The Evolution Of Social Networking: How Orkut Buyukkokten Is Leading The Way

Orkut Buyukkokten has never been somebody to stick within his comfort zone, and it’s this trait that he believes has helped him turn hello.com into a unique social networking tool. He’s made a career out of using his observations of networking and friendships in the real world in order to create a better social experience online.

Born in Turkey and raised in Germany, Buyukkokten moved to California to study computer science at Stanford. It was this experience that led him to spot a big limitation in the way people traditionally make friends. “Over the years, I got exposed to a lot of different cultures, people’s values and languages,” he said. “It’s super fascinating to meet people, but in our daily lives it can be extremely difficult to reach out to strangers or make connections. You can go to a coffee shop or bar, but if you think about how you meet people in real life, it’s mostly through friends and friends of friends.”

The problem was that this approach proved limiting, even for outgoing students who would seemingly be open to new experiences. “As a student at Stanford, I noticed that most undergraduates made their friends in their freshman dorms or fraternities, and they hung out with the same group of people the rest of their college lives. There are so many fascinating people on campus, but it was extremely hard to connect.”

That inspired him to create Club Nexus, a social networking site solely for Stanford students that launched three years before Facebook hit Harvard. It proved an immediate hit, signing up a third of the undergraduate population within a couple of weeks. Buyukkokten soon found evidence for his belief that social networking could change lives. “I saw my friends’ networks change and evolve over time: They made new friends, they found romance, they found activity partners and they found better jobs through social networking. Your life is better with people in it, and there are millions of people out there. Social networking enables you to go outside of your limited network and find people with whom you can connect.”

The success of Club Nexus, as well as a follow-up service named inCircle for Stanford alumni, inspired Buyukkokten’s next major project while working as a Google software engineer. Taking advantage of the company’s program that allows engineers to spend 20 percent of their week working on their own ideas, he developed a full-blown social network that wasn’t aimed at a single specific group. Google chiefs persuaded him to call it Orkut.com, not as an ego trip but rather because it was an inherently memorable name with the all-important unclaimed domain name to match.

Using Google’s staff as the base of the network, orkut.com soon achieved that all-important viral growth, hitting 300 million users worldwide. Google eventually stopped working on orkut.com after deciding to focus its efforts on Google Plus, which was always designed to be closely integrated with other Google services rather than a standalone network.

While launching orkut.com Buyukkokten learned a valuable lesson about how certain people can be the key to both human and virtual networks. “My best friend at the time, he was from Estonia and lived in New York. I invited him to orkut.com and he invited a couple of his Estonian friends and we became the number one social network in Estonia just because I had invited one person to the service.”

Any social network needs a distinctive feature to stand out from giants such as Facebook, and for Buyukkokten the key was to offer something fresh in both principle and practice. The principle is that hello is focused on helping people make new social contacts rather than simply keeping in touch with their existing friends and family, or pursuing specific goals such as Tinder for dating or LinkedIn for business.

hello.com uses three distinct methods to suggest new contacts, rather than rely on connections from existing friends and family. The three are all based on the factors which make it likely people would make friends if they met in person.

The first is location, putting the emphasis on finding people who a user may at least be likely to see in the physical world rather than just online. The second is interests, or as hello.com calls them, “passions.” Users can select from 100+ different passions, choosing their five most important to focus on, but with the option to change the selection later on as their life develops and changes. Finally, users complete a 60-question personality test to discover their likely friendship compatibility.

The site’s name comes from the introduction system which actively promotes finding new contacts. “It can be uncomfortable reaching out to strangers. On hello, we make connecting easy, lightweight and fun by providing assisted introductions. Every day we come up with a set of recommendations of people that we think you should connect with, and these recommendations depend on your network, your passions, your location and your personality. It becomes a very simple gesture to reach out and say hello.”

Social networking continues to evolve, but Buyukkokten says he’s learned that even traditional concepts such as a network of friends-of-friends still have a role: It’s all about harnessing them from a different perspective, as a tool to improve hello.com’s new approach to friend-finding. “If you look at how people connect in real life, sometimes opposites attract and sometimes similar people attract, and oftentimes it’s a mix of those factors. By looking at the network you connect with in terms of your friendships, we can determine the best way to recommend others.”

But for all the technology and science behind the connections, Buyukkokten is always keen to bring things back to a simple philosophy that drives everything he and hello.com does: “We want to make the world a better place by making networking fun again.”


Thank you to Eric C. Gould for this guest post.