The Brazilians of Orkut

Once upon a time, there came along a search engine named Google.  It was universal in the sense that it spoke all the major languages of the world.  You type in English-language terms and you get search results which contain those terms; you type in Chinese-language terms and you get Chinese-language results which contain those terms.  This seems to something that the whole world can use together without any friction.

Then Google brought out a beta-version of network community.  Today at the office, my Brazilian colleague told me, "Why don't you write about Orkut on your website?  Brazilians are going crazy over it!"  So I head onto my office desktop computer and punched in and ... behold! ... found my company Internet nanny has blocked access!  Some almighty system administrator has decided that this was an appalling waste of productivity, and he/she is probably very right.

How do people join the Orkut community?  This is a beta-version and not yet opened to the general public.  Since January 2004, it has been by invitation only.  Someday, it will make for an interesting academic research paper how the Orkut community would turn out not to mirror the overall Internet population as socio-psychological factors such as group cohesion and gregariousness seemed to matter.  In July 2004, it was noted by Alberto Alerigi for Reuters via LiveJournal:

The United States has at least 153 million Internet users, compared with Brazil's 20 million. Still, Orkut said Brazilians dominated its membership roster in June, outnumbering Americans for the first time.  The site says it has more than 769,000 members, making it one of the largest and most popular of its type on the Internet. About 23.5 percent of the users are from the United States, while another 41.2 percent are Brazilians.  Iranians are a distant third place at about 6 percent.

But unlike the many-to-one Google search engine service, the peer-to-peer Orkut network community led to conflicts over language (Reuters, continued):

Tammy Soldaat, a Canadian, got a sample of Brazilian wrath recently when she posted a message asking whether her community site on body piercing should be exclusive to people who speak English.  Brazilian Orkut users quickly labeled her a "nazi" and "xenophobe."  "After that I understood why everyone is complaining about these people, why they're being called the 'plague of Orkut,"' she said in a site called "Crazy Brazilian Invasion."

John Gibbs of Mountain View, California, has founded a community called "So many Brazilians on Orkut."  "When the average Orkut user goes to look at community listings to see what's out there, he'll see a list populated with pretty much all Portuguese communities," Gibbs said. "This is highly frustrating since Orkut is not a Brazilian service."  

But Mateus Reis, a publicist who lives in Sao Paulo, said users should be free to write what they want, in the language of their choosing.  But Mateus Reis, a publicist who lives in Sao Paulo, said users should be free to write what they want, in the language of their choosing.  "Since we can invite anyone we want at Orkut, and my friends are Brazilians, it doesn't make sense talking to them in English," Reis said in Portuguese. "I use the language I know."

His compatriot Pablo Miyazawa has a more moderate view.  "Brazilians have the right to create anything they want in any language they want," Miyazawa said. "The problem is to invade forums with specific languages and write in Portuguese. Brazilians are still learning how to behave in the Net."

Okay, so now I see who is to be blamed.  If we have two communities speaking languages that are completely unknown to others (e.g. humans and mice), then their sub-Orkut communities will necessarily be disjoint because communication is impossible.  Here, the trouble-makers are ... the multi-linguists!  Since Brazilians on the Internet are highly educated and more likely to know English than Americans would know Brazilian Portuguese, those Brazilians can snoop around and be a nuisance everywhere in English while the converse problem does not occur often.  Can you say comeuppance for people who are used to getting their way all of the time?

Of course, it did not have to happen that way.  Here, a comparison might be made with the small but vibrant blogosphere in Hong Kong.  There are a number of English-language blogs, mostly written by ex-patriates, and then there are any number of Chinese-language blogs.  Most of the Chinese bloggers know English, but they don't go around to post Chinese into the English-language blogs.  Rather, there seem to be two separate worlds defined by language, for which one cannot be sure is a good or bad thing.  English-language blogs virtually never refer to Chinese-language blogs, because most of the English-language bloggers cannot read Chinese; conversely, Chinese-language blogs may refer occasionally to English-language blogs, but that is an exceptionally rare event.  Why is that?  One hypothesis is the divergence of interests, such that exchange and communication are unnecessary.  And how about this other hypothesis: the Chinese-language bloggers think the English-language bloggers are clueless, so why waste time with them!?  I cannot prove or disprove any of these hypotheses.  But at least they don't seem to hate each other passionately.

Meanwhile, after more than a year in existence, has take a highly visible turn for the worse in some aspects, as reported by Gary Rivlin in the New York Times:

Over the last year, millions of Internet users have gravitated to Orkut, a Web site created and run by Google that permits people, by invitation only, to join any of a long list of online communities.  Communities have been created around a shared interest in photography, Miles Davis's music and travel to offbeat places. A small minority, however, advance a hatred for Jews, blacks or gays, including a "Death to the Jews" site and a site called "Death to Blacks."


In response to a request for comment, a Google spokeswoman, Eileen Rodriguez, wrote in an e-mail message, "There are instances when members misuse the service, but it is a very small number compared to everyone who uses it. There is a certain amount of trust we have to place in our users."  ...  Orkut members are required to follow the company's "terms of service and community standards," Ms. Rodriguez wrote, which state that "an account cannot upload, transmit or contain material that is hateful or offensive based on race, ethnicity, national origin, religion, gender or sexual orientation."  When users "don't follow these terms and we are made aware of an issue, we take the necessary steps, which may include removing the content," she said.


Despite the company's stated policies, Orkut users - who are allowed to participate only if invited by a current member - can join the 2,300 people who already belong to an "I Hate Queens, Faggots and Gays" group, created in August by a Brazilian Orkut member. When setting up the community, the group's founder described it as a forum for Portuguese-speaking people to "show your indignation and make jokes" about a "type of person" who "is gaining in society." Because access to the Orkut site requires membership, general Internet users cannot stumble accidentally onto these groups.

Orkut members can also sign up to join a myriad of communities dedicated to despising people of color, including one in English that advocates the founder's position of death to all black people.  The founder of that group, Kiarash Poursaleh, who described himself in his profile as an 18-year-old living in Tehran, also listed "Mein Kampf" by Hitler as a favorite book, named "shooting" as his favorite sport and described his humor as "friendly." All members create a personal profile and can add their own communities to the Orkut site.  Mr. Poursaleh has joined dozens of other English-language Orkut communities, including the "Adolf Hitler SS Army Fan Club" and an "anti-Jewry" community, as well as a group for fans of the television show "Friends."  Mr. Poursaleh, who did not respond to an e-mail request for an interview, is also a member of "Anti-Arab Iranians," a community with the motto, "We Hate Arabs!!! Kill Them All!"

Due to the heavy presence of Brazilians, the Orkut "hate" sites are drawing legal attention from Brazil:

In late January, Christiano Jorge Santos, a state prosecutor in São Paulo, began a criminal investigation of some of the hate communities hosted by Orkut. The impetus was the cyberassault of a 13-year-old black child who lives in São Paulo. Those behind a Portuguese language community called "Antiheroes" posted a copy of the child's picture at the site, without his knowledge, and then invited visitors to "unload all your fury on this poor, innocent little black kid. Click on him and get revenge."

Such an action is clearly criminal under Brazilian law, Mr. Santos said. "That's racism, and in Brazil racism is a crime," he said.  Under Brazilian law, it is a crime to practice, induce or incite discrimination or prejudice on the grounds of race, color, ethnicity, religion or national origin. If convicted, offenders could serve two to five years in prison, in addition to paying a sizable fine.

"The U.S. is pretty unusual providing the broad protection we do to hate speech," said Professor Sunstein. In "South America, Europe - Google could have problems with many other jurisdictions."

Mr. Santos, the author of a book on hate crimes in Brazil, is targeting "all the communities that use racist and discriminatory terms on the site," according to documents he filed in court. Because Brazilian law does not include discrimination based on sexuality in its criminal code, those behind sites like "I Hate Transvestites" would not face criminal charges.  Among the Orkut groups that Mr. Santos has focused on is a "Death to Blacks" site, written in Portuguese. That group's founder, Alex Pazzo, also created the "Death to the Jews" group, also written in Portuguese. (Mr. Pazzo did not respond to an e-mail message, sent through the Orkut system, seeking comment.)

It is also unlikely that Google could be held criminally responsible in a Brazilian court, Mr. Santos said, since he would have to prove that the company was intentionally complicit in disseminating racist materials. Nevertheless, Google could be sued for damages in a Brazilian civil court, he said, because of a lack of precautionary measures against racist crimes.  Other Portuguese-language Orkut groups include "I Hate Argentines," "I Hate Transvestites" and "I Hate the Universal Church," which refers to the evangelical church popular among Brazil's poor.

The NYT article ends with a quote by Professor Carl Sunstein: "If you get like-minded people together around a hatred of Jews, or blacks, or whatever, they end up being more hateful."  This thought and a CACM article by Professor Sunstein were the inspiration for my previous post, Group Polarization on the Blogosphere (March 12, 2005).  My third example in that post would be analogous to the Orkut situation here.