In 2004, a Turkish engineer at Google, Orkut Buyukkokten, started the social network Orkut.com. According to a Forbes report, it gathered 27 million users by 2009. Most of them were from India and Brazil.
With time, its sheen wore off as Facebook and Twitter got ahead in the race. When Google finally shut it down in September 2014, the internet saw nostalgic tributes. For many, Orkut was their introduction to social networking.
Now, 41-year-old Buyukkokten is back in the game. His new social network, Hello, is already off the ground and active in the US, UK, Australia, New Zealand, Mexico and Ireland, among other countries.
The location-based social network is due for launch in India by September. Buyukkokten spoke to TOI over a video call from San Francisco and discussed his time spent at Google, building Orkut, and the way we are online. Excerpts:
- How did you get into software engineering?
It would start off with Star Wars (laughs). Star Wars was a big inspiration for my older brother. When I was in fourth grade, my brother taught me how to program. I think my biggest inspiration to be involved in computers is my brother, and his biggest inspiration was Star Wars. So I owe it to Star Wars.
- You spent over 11 years at Google. What had you been doing after building Orkut.com?
I was at Google and Orkut.com for many years. I later switched from software engineering to product management and started working very closely with Marissa Mayer (current Yahoo CEO). And I worked with a huge variety of products at Google which included search, images, video, and so on.
- You also filed several patents on social network design during the time..
My biggest passions in life have been technology and people. I am always thinking about how I can make social better, and a part of it is doing research.
When you do research, sometimes you file patents. A lot has happened in the last sixteen years. There weren’t social networks out there in my time. If you look at the new generation, it’s growing up with social networks. Another big difference is that when Orkut was launched, most of the social media consumption was on desktops and browsers. Today, it is mostly on mobile phones and tablets.
- How long has Hello been in the works?
In March 2014, I left Google with four of my co-workers to start Hello. It has been in the works for over two years. We are hoping to launch in India between August and September.
- Do you have anyone from India on your team?
We have three engineers from India. Right now we have 18 employees. Some joined us from Google, some joined us after.
- Hello uses location to find people around. How does that work?
We have three things to take into account when recommending people – your location, your network, and what passions you have in common. If you look at how you connect with people, if you are in the same town or neighbourhood, have passions and friends in common, you are more likely to connect. Once you meet someone, we also have a connection report where you can see how compatible you are.
- Orkut.com was wildly popular but Google couldn’t nurture it beyond a point. It has faltered with social networks, like Jaiku, Buzz, Google+, etc. Why can’t Google get social networking right?
If you ask me, when people think of Google, they think about organising the world’s information. They think about search. They think about email. They think about enterprise. And Google is a great brand for creating a great experience for the user that is centred on work and efficiency.
If you think of Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram, you only think of it as social media. It’s really hard for me to comment, but maybe because Google is not a social brand, it’s been harder for them to be more successful in social.
- You set up a social network in Stanford in 2001 called Club Nexus. What were you thinking when you did that?
As far as I know, Club Nexus was the first social network. The only thing close to it was AIM but that was an instant messaging service. When I was a student at Stanford, I had just moved to the States from Europe. I was very European, very outgoing and talkative. I got to meet a lot of super-amazing students.
My friends from grad school had a really hard time connecting with people. Most of their friends were from their classes or research groups.
Then I looked at my undergraduate friends. Most of their networks were from the freshman year or freshman dorms. And, then they would hang out with the same small group of people until they graduated.
And I thought there is such a large student body at Stanford, there are so many fascinating people you can meet. What if I made it easier to meet people in the network? That’s how the idea of Club Nexus came along. It was received very well. In just a few weeks a third of undergraduates signed up on Club Nexus.
- Social networks today have huge engagement on politics, often leading to polarisation. How will Hello handle that?
So we have communities we call “personas” where discussions take place. If you are not interested in sports or politics, you can choose not to be part of those communities and you won’t be exposed to that content.
In social networks, a lot of the times, they let users create their own groups or communities. Over time you get hundreds of thousands of communities created for the same purpose. They also become fragmented over time.
And it’s a huge challenge to become part of interesting groups or communities. On Hello, we have around a hundred different system-created communities. We have the foodie persona, the movie fan persona, selfie persona, artist persona, skateboarding persona, political persona.
When you create a profile on Hello, you pick five different personas. And we build the entire experience around it. When we launch in India, we are going to have a Bollywood persona.
- The current networks, popular ones, tend to depend a lot on celebrities and corporates, to bring in more traffic and also to monetise. How do you see that?
On social networks today you see a lot of sponsored content. And over time, the feed becomes less and less personal or authentic. And as a result people are more conscious about what they are sharing. You make sure that every picture you post, every moment you write is perfect.
It’s almost like the highlights of your life. But life is not perfect. We are not perfect. When we share with our friends, we are genuine, caring, and truthful. We let our guards down. And that’s how we connect and get over loneliness and become happy.
There is pressure to perform on social media and there are studies that link depression to social media usage. For instance, I could know my friend and his wife are getting divorced. But they would post a picture on Facebook where they are having a happy picnic at a park. People think everyone else is having this amazing time and they are all missing out. But life is not like that at all.
- Hate speech and online harassment have become all too common today. Why are we nasty online?
Online networks mirror real social networks. In real life you have amazing, caring, kind people, and you also have criminals.
Online networks just reflect offline networks in that sense and as a result we also get things like spam and hate speech. That happens on every single social network. It happens more on networks that are completely anonymous.
On Hello, we did some thinking about how to give the right set of tools to people to be able to express themselves by being anonymous, but at the same time avoid things like hate speech.
For instance, if you are in the political persona, and if you want to make a statement, you might not want to tell who you are, right? We have introduced a feature called incognito with which you are able to post anonymously in situations where you are not comfortable. It’s one of our more popular features.