Before everything online was political and snide; before mindless posts by all sorts of crazies made front-page news; before we religiously raised hell on Twitter and showed off our vacations and wit on Facebook; and even before the term 'social media' was coined, there was Orkut. The land of the uncomplicated blue on white background, where even 'scraps' had meaning, 'communities' were more like fan clubs, not fight clubs, and where the online turned real after all. It was India's first actual social network.
Now, it's dead. September 30 was the last day of Orkut.We had abandoned it a long time before that. But it's certainly worth a bit of glorification in its demise. So, the rest of this article, in essence, is an expression of guilt.
We loved Orkut.
It had arrived after a long phase of nervous anonymity and silly-sounding IDs in Yahoo! chat rooms where we sought 'ASL' (age-sex-location) before saying hello and pretended to be virtual women to befriend real women. In between, there was a brief affair with overly colourful websites such as 'Hi5' that treated us like kids in a candy store. But it was Orkut that was the first real step into a more confident online identity for a generation that had learnt BASIC and DOS in school, mostly in sacred computer rooms which we entered only after taking our shoes off.
Bored with Solitaire and years of wondering what exactly to do with the internet besides watching porn on websites that took more than 11 minutes to even load, we were finally ourselves online. Orkut was the Web in action, and we had arrived.
Now that it's dead, I am not mourning. Thanks to two things that defined the essence of Orkut for me: a life-changing decision to escape the obscure simplicity of my hometown for a life in Chandigarh, and poet-lyricist Irshad Kamil. More about Irshad later.
For those of us raised in a stifling culture that disallowed interaction between boys and girls unless it was the brotherly type, Chandigarh presented an environment that hurt our lungs and eyes. We were not used to breathing so freely in fresh air, and ogling so abundantly and shamelessly at beauty. Amazingly, we could talk to girls here. But we had nothing to say. What would we ask them? The brazen ones among us asked for phone numbers and got turned down. Shy ones just asked for directions.
"Where is Sector 17?"
"You're in Sector 17! Idiot!"
Just then, as Orkut arrived and became the talk of the town, we quickly landed in the middle of an online cosmos that pushed us along as we came into our own. Many of us still used fancy terms like 'Cool Dude' and 'Hot Rod' instead of real names - even I used 'Kinda Weird' for many weeks - but real names did finally make an appearance as we were asked to make our 'profile', mentioning our age, hometown and old school, writing little descriptions of ourselves, and carrying 'testimonials' from friends who usually wrote things like this: "This is the funniest guy I know…. Gals, you'd be lucky to do friendship with him! Just kidding!!! He's an idiot." We loved signs of exclamation!
We made friends with girls we never talked to in school. We learnt how they, too, were people like us. We learnt by stalking and talking. Shedding of inhibitions online reflected in our newfound sense of self offline as well.As the charm of talking to girls wore off, and life became about more than just that, we explored ourselves further.For that, we mostly joined Orkut 'communities' that were a collection of fans of a certain actor or singer, or sometimes even a writer. The conversation had just begun. Intellectualism and its pseudo version were not the defining traits of social networking. On my part, I too formed a community called 'Fans of Irshad Kamil'. I'd loved his lyrics for 'Jab We Met', especially the song 'Tum Se Hi'. This was my tribute. He had an Orkut profile, and when he saw my name as the 'community owner', we became 'friends'.
Within no time, as Facebook overtook Orkut in a whirlwind of trendiness - perhaps with just a better design, lots of fun quizzes and our herd mentality - that friendship with Irshad too shifted platforms. Yet, we hardly interacted beyond 'likes'. The poet perhaps did not like it that much.
Seven years later, I called Irshad to invite him to an HT function. I hoped he would remember that 'community'. He did. "I would love to come wherever you invite me. You were my first official fan, you know," he told me. Orkut was not for nothing.
We finally met at that function this August. Obviously, we did not have much to talk about. He is a poet, I am a philistine. But we talked about Orkut, and its shutdown. "Hamaare liye hi bani thi Orkut," he said. Orkut was made just for us. Or so we all felt.