Brazil Internet Craze Angers English Speakers
By Alberto Alerigi
SAO PAULO, Brazil (Reuters) - Brazil has butted heads with the United States this year on issues ranging from cotton subsidies to the war in Iraq.
But perhaps none of the battles has been so personal as the one being fought on the Internet.
Thousands of Brazilians have become devotees of Orkut (http://www.orkut.com), a popular new social-networking site from Web search leader Google Inc.
Orkut allows members to organize themselves into online communities of friends, and friends of friends, to discuss everything from chess to sandwiches.
But the rush of Brazilians to join Orkut and rival social networking sites has upset some online users, who complain of a proliferation of messages posted in Portuguese, Brazil's native tongue.
Some users have even started communities specifically for people to air their gripes on this issue.
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.
Orkut, named after Google software engineer Orkut Buyukkokten, made its debut in January and is still in the testing stages. Part of its allure is its exclusivity -- one can only join at the invitation of another member.
"Orkut maps one's social prestige, and Brazilians are by nature gregarious," said Beth Saad, a professor at the University of Sao Paulo's School of Communications and Arts.
Although more than one-fourth of Brazilians live in poverty, those who can afford Internet access have become avid Web surfers.
In terms of time spent on the Internet, Brazilians edged out the United States in May for the second month in a row, according to Ibope/NetRatings. The market researcher estimates that Internet use for Brazilians averaged 13 hours and 51 minutes in May, eight minutes more than for Americans.
The number of Brazilian visitors to community sites and online diaries rose 14.6 percent to 3.5 million in May from January, Ibope/NetRatings said.
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.
"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."
AN INTERNET FORCE
The Brazilians' ardor for the Internet extends to other community-based sites, and Web entrepreneurs are catching on to the potential business opportunities.
Lisa Kopp, spokeswoman for Orkut's competitor Friendster (http://www.friendster.com), said Brazilians are "an important group, with millions" of participants among its 7 million users.
Meanwhile, Brazilians account for nearly 211,000 of the 453,600 users of Fotolog (http://www.fotolog.net), which allows people to post a visual diary of their lives.
The site is negotiating with Internet providers in Brazil to offer a Portuguese-language version, said Adam Seifer, who founded Fotolog.
But Saad, the communications professor at University of Sao Paulo, said some of Brazil's exuberance about Orkut -- and the resulting clash of cultures -- is just another fad.
"I think what will happen is what occurred when the Web arrived in Brazil," she said. "There was a huge boom of people creating sites and now the number of active sites being used by Brazilians is a lot smaller than those registered."