Sometimes I’m wrong. I initially hoped for and expected great things from orkut.com, and sadly the service has not delivered. Worse yet, I feel that orkut.com is moving steadily in the wrong direction.
It does pain me to write this, partly because I’ve had the pleasure of meeting the creator of the service — Orkut B. — in person. He’s clearly passionate about doing Good Things with his networking service, and he’s a very fun and engaging guy besides. Indeed, largely because of this, when I was asked by a Google friend of mine to submit a detailed list of my recommendations to the orkut team, I didn’t hesitate to do so.
But after a relatively enthusiastic blog entry about orkut.com about a year ago and a history of strong participation on the service, it’s time for me to concentrate my interests and energies elsewhere.
Seeing the implementation of Orkut Media was the last straw for me. While I had envisioned (and was excited about!) the idea of a Content Manager drawing from and encouraging ongoing participation within the orkut.com network, the orkut.com team instead unwisely decided to create something wholly different… something akin to a high school paper-based literary journal.
Why was this such a bad decision?
- It creates a relatively static Publishing (newspaper / book) environment, rather than facilitating a real-time community feel. Want to respond to a photo or an essay on the Orkut Media site? Send an e-mail to the editor. Isn’t that a bit 20th century? Even everyday blogs offer live commenting.
- It results in an odd separation of community and content and a disincentive to contribute one’s best work to orkut’s communities. Pithy, funny, insightful essays written within communities won’t get highlighted unless the author affirmatively submits them to the Orkut Media editor. Wouldn’t it have been better for the Content Manager to serve as someone identifying interesting posts and quirky but not-yet-popular communities instead of creating a pre-approved island of public content?
- More than half of the members of the service speak (Brazillian) Portuguese, but not a single initial Orkut Media entry is by a Brazillian or even tangentially related to Brazil. That’s simply inconsiderate, IMHO.
With that said, perhaps the greatest disappointment isn’t what orkut.com has done with the new Orkut Media feature, but rather what the service has not done in general.
In particular, the service has done little to put Trust in a supposedly trusted network.
- Connection type and strength is not factored into any substantive part of the service. When looking at someone’s profile, you can’t tell if any of their ‘friends’ is a close connection, a distant acquaintance, a work colleague, a family member, or a spouse. And given the complete lack of any barriers or disincentives to adding anyone and everyone willy-nilly as a “friend”… the connections have become completely meaningless.
- Members have no thoughtful or innovative tools to help them moderate their own communities, choose whose posts they’d like to see (or not see), rate others’ contributions (karma points), and so on. Instead, members are given the crude and often backfiring “bogus” button.
- The system of friends and ‘fans’ is ridiculously obtuse and backwards overall. In real life, I am a fan of several prominent ‘famous people’ but hardly one of their friends. In most cases, they don’t even know I exist. So why can I not, then, mark them as a fan on orkut without bugging them with a ‘friend’ request? Other social networking services have devised such systems in much more effective, intuitive ways. At the most basic but still effective level, for instance, on several other services anyone can mark someone else as a friend; if it’s one way, then you’re a fan, and if it’s reciprocal, then you’re friends.
Of course, on a more obvious level, the orkut.com UI has scarcely been improved since its inception. Navigation is inconsistent, one can re-assign friends to groups only one at a time (and each after a full screen redraw at that!), and so on.
But the greatest shame, IMHO, is that the orkut.com team never made communication a priority. They didn’t set up a feedback forum, and very rarely posted notes acknowledging, much less thanking members for their contributions. Mass ‘jailings’, lost memberships, security exploits… generally brushed under the rug… exactly what beta programs are supposed to NOT do to win trust and engage members in improving a service.
Indeed, instead of a Content Manager, orkut should have hired a Communications Manager, or — better yet — a Community Manager. Someone to guide new members, encourage and recognize feedback, offer insight into the decisions of orkut.com, and so on.
I recognize that orkut.com was the “20%” project of a well-meaning Google engineer. But, as I brashly suggested in the document I sent to the orkut team, it’s clear that this engineer and/or Google should simply scrap the entire system and start over. Online Networking is too important to simply ignore or give a half-ass ‘fun’ treatment to. A Google-worthy effort deserves a substantive team of engineers, social scientists / sociologists, UI folks, community managers, customer service people, and so on. Whereas it’s fine to give ‘20%’ to a news index or most any other beta project… when you involve a few million people (and their sensitive data), it’s time to up the commitment. Here’s hoping Google eventually sees the light.