David Madore's WebLog: Orkut

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Thanks to Faré and Denis Auroux simultaneously (and with a race condition), I joined the select-but-less-so-by-the-minute club of Orkut members.

Orkut is the latest Friendster/Tribe.net-alike; for those who don't know what this is all about: they are “virtual community gatherers”, sites that try to get people to meet other people by using the principles of friendship networks. The idea appeals to me very much (and anyway it doesn't cost much to join and fill in the fields, especially for someone like me who isn't concerned at all about “privacy”), although I find the realization of it somewhat defective (although Orkut is possibly a bit better than the others at least in some respects) — see below. Incidentally, Orkut is affiliated with Google.

Orkut is invite-only: you won't get anywhere on their Web site if you aren't a member; this is probably a reasonable policy in order to limit the number of dummy entries. However, they won't even let you search for people whom you might know so as to request an invitation: and I think this is very stupid. Now I won't enter all of my friends' email addresses in the system to invite them all, not even those of whom I suspect that they might be interested in joining.

But if you know me (at least to some extent: I'm not too selective about calling people friends, but I'll “play the game” to some extent and not invite someone I've never heard of), please don't hesitate to send me some kind of signal if you wish to join Orkut, and I'll gladly invite you (in case it matters, also remind me of your favorite email address to which the invitation should be sent, and of how you prefer your first and last names to be entered). I'll be quite happy to introduce my real-life friends in the virtual network.

Here are a few of the things I think are a pity with these virtual community network sites in general and Orkut in particular:

  • Everything is way too US-centric. I'm not even talking about having to enter one's height in feet and inches when every single other country in the world uses SI units. It's the location field that annoys me most: it's only by zip code, and if you don't live in the US or in Canada it won't make sense of one. This is plain stupid. They should be storing a longitude and latitude instead: convert US zip codes to geo coordinates, and have a database of major world cities for other people, or let the user explicitly enter his coordinates if he prefers to. That way they could even display a world map with little dots showing the density of registered users; or one could easily find the list of users living within this-or-that distance from oneself. Please: how hard is it to obtain a list of the world's 10000 largest cities, by country, with precise coordinates? There's simply no excuse for not having done this. Also, I haven't checked, but I'm pretty sure all times are expressed in US Pacific time: ever heard of Universal time or about letting the user pick his favorite time zone, guys?
  • That's not all: things are also too anglo-centric—I mean, centered about the English language. Well, at least Orkut seems to handle iso-8859-1 characters (I haven't tried Unicode!) more or less correctly, which can't be said of all similar sites. I'm not complaining that the interface is in English (I think it's better to have an English-only site than a lousy translation, and I've yet to come across a non-lousy translation of anything even vaguely computer-related). I'm complaining that when the site asks me to describe myself (for example) I'm not given the opportunity to enter a description in English and another one in French, for example.
  • The search facilities are worthless. This is really disappointing from something related to Google. Now a decent people search feature on a virtual friendship network site must offer search criteria of unlimited complexity. Orkut, for example, organizes people in virtual communities: this is nice. But one cannot query the intersection of two communities! How lame. I'd like to have a list of people interested in mathematics and Linux (or the Hacker ethic or geek Zen) and gay themes, for example. Without the ability to perform such queries, the site is mostly useless, really. (Of course, what one would really like is some “intelligent” search feature that would find people with related interests or something like that.) Orkut won't even let you search by ethnic type or that sort of things (so what's the point of having the field, then?). Oh, and I can search for men interested in dating men and for men interested in dating men&women, but not for both at once. Uh?
  • Communities… this is better in Orkut than in Friendster or Tribe.net: you don't just describe your interests by listing random words and hope that other people choose the same as you do (so if you're interested, say, in vegetarian cooking, you might try adding vegetarian, vegetarians, vegeterian cooking, vegetarian cuisine, vegetarian food and so on: have fun!). In Orkut, communities must be defined (anyone can do so) before one can join them, which seems to make more sense. However, it's still too hard to search among existing communities, because their profile is too restricted. And enormous communities like Linux don't make much sense since one can't narrow searches within one community; not to mention the fact that the list of users is given on a single page, even when there are hundreds of them.

Oh, rats, I've been too verbose again.

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