Geeks don't normally get to play the role of national hero, but Orkut Buyukkokten will not soon forget the trip he made to Brazil earlier this year. The 32-year-old creator of the social-networking site Orkut.com was mobbed by reporters, photographers and autograph seekers. In the United States or Europe, Orkut's name would probably draw a blank stare.
Brazil, it seems, is emerging as a bellwether nation for Internet trends. Brazilians have been quick to check out new social-networking sites like Facebook, MySpace and Fotolog. And they're largely responsible for the spectacular growth of Orkut's site—Brazilians account for 57 percent of its 44 million members. This is impressive, considering how badly the country is wired. Only a fifth of Brazilians have ever gone online, and fewer than 11 million have Web access at home. But they're a zealous minority. A recent Nielsen/Net Ratings poll showed that Brazilians spend almost 24 hours a month online on average—more than Net surfers from any other nation.
What sets Brazilians apart is their capacity for schmoozing. Hotmail, Skype and instant-messaging tools are all the rage. Brazil accounts for 12 percent of all of MSN Messenger users, Microsoft says. "Brazilians seem to catch on to sites that offer expressiveness," says Adam Seifer, cofounder of Fotolog, a picture-swapping site that struggled in the United States but took off "like a pandemic" in Brazil. "It got to the point where Brazilian MTV was featuring the Fotologger of the week. It must be something in the Zeitgeist."
That spirit has not been lost on investors, who have come to view Brazil as prized real estate for networking Web sites. Venture-capital fund Draper Fisher Jurvetson has joined a local firm to explore Brazilian online networking. Newscorp has just launched MySpace Mexico, and Orkut has made Portuguese a second language, trying to cash in on the growing Latin American middle-class market. Shortly after its 2002 debut, Fotolog jumped to Chile, quickly becoming the most popular Web site, and then Argentina, where it ranks in the top 10. The intense traffic in Brazil has also helped companies hone their products and tailor sites for overseas audiences. "Brazilians are not just heavy Internet users but seem very experimental, willing to try new stuff all the time," says Seifer. "That's got to bode well for any online product." What's good for Brazil, it seems, is good for the Web.