The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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To scrap or not to scrap

Why bother'

Because other than thakurma on the fourth floor, just about everybody is logged in. Colleges, canteens, universities and offices in the city are filling up with the new species called Orkutians. Because “to scrap” — the act of posting your comment on another member’s “scrapbook” in his or her account on Orkut — has become an accepted transitive verb, threatening to replace “to e-mail”. Because employees are spending so much time on Orkut that offices have started banning it. Because Calcuttans and ex-Calcuttans constitute a major part of its membership. So, it’s time to sit up and take notice; if not to scrap.

What’s Orkut'

A free Google service allowing membership only through invitation that was launched on January 22, 2004. One Web lore has it that the name orkut was traced to the Finnish word for ‘orgasm’, until a Google employee Orkut Buyukkokten stood up to be counted as the name who started the fire.

The underlying concept seems to be of “Six Degrees of Separation”, according to which each individual is separated from another by no more than six degrees, or six friend’s friends, or six mouse clicks perhaps. This way, the community remains “an organically growing network of trusted friends”. That’s where certain people thrive.

Of a mind-boggling number of members, an astonishing 65.71 per cent of Orkutians are from Brazil, followed by the US at 13.22 per cent and India at 7.84 per cent. There’s a strong suspicion that among the Indians, most may be Calcuttans or ex-Calcuttans. They certainly form a hefty chunk. If you are a 20-something on Orkut, there’s a chance that you may re-discover everyone you have known since childhood. It’s an addictive game that keeps people glued to keyboards.

Ask 25-year-old techie Ayon Chowdhury. “The girl I am dating now went to lower nursery with me. Her parents moved to Mumbai the next year and we did not see each other for nearly 20 years. Now I am in Mumbai and she is back in Calcutta. We got back in touch, thanks to Orkut.”

How exactly does Calcutta connect'

Since the Argumentative Indian has a lot to with the Calcuttan, the city is well tuned in. Bongkuts or “Bengalis on Orkut” have flooded the website, where members can form or join communities.

So along with communities on Quentin Tarantino, on Orkut there is Brand Buddha (on the chief minister, not the enlightened one) there’s Rannaghor (where the fluctuating prices of ilish is a constant concern), several on Sukumar Ray and Feluda, there’s [email protected] University, there’s Calcutta Quiz Corner, there’s Quiz R’ Adda. One of the communities in the news is on Shutki (the dried fish that traditionally Bangals, Bengalis from ‘East Pakistan’, love and Ghotis, people originally from around Calcutta, love to hate). In the community, there is some detailed discussion on the subtle ways of having Loitya Shutki, Fesha Shutki, Chingri Shutki, Chhuri Shutki and Nona Ilish. “Mod aar shutki jhurjhure” (booze and shredded shutki), writes a fan, is like Sukumar Ray’s paunruti and jholagur, the ultimate culinary combination.

There’s “Bengali ADDA”, “Proud to be a Bengali”, “Bengali parents” and “Almost Bengali” for those who “share the blood and bone of a Bengali” but have been born and brought up in places other than Bengal. “There are Calcuttans abroad who discuss Calcutta in greater detail than we do here,” says a dedicated Orkutian. “I have come across someone from Houston wondering if a particular sofa at Flurys is still frayed. Or how the rats are doing in Oly Pub.”

Is that all'

No, not really. There is another big reason why Orkut clicks. This is an online community where you get the pleasure of peeping into others’ diaries.

How so'

Each member’s account has a scrapbook which all other members can access at any given Orkut moment. On the scrapbook, a visitor can post anything that he or she likes about the account holder — and that is for everyone to see. So an Orkutian gets to read what other people have to say about other people. Sometimes they say nice things, sometimes nasty. In many cases, it’s about people you know. It’s eavesdropping, openly. That’s perhaps even more addictive than finding long-lost friends.

Is Orkut the only online community'

No way. The Internet is teeming with communities. Ryze, Friendster, MySpace, Hi5, Tribe, Wallop and Bebo are some of the other popular online networks. Most of these networking communities are in the test stage.

Orkut scores by focusing on social relationships and access to other’s accounts. “Orkut’s popularity is a reflection of the people’s need to reach out to each other. Groups or communes, whether online or offline, can be tremendously beneficial,” says psychiatrist Shiladitya Ray.

Is all well in Orkut world'

No, warns Ray. “Online communities allow people to assume identities and personalities (or hide information), which is fraught with danger.” While almost 40 per cent Orkutians are single, 13 per cent prefer not to state their relationship status.

“Online networking has varying degrees of anonymity attached to it, which results in liberty being used in wrong ways; and for the simple reason that punishment is not possible,” says Prasanta Roy, a sociology professor at Presidency College.

Orkut is no exception. A 30-year-old woman on Orkut says that she often gets scraps saying “I want to make friendship with a mature woman”. She looked up the profile of the visitor and found him listed as a member of various “sex communities” in Calcutta. Other Orkut users are increasingly “un-joining” the community. “I joined Orkut in June and got addicted to it. But soon I started getting lewd messages. I could make out that they were being sent by some boys I knew,” says Fariah Ahsan, 24. “The problem is that Orkut does not provide privacy. People just need to type in your name and the search function throws up your profile. I got scared and stopped.”

Reports of profiles being hacked are also scaring away members. “I recently read in the newspapers that somebody played a prank on a woman by uploading offensive material and her cellphone number on her Orkut profile,” shudders Vineeta Bhowmik, who joined Orkut in January. ‘Keep Orkut Beautiful’ is a management motto now.

Is safety the only concern'

No. Given the addictive nature of Orkut, many companies have blocked it in their office computers, Avik Saha, managing partner of the law firm Saha and Roy, says: “Since Orkut is in no way related to our field of work, we decided to block access to the site in office.” But some HR heads are going through the Orkut profile and matching it with the official CV before hiring or firing!

The last word...

Given the number of swelling Orkutians, the uses and the pleasures of the website seem to far outweigh its dangers. “It’s peer pressure,” says a 22-year-old Orkutian. “Everyone I know is there.” And you can always lead a secret online life.

Those into Orkut hook, line, and sinker are even willing to spawn multiple identities. “My wife checks my scrapbook regularly. So the only way I can stay in touch with girlfriends is through another Orkut account I access in office,” says a 29-year-old IT professional, who obviously does not want to be named.

To paraphrase a wise man, all’s fair in love and Orkut.

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