Sic transit gloria orkuti

Nostalgia for the vanished social network to which many Indians once wholeheartedly pledged their first online selves

Published - May 11, 2019 04:03 pm IST

Nostalgia is a powerful emotional force in the social media landscape. Any number of contrivances await to embellish and elevate the past. There are hashtags celebrating throwbacks and image filters for vintage cool.

On Facebook, there is no escaping bygones. Algorithms will burrow through your feed and serve appropriate dosages of things posted and forgotten years ago.

Nostalgia is commodified and fetishised in an endless loop. You can log in, but never log out. Not even in death when your account can be optioned into a memorial and you turn into a piece of nostalgia yourself. Not at least as long as Facebook itself is around.

But what about the platform itself once the plug is pulled? What if a sudden urge to experience a bit of your most primal digital self strikes long after the platform has been balled up and binned?

There is a certain state of permanence that one can expect in the physical world even with disuse and breakdown. Take, for instance, the 2017 Hindi film, Meri Pyaari Bindu , drenched in the nostalgia of media memories. Typewriters, cassette players, and a Calcutta of the 80s seamlessly intersect and continue into the present even as mix tapes of old Hindi songs hold up a torch for lost love. In one sequence, it is the possibility of repairing a cassette tape that allows Abhimanyu Roy (Ayushmann Khurrana) to resurrect his muse and break through his writer’s block. Can the digital be similarly resuscitated at will?

Scholars theorise and assert the digital world’s physicality by citing labour, market economics, e-waste et al as examples of its material dimensions. But what about digital after-life as an object of interaction and use in its own right?

Online genesis

For many Indians of my generation, Orkut was where we first constructed our digital beings into existence, collaboratively authoring our online personalities with scraps, testimonials and communities. We marked popularity rankings with ice cubes and red hearts, and cracked up every time Orkut scolded its “bad, bad server” and denied it donuts.

We learnt of new heuristics to navigate our shiny online lives and startled ourselves with the thrills of voyeurism and stalking, even as privacy concerns slowly emerged.

But even as Orkut was sinking under the weight of the infamous fraandship requests, it was also sometimes ahead of its time. For instance, it had a feature that allowed you to privately mark people you were crushing on, and it would play cupid if the attraction was mutual — a feature that swipe-happy Tinder built itself on. Ironically, this erstwhile Orkut feature is now making renewed headlines, courtesy Facebook refurbishing it as a shiny new offering. Only, it is now called Secret Crush.

Even as we abandoned Orkut to graze on Facebook, we carried its cultural memories, experiences, and norms into other social media worlds. In that sense, Orkut persisted as a culture. But what if you find yourself afflicted with technostalgia for the site to which you wholeheartedly pledged your first online self? Four years after it shut down in 2014, I went looking for Orkut.

Digital debris

Wading through Orkut’s digital debris I found that screenshots of profile pages are likely the only traces of the platform’s existence. Articles waxing nostalgic about Orkut were plenty, and some detailed how Google would allow sufficient time to download content and save it offline. They promised that ‘Communities,’ one of Orkut's most vibrant features, would be preserved. I clicked on the link and was greeted by an inactive page and a ‘DNS address not found’ message. No donuts denied this time.

It all looked rather grave — suddenly, the Internet did not seem to be the kind of place that could host you forever. There are no flea markets or junna bazaars where you can hope to pick up digital antiques or Orkut scraps. After all, this is also the age of the ephemeral media that Snapchat heralded. Its affordances are meaningful, but what if you want to become a media archaeologist one day and find very little that signposts digital pasts?

Offline remains

I then poked around in the offline world. Saris with the WhatsApp logo are not uncommon, but Orkut is absent there too. My mother WhatsApped me pictures of fabric with YouTube, Google, Facebook, and WhatsApp logos. She asked if I wanted any. I did. Just in case they disappeared into the ether too. I now own a metre’s worth of contemporary digital media. In cotton kalamkari no less.

In a last attempt to relive Orkut, I downloaded ‘Hello’, Orkut Büyükkökten’s latest app, which says, “Hello is the first social network built on loves, not likes.” It invited me to create a persona based on five interests and asked me to write jots. I mistyped, “This is my first not.” I began getting followers, none of whom I knew, including Büyükkökten himself, who, briefly, became one of 13 people following me.

I looked at trending communities, and ‘Orkut Nostalgia’ with 4,000-plus members showed up, with some calling for the ‘Age of Orkut’ to be brought back. I logged off.

Google’s graveyard

As I write this, Twitter insists that I follow an account called @killedbygoogle. I click on it and am soon staring at a list of all the products Google has ‘killed’ over the years. Started by Cody Ogden, a Minneapolis-based coder, the account is a critical albeit tongue-in-cheek response to Google’s happy proclivity to kill off products.

At the time of writing, there are 162 products listed on the page. I scroll down and find Orkut. Its tombstone says 2004-2014. Its longevity, I realise, is nothing to sneeze at. Orkut has fared far better than products like Quick Office, which was apparently executed when it was four months old. Rest in peace, I gulp, as I survey the slaughter in Google’s graveyard.

Meanwhile, the Nokia 3310, another icon of its time, staged a comeback some time ago. I remember fishing out my own 3310 when I read the news. I look at it now as I write, its hardware a reassurance of its continued existence.

The author is a professor at IIIT-Bangalore’s Digital Society programme.

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