This August, Facebook overtook Orkut to become the number one social network in India. This came as no surprise to the tightly knit Indian internet community — the question was not ‘if’ but ‘when’ Facebook would overtake Orkut. Orkut was started in 2004 after an aborted Google takeover bid on Friendster. It never took off globally and was a hit only in Brazil and India.
In India, Orkut spread like wildfire amongst teenagers — scrapping was the most popular hobby amongst collegians. Like all great web properties, it got a lot of word-of-mouth and became nothing short of a cultural phenomenon. MTV crowned Orkut the youth icon of the year in 2007.
The older lot, however — consumers who were on the web since 2000 and accessed the net from workplaces — never took to Orkut. Orkut remained a teenage phenomenon. Because of its “open policy” where anyone could “befriend anyone” girls started getting out of Orkut for obvious reasons.
Around this time, Facebook started gaining traction. Orkut also compromised by having big rectangular ads up front, hogging a lot of real estate. Women took to Facebook in hordes because it protected their privacy —whom they “friended” was in their control.
A major feature that Orkut ignored was feeds — one-sentence updates on what your friends were doing on the network. The cornerstone of feeds is digital storytelling, bordering on exhibitionism. Facebook was all about feeds; in Orkut, it languished at the bottom of the page. Facebook Photos was the biggest beneficiary. When users uploaded photos, their friends got an update via feeds. Facebook gave us one new bad habit — voyeurism.
Orkut’s photo user interface allowed users to see very few photos, unlike Facebook’s almost panoramic view. Facebook was also built rock solid, unlike Orkut where users were used to getting “no doughnut for you” — meaning problems with the site. Facebook never crashed.
Around 2007-08, Facebook opened its platform to third party developers, who started making specific applications for it. Suddenly, you could poke your friends, play scrabble with them, rate how hot they were and other such fun things. These applications added tremendous variety and stickiness.
One company in particular, Zynga, understood the implications of the ability of the Facebook platform, which became a virtual playground. It created simple games called Farmville and Mafia Wars. Farmville is a cartoon-like animated universe in which consumers build and maintain farms, rear cattle and tend crops. It is played by about 70 million people a month. FarmVille is the most popular application on Facebook. More people play FarmVille in a month than visit Twitter globally. Facebook also understood the power of the mobile. Its stripped down mobile version is considered to be one of the very best around. This was a huge hit amongst teenagers. This coincided with a lot of new mobile service providers offering Internet access at throwaway rates. They started advertising access to Facebook. Orkut did change its look and opened the platform, but by then Facebook had caught on strongly.
The writer is COO, Contest2win.com