Google's Orkut Radically Changes Discourse In Brazil

Google's first foreign acquisition was in an obscure city in Brazil. Today it's the engine behind Google's social-networking site, Orkut. Though Orkut bombed in the U.S., it's a hit in Brazil — and it's radically changing how low-income Brazilians communicate.

Copyright © 2010 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

To Brazil now and the story of a high tech partnership. The city of Belo Horizonte has long been in the technology business - trains, weapons during World War II and now information. Many years ago, a young Google set up shop in the city. It acquired a Brazilian search engine that was more successful than its own. It also launched a social networking tool that struggled in the U.S., but took off across Brazil.

Annie Murphy has the story.

ANNIE MURPHY: One of Google's most important offices in Latin America looks like a pretty typical tech company - a bunch of cubicles and computer screens taking up a few floors of a glass and metal building.

We're in the area where the engineers work. It's very quiet. Just a lot of people writing code.

At first glance, not exactly the most exciting place. But this was a huge step for Brazil and for Google, when it bought up the Brazilian search engine Akwan about six years ago. Akwan is the Guarnian(ph) indigenous word for fast. The search engine was created in the late-'90s, around the same time Google was being developed.

Bercie Heberinetu(ph) was one of Akwan's founders. Today he's head of engineering at Google's office in Belo Horizonte.

Mr. BERCIE HEBERINETU (Engineer): The reason was that Google was a nascent search engine, so it was not - coverage in the country was low. So it was clear that there was room for another search engine. And that a search engine focused in Brazil would provide a better service.

MURPHY: Akwan started out as a pet project of a few university professors, including Heberinetu and their students. But it quickly became the most important search engine in Brazil, which is why Google took notice. Today, Brazil doesn't just provide Google with knowhow, but customers, particularly for its social networking tool Orkut, which was launched around the time Google arrived in Brazil.

It was something like Facebook before Facebook was open to everyone. It was a hit in Brazil, as well as in India. But it didn't stick in the U.S., which still seems to irk Heberinetu.

Mr. HEBERINETU: Orkut is a general platform and it should be popular now across the world. Why is - why it caught fire in Brazil and India and it did not catch fire in the U.S.? We did some competitions to stimulate engagement. Let's see which country has more users.

MURPHY: Let's see which country has more users. The idea was to attract more people from around the globe, especially Americans. But Google didn't bank on Brazil's ability to step up to the challenge. There are nearly 200 million people living here. Brazilians flooded Orkut, effectively pushing out users who were put off by the widespread use of Portuguese on the site.

Today, about 90 percent of teenagers here are members of Orkut and Brazilians account for about half of its 100 million users worldwide.

(Soundbite of cafe)

MURPHY: Twenty-three-year-old Paolo Perrera(ph) works at a local Internet cafe, which is full of teenage boys playing video games and checking their Orkut accounts. Perrera has been on Orkut since it launched and shows me around the site.

(Soundbite of typing)

MURPHY: He has a post about the baby he and his wife are expecting, some photos, lots of messages. Perrera says Orkut is radically changing how people communicate here. Brazil has some of the highest cell phone rates in the hemisphere, about 35 to 60 cents a minute. Perrera lives in one of the city's shanty towns, or flavelas, and says that most people here can't afford regular cell phone use.

Mr. PAOLO PERRERA: (Through translator) The Internet has been an explosion for all social classes. Basically, I don't use a cell phone. I use Internet, email, Twitter and Orkut. Orkut is how I make plans with my friends.

MURPHY: And while some Brazilians might have unique Internet habits, the Google office still maintains many ties to the States. When I visited, the office band was busy warming up for a popular American import: Friday happy hour.

(Soundbite of music)

For NPR News, I'm Annie Murphy in Belo Horizonte, Brazil.

Copyright © 2010 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.