fpub%252CListings.vm%3F

    but i understand. i never meant to be a star. i haven’t invited a person that i don’t know outside digital for months. but i accept all those that ask me. now i don’t feel i can say no. i thought about trimming too, but it’s people i’m friendly with and think are interesting so i don’t do anything.

    i also keep a separate profile for just professional. they don’t really need to know more about me.

    i’m glad i found your blog through orkut. i’m just starting one myself but this is a lovely way. cheers!

  • cera

    i want wona of these but icant get it on my screen