“We see hello as a spiritual successor to Orkut”
Remember Orkut.com, the first streamlined social networking platform, even before we had Facebook, Twitter and Snapchat. Such was its craze that Orkut went on to become one of the most visited websites in India and Brazil in 2008. The erstwhile trendsetter website took hold in the country like a boss. However, having lost its sheen to rivals, Orkut shut down its services in 2014. Now, its creator Orkut Buyukkokten, a former Google employee, is back with a bang with yet another platform, hello network, which is built particularly for the new mobile generation. Available on Google Play Store and Apple App Store, hello brings people together around their interests to create positive, meaningful, authentic connections and sustained social engagement. In a conversation with Ramesh Kumar Raja, Buyukkokten spoke at length about his new social venture, which holds a great significance, especially in wake of Facebook data breach. Excerpts:
Social media landscape has changed incredibly, especially since Orkut. There are several social networking websites these days. So, what inspired you to make a re-entry with hello, another networking platform?
Social networks today don’t connect us to one another the way they used to a decade ago. Our social feeds are filled with choreographed moments, idealistic posts, and fake appearances. This generation stopped sharing their genuine and authentic feelings online because there is so much fear of rejection and disapproval. As a consequence, we stopped sharing things that are emotionally meaningful. We connect to one another when we are real, open and honest. Social networks today stopped bringing people together and enabling new authentic connections. Instead, they are causing anxiety, depression and social isolation.
Social was a very happy, fun experience with Orkut. We had such a loving, kind and amazing community. People there made new friends, found love, even got married and had kids. It brought the world closer together. We are continuing the tradition with hello to make social networking social again and creating those magical moments and connections that enhance our life experiences.
Smartphone is the ubiquitous tool now to be on networking platforms anytime anywhere. What is the USP of hello that may retain its users?
We all have two main human needs. We all want to connect to one another and we all want to pursue our passions. Social networks today don’t connect us the way we do in real life, around interests and things we care about. hello is all about connecting with one another around shared interests. Social networks today focus on broadcasting to your friends and followers, or one-to-one messaging with people you already know. hello is about people that you should meet and connect with that you haven’t met yet and who share your interests. We are centralizing all of the user’s passion-communities in one place leading to the easy discovery of like-minded others.
Features such as connecting with people and interactions within groups are already available on other platforms. What value does hello add to make it different from others?
Groups in social networks today don’t work very well because there are too many groups users can join around the same interests. Group discussion and content are self-contained within the group members and over time groups get too segregated and there is over-control or lack of moderation.
We have a very different solution to solving interest-based social networking. We provide multiple levels of content organization (broad to specific, global to local) that creates an environment of high-relevance and gives the user control. We introduce a top level of interest categories that we call personas. When users join hello, they pick 5 from a list of 120 (such as Foodie, Bollywood Fan, Entrepreneur, Health Enthusiast). We customize the entire user experience around those personas. Users can still create their own communities which belong to personas. This also enables content discovery outside of the communities you belong to.
How do you decide content on hello? Is it based on data you collect from users? What measures have you taken to deal with fake news?
We have a reputation system on hello that we call Karma. As users have interactions on content and with other users, their reputation changes. The interactions can be positive and negative and users have different reputations on different interests. For instance, one user can be very knowledgeable, an expert and well respected as an Entrepreneur but a newbie as a Comic Fan. The distribution of content is tied to reputation. As a consequence, issues like fake news does not occur on hello since content will only spread widely if the creator has earned the reputation of the relevant community.
What has been the response till date and how many installs hello app has amassed in India? Do you think you can recreate the success achieved by Orkut in India?
The response in India has been phenomenal. We signed up over 100,000 users in India two weeks after we launched. The qualitative and quantitative feedback has been strong and we’ve been working hard to iterate and improve the experience based on feedback.
Why did you prefer to launch hello in India prior to the US or UK and what are your expectations? India was one of the top countries on orkut.com and had such a strong and loving community. We see hello as a spiritual successor to Orkut. We wanted to continue the tradition and connect people to one another around communities.
Please tell us about hello’s business model.
We have a digital system objects model we incorporate into our eco-system that has a virtual currency. Users can get access to content and features using hello coins. This is a well known model in free to play games. hello is free, and purchasing coins is not required to be a member. Brands are an important part of our lives and enhance our daily experiences. We are going to introduce brands into hello and let them align with users around things they are passionate about.
Data security is the talk of the town, especially in wake of Facebook data breach. What steps are you taking towards maintaining privacy?
One of the major problems we have today in the social landscape is that companies are prioritizing brands, cooperations, shareholders and advertisers over users. Social networks are all about people and users should be the champions. Algorithms in social networks should be optimized to enhance user happiness and satisfaction, not to increase clicks on advertisers and time spent. Transparency about data and practices are very critical to gain user trust. On hello we have our own registration and authentication system that does not integrate with third parties. We also don’t share user data with third parties.
Considering Indians’ love for mobile and apps in India, do you have any plan to set up an office in India?
Definitely, India is a high priority for hello. Indians spent 70% of mobile internet time on social media and entertainment apps. The consumers here are very passionate, early adoptors to new technologies and have a very friendly and welcoming quality. It’s important for us to have a local presence with the community. There is an amazing tech talent in India as well. Our first hires will focus on Marketing and Operations and will be working in Mumbai. We have already started interviewing candidates.