Zephoria (Danah Boyd) has a pretty good vent about Orkut at Apophenia (found by way of kottke), and she has a nice long list of links to people commenting on it. The criticism about Orkut is interesting, not because I think social networking sites are all that significant at this point in digital history, but because this criticism makes me realise why the student/teacher network used by several Norwegian Universities and Colleges doesn't work.
Classfronter, a site for submitting papers, relaying messages, keeping calendars etc has some features that work. That is mainly the submitting papers and relaying messages from teachers to students part. The parts that don't really work are all those social features, which are aimed at making Classfronter into an online classroom. It has your personalised profile, your "who is online now" feature, your discussion lists, your potential new groups and rooms - and nobody uses it. My students are active, at times aggressive students, used to being in the top end of their class, skilled at finding channels for gathering and spreading information, and they just don't care about that medium. Why not? In Danah Boyd's vent not one of her problems are the same as with Classfronter, but I still think she is one the right track. Both Orkut and Classfronter are parodies of social interaction.
Classfronter is a mockery of the classroom situation. In the flesh world, if my students are in the classroom and they whisper or chat, that affects everybody and so is significant. It isn't just a matter of exchanging information, it is a way to express contempt, disgust and aggression, or just plain tell me they are bored. These actions influence me directly. In Classfronter, I can't even know if they are in the classroom unless they chat with me. And while their activity may stretch over a full spectre, I may never know. If they want to discuss anything at length, they need to email me anyway. Emailing me through Classfronter sends an email to my mailbox or to classfronter depending on my specifications. I can't lecture in there, I can post lectures and then listen to comments on them, that is all. No feedback, no nods, no snores, no enthusiasm. We don't really interact. A MUD or a MOO gives me a much better idea of social interaction, attendance, attention and general noise level of a class if I want to interact with students online.
Orkut is the same kind of place as Classfronter. Rather than posting papers we post comments and suggestions to groups, but the useful functions for actually communicating are all different versions of reciprocal delayed communication based on turn-taking. The social trimmings are as mangled in Orkut as in Classfronter. That I have accepted somebody as my friend doesn't mean my social interactions with those people are in that space, any more than me posting my lecture on Classfronter means I actually lecture through that digital classroom. And don't get me started on administrators who can't think around routines in order to facilitate function... At least Orkut is in Alpha and we haven't paid hard-earned educational budget money for the thing.
The main problem is, in my opinion, is that you need to move from one online territory to an other. This might be a topic for Anne's Space and Culture blog, because I think of sites like Orkut, Friendster and our own Classfronter as territorial. They want to keep the attention of the user limited to their territories, and will not allow a frontierless surfing and simultaneous use. They insist that you identify yourself upon return or keep your link-economy within their control. Well, I can circumvent that through keeping more windows open, but linking out of sites and being able to return to them smoothly is important to my surfing habits, and filling the screen with opened windows just isn't the solution.
Both Orkut and Classfronter are about controlling surfing habits and internet use. They both try to mimic and hardcode certain social interaction structures and aspects that are too subtle and too fluid for binary programming language. They both fail miserably and make a lot of people angry and upset in the process. "Interesting" is the best thing to say about them. But really - they are, as long as you don't expect them to actually work.