Mark Zuckerberg as Christ the Redeemer statue

Christ the Redeemer by Paul Mannix, Flickr

North Americans and Europeans are in a “Facebook bubble”; we assume that everyone on the planet uses the same social network. But while Facebook holds the vast market-share, emerging BRIC economies have historically been on rival social networks. The Russians consistently use VKontakte. The Chinese are on QZone. Brazil and India have been dedicated to Orkut.

Nearly a year ago, Facebook made its first incursion into BRIC territory, toppling Orkut in India. And now the same is happening in Orkut’s biggest user-base: Brazil.

I couch-surfed with a Brazilian named Paula and her Swiss boyfriend Lukas. Paula moved from Porto Alegre to Zurich in January, after flirting with Lukas over Facebook. Paula is an early adopter. She’s been on Orkut since the early days, but after traveling through Europe a few years ago she joined Facebook. She realized it was a much better way to stay in touch with travel friends.

Orkut, a Google product developed by a Turk named Orkut Büyükkökten, was launched in January 2004 as a rival to Friendster. But by July 2004, Brazilian users outnumbered North Americans two to one. Orkut grew to become the premier social network in Brazil. In August 2008 Google moved all Orkut operations to Belo Horizante, Brazil. The site became as Brazilian as guava paste.

By October 2010, Orkut had a whopping 36 million users in Brazil. Around this time Facebook started its surge in Brazil; in a year it went from 1.5 million to 9 million users. Even though Facebook was outpacing Orkut, users spent way more time on their home network. The average user spent 276 minutes a month on Orkut, and only 29 minutes on Facebook.

Brazilians love their social media. Paula thinks it’s more than “the need to stay connected.” She thinks that social media strikes at the heart of Brazilian vanity. The newly emerging middle-class show off their wealth with flashy cars and plastic surgery. Social networks become the digital analogue to this. Users upload glamour shots of themselves, while untagging less than desirable photos. They post updates about their exciting lifestyles, while omitting the mundane moments. Social networkers are editing their autobiographies to curate ideal versions of the self.

Not everyone takes this approach to virtual living seriously. Several sites mock ridiculous profile pictures. Pérolas do Orkut (Pearls of Orkut) and Grandes Tolices do Orkut (Great Blunders of Orkut) have become the definitive sites for Orkut FAILs, like Lamebook in America. Paula says that in the last year these sites have started to include Brazilian Facebook FAILs as well.

These humor sites seem to be a bellwether, because this April the unimaginable finally happened: Facebook surpassed Orkut in Brazil. (admittedly a rough metric) ranked Facebook the fourth most viewed site in Brazil, pushing Orkut to the sixth slot. Even though Facebook was accessed more often, it had fewer unique visitors: 17.9 million versus Orkut’s 32.4.

Graph showing Facebook catching up to Orkut

Paula could tell that more people were joining Facebook when she started getting friend requests from her great aunts, and her mom’s friends. These were people she never expected to see on Facebook. She started creating extensive lists for privacy and to define social circles. Details about house parties are sent to her “friends in Zurich” list, jokes in Portuguese are directed towards her “amigos Porto Alegre.” News about an awesome Californian couch-surfing guest is sent to the “CouchSurfing” list.

In the past few months, Facebook’s user-base in Brazil continued to grow. Even though Facebook had lost nearly 6 million US visitors, it had jumped to over 19 million in Brazil.

Silvio Meira, a technology researcher at the Center for Advanced Studies and Systems in Recife (CESAR), recently acknowledged that Orkut “is dead in terms of innovation and business” and predicts “the dominance of Facebook in Brazil.”

Meira thinks Facebook’s innovation is in allowing users to make all of their web activity revolve around Facebook. It creates an internet within the internet. Orkut’s innovation is in superficial redesigns that include new features like “square format for profile pictures” and custom color schemes.

Paula finds Facebook’s omnipresence more useful than Orkut’s new features. A year ago she would have logged into Orkut several times a day. Now she finds herself signing on once a week. She can’t think of an occasion that she actually needs to be using Orkut, since most of her friends have already migrated to Facebook. Paula now connects to her people in Brazil on the same service that she uses for friends worldwide.

As Orkut dies in Brazil, Facebook will have even more of a monopoly in the social network space. When a local website loses out to a universal one, does something get lost? Is this the homogenization of culture? Or maybe this is for the better. If everyone in the world connects on the same social network, the world gets smaller.

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