With its Facebook-grade social networking functionality, 394 million users around the globe, 1 billion likes generated daily and 5 billion messages sent each day, why isn’t more of the English-speaking world talking about VKontakte?
While it’s universally referenced as the “Facebook of Russia,” VKontakte (that’s Russian for “in contact”) is a firm rich not only in technology — its users have access to messaging, news stories, communities, file-sharing, and a “like” button — but rich in story as well. The company’s history is colored by founder Pavel Durov’s tense relationship with the Russian government. Where tales of startup success usually revolve around money and growth, VK found itself having to answer the question of how much access a government should have to its citizens’ information.
Started in late 2006, VK incorporated in early 2007 after user growth throughout Russian-speaking countries. The upstart company caught government attention four years later when the Medvedev administration issued a 2011 request that the social networking giant block opposition leader Alexey Navalny’s page.
As company chief, Durov found himself setting a new tone for the government’s relationship to its citizens’ information. He deemed the request unlawful and tweeted his noncompliance, only to later face an intense but non-violent standoff with a Russian SWAT team at his St. Petersburg home.
With this line drawn (and VK’s user numbers continuing to climb), the politics soured beyond repair in 2014. As VK members participated in and posted about the Euromaidan protests in Ukraine, the Russian secret service wanted the company’s help to identify these people. Rather than turn over protestor information, Durov sold his remaining stake in the company and began a self-imposed exile from his native country. There is strong speculation that this was a government-orchestrated ousting of the young founder from his own company; the sale of Durov’s shares yielded majority control of VK to Alisher Usmanov, Russian billionaire and longtime Putin ally.
With a new passport from the Caribbean nation of St. Nevis and Kitts, Durov travels visa-free throughout Europe and occasionally surfaces elsewhere around the world. The wealthy young entrepreneur is some version of nation-less.
To paint this Russian origin story with some American colors, suppose Barack Obama asked Mark Zuckerberg to dismantle the Republican Party’s Facebook page and help identify Occupy Wall Street protestors. Suppose Zuckerberg gave an emphatic “no” and grew so ideologically opposed to the Obama administration that he cashed out of Facebook to wander the world.
VKontakte as “Russian Facebook” is a reasonable reduction, though it ignores a lot of context. Durov tells Inverse he first heard these Facebook and Zuckerberg comparisons “about five years ago.” He doesn’t mind being likened to the American poster boy of social networking so much, calling such comparisons “obvious oversimplifications, but if it makes it easier for some people to understand what I do or what I did, I’m fine with it.”
After all, Durov’s company was the only one to beat Facebook at its own game in an open local market. It is more popular than Facebook in Russia, has more users than Twitter, and is a strong number-two social platform in several countries around the world.
Political spotlight aside, VK’s technology still had to function gracefully in order to attract and maintain the audience that it has today. How does VK remain such a vibrant platform when Facebook is readily identified as the default way to stay in touch online? There are a few basic reasons for this: it was the right product at the right time for the Russian market, it does things Facebook can’t, and it fills other niches of socialization.
The right place at the right time.
VK was born just as Facebook was ditching its “college students only” rule in 2006. Not only was Facebook mostly unknown in Russia, it was still a mystery to many Americans outside of the college system. Durov realized the social floodgates were opening and decided to have a say in how the ensuing water would flow. By building his own social product for the world’s 150 million Russian speakers from the beginning, he guaranteed that VK could support a substantive domestic user base that even Facebook couldn’t touch.
With so much attention focused on America and other major English-speaking countries at the time, Facebook was not in a position to operate meaningfully in Russia. There was too much that had to be built from scratch in order to support the world’s largest country by area. Consider that Durov and his team were operating where the educational system was dramatically different from the West — they had to create Russia’s first online database of cities, universities, faculties, chairs, and schools for post-Soviet countries.
Whether or not VK caught on outside of Russia, Durov saw a viable Russian-first business to be built in the emergent sphere of social networking. If Facebook is the Big Bang of social networking, VK is the aftershock that took root in Facebook’s gaps and thrived.
It does things Facebook can’t do.
There is significant overlap in how Facebook and VK function, but there’s a major departure in that VK supports file-sharing. It is not only individuals who can swap digital files with each other, but entire communities that can do so in a group context alongside other socialization. This sets the stage for a free exchange of open source, public domain, or creator-owned digital goods, but it’s also easily repurposed as a piracy system. It remains legally gray enough to operate this way.
Durov challenges the notion that VK is popular because it serves as a source of illegal music or videos. Such content is regularly deleted, he says, “and the whole media-swapping aspect amounts to a small fraction of user activity on VK.”
No matter: VK has a system that supports the common human behavior of storing and transmitting files online, and Facebook doesn’t. Which would you prefer?
It’s for a different type of socialization.
Justin Varilek is an American media entrepreneur presently building a Moscow-based business called HackPack. He signed up for VK after studying the Russian language for two years and living in the country for six months. “People tend to use VK more to find people to ask out on dates,” he says. “I can’t imagine doing that through Facebook.”
Varilek says the decision to use one service over the other is “all about the audience I’m trying to work with. Facebook stores all of my international friends and acquaintances; I can keep in touch with them no matter what my or their phone number is.”
When there’s a matter of hyperlocal Russian importance, VK is a better choice. “If I’m looking for things going on in Russia, it’s far better to search for groups in VK,” he says. “Plus, VK lets me listen to whatever music I want, whenever I want.”
Now 32 years old, Durov heads the encrypted messaging app Telegram, an extension of technology that he and his brother Nikolai developed years ago to securely communicate with each other, away from prying government eyes. Boasting 100 million monthly active users since February, Telegram is a separate company with its own product and audience, but with a dogged obsession with user privacy and security, it clearly inherited some of VK’s original values.
Though he’s entirely outside of VK’s operations today, Durov opines that the company he created is likely to continue being “the most popular social network in Russia for the next several years.” There is perhaps a sad irony to this, as the tech entrepreneur who created a ubiquitous means of communication for the Russian internet can’t bring himself to go home.
“I love the country and its people, but wouldn’t go back there on a permanent basis,” he says.
Photos via VKontakte Press Relations