Can it be that Russia has just discovered peer-to-peer networking? How else to explain the sudden emergence and the overwhelming popularity of the Russian Classmates site (Odnoklassniki.ru)? Why only now?
I mean, here we’ve been enjoying things like Friendster and Myspace for years. Add to that, Linked In (for professional connections), Good Reads (for book lovers), and of course, the Facebook (which, so far, I’ve been able to avoid).
But Russian Classmates is different. It’s really a craze. There’s a joke going around that involves a lonesome Putin walking Kremlin corridors while his underlings are lost in front of their computers, getting sentimental, lusting after former neighbors and lovers, discovering the children they didn’t think they had. (The punch line? The site is an FSB project designed to get Russian citizens to reveal their information and connections.) (It's a cute joke. If you know Russian, you can read the whole thing here. Thank you, Marik!)
In reality, though, the site doesn’t have all that much information. No short statements about self. No lists of favorite bands. Not even marital statuses. What it does have is pictures, which people post liberally and are encouraged to rate (more on that later). Actually you can get quite a bit from the pictures: children, spouses, and of course, the exotic vacation destinations.
I discovered the site about a month ago, and I’ll be the first one to admit it’s incredibly addictive. Especially the first couple of days, when you're digging through profiles and graduation years. And once you are found by your class, it's glorious, like you're a long-lost member of a tribe. By now, my list of friends includes classmates from the 2 schools I attended, several friends I’d lost track of, people I haven’t seen since 3rd grade. Childhood friends. Family friends. Relatives. My sister. My parents. I’ve received messages from my former teachers as well as from people I don’t really know. And many messages from my mother’s former students! So many, in fact, that I’ve made her join the site as well.
The site has its challenges. For example, it doesn’t work too well on my browser; the interface is a bit clunky; I often have to retype my messages; and it took me a while to figure out how to accept invitations. The biggest challenge, though, is finding time to answer. And typing in translit. (I need to find keyboard stickers that have both Russian and English alphabet.)
In Russia, the popularity of the site has led to a wave of class reunions. For immigrants like myself – and it’s really interesting to see how many people are living abroad these days – it’s a chance to dip into some latent nostalgia and reconnect (if only virtually) with the people we might otherwise never see again. It’s not like we can bump into them at a bus stop. (Though who takes buses these days?)
The only feature I don’t really understand is the rating of the pictures. I mean, why? It’s not a fucking beauty contest. The point is to connect with old friends, and are your friends really going to lowball you? I don’t think so. I’ve been pretty much ignoring the rating feature. Come on, everybody’s looking gorgeous and happy, and they wouldn’t be posting the pictures otherwise.
Still, the other day, some unknown to me entity (residing in San Francisco, apparently, and possessing no pictures or friends of her own), found my profile and gave me low ratings. Umm, okay. Fortunately the site has another feature that allows you to blacklist the undesirables and ban them from contacting you again. Good thing, too. The site is for friends, not assholes.