Where The Old Facebook Still Lives

It’s everything you remember from Facebook circa 2006. The only catch is, it’s in Russia. posted on

The blue is just the way I remember it.

So are the columns, the fonts, the gifts. It’s an almost-exact replica of the social network I joined as a rabbity, awkward college student. I had assumed it was gone forever, but here it is. The old Facebook. It lives. In Russia.

Welcome to VK.com, Europe’s largest social network and the fourth most visited site in Russia. As of February, it boasted 150 million users — putting it just ahead of Facebook among Russian users.

It’s a straightfoward knockoff of Facebook from another, more beloved era: the same features, the same layout, even the same shades of blue. Unlike Facebook, the design hasn’t changed since 2006, so it’s blissfully free of newfangled gadgetry like newsfeeds and timelines. While Zuckerberg & Co have been rolling out features, VK has been sealed in amber.

It’s a different world of social media, without rollouts or redesigns, without the driving need for reinvention.

My new VK profile, complete with interests, contact info, along with something that looks suspiciously similar to a Facebook wall. The wall is still a tiny afterthought in this time capsule, stuck in the lower right, long before the total page tyranny of the Timeline. The rest of the page still looks like a student directory.

For comparison’s sake, here’s a Facebook profile circa 2006. No one’s going to refresh this page five times a day, but it also won’t give you the twitchy feeling of information overload. In those days, the social graph didn’t move quite so fast.

There was always something hokey about Gifts, paying a dollar to spruce up someone else’s profile, but that’s what made it sweet. It was charming, like a lemonade stand grafted onto a multimillion-dollar company.

I received exactly one gift, an otter toy, bought by a girl I barely knew. In retrospect, she was flirting with me, although that did not occur to me at the time. The Facebook gift shop closed on August 1, 2010. The VK gift shop’s doors are open, and filled with Russian chocolate bars.

Facebook hasn’t used this friend-list layout since two redesigns ago, and for good reason. Most users have too many friends to scroll through this way. Once you crack 200 friends, it’s totally unmanageable. You’ll be scrolling all day. But when it was just the few dozen people you were used to seeing in the dining hall, looking at them this way made perfect sense.

There are also places where VK veers outside of lines Facebook would never have crossed. Like VK’s easygoing approach to piracy. It’s easy to post songs for download, and rare that anyone gets a takedown notice, so most accounts will host hundreds of songs at once. The Facebook equivalent would be following the lead of social file-sharing programs like Soulseek. Of course, that would have been corporate suicide (Sean Parker could have told them that), but it plays surprisingly well in Russia.

And as you look closer, you see more and more differences — the decidedly Eastern European menu of political views, including both “Communist” and “Monarchist.” Or the military feature that helps you find friends that served in the army with you. (Russia has a mandatory 12-month draft.)

It’s a reminder that, for all the nostalgia-tripping, VK’s serving a very different audience than Facebook ever did — and you can’t turn back the clock on a changing site, however much we might want to.

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