Brazil's Orkut rule

Whenever possible, use digital media to subvert the cultural canon and defy hierarchy

Published January 14, 2008 11:22PM (EST)

"The Orkut Rule," writes Bryan McCann in a forthcoming history of modern Brazil, "holds that, wherever possible, Brazilians will avail themselves of the possibilities of digital media to create subcultural niches and cross cultural networks in ways that defy traditional social hierarchies and the existing national cultural canon."

(McCann sent me a copy of one chapter of his manuscript after his attention was drawn by a colleague of his at Georgetown University to a post I wrote about a virus that hacked my long-ignored Orkut social networking account. Talk about your social-hierarchy-defying cross-cultural networking! A Portuguese-language virus brought us together, and I am very grateful.)

As has been well-documented, Google's early entrant into the social networking wars fizzled in the United States but exploded in Brazil. As of late 2007, Brazil boasted 40 million registered Orkut accounts, offering equal room for skate-punks and samba lovers to construct their intentional online communities and chat away. Brazil, writes McCann, "has the largest and most sophisticated electronic communications and entertainment industry in Latin America," with "more Internet users than any other Latin American nation, more cable TV subscribers, more cellphones."

Having the biggest population, by far, in Latin America helps pad the numbers, but there are other factors at play, namely: strong government support for "digital inclusion" and Brazil's essential openness to hybrid cross-fertilization of all forms of culture. When Brazilians find a new toy, they'll play with it, take it apart, and mix it together with all their other favorites.

But McCann's fascinating exploration of how culture circulates in Brazil places the Orkut phenomenon, with all its anarchic energy, in the context of a nation in which mainstream cultural production is predominantly subsidized by state largesse. Petrobras, the huge state-owned oil company, alone spent over 100 million dollars on cultural programs in 2006. "Brazilian cinema," writes McCann, "is state cinema, funded by Petrobras," and tends to monotonously reflect the cultural predispositions of the ruling government. And in a neat demonstration of his own cross-cultural leapfrogging ability, McCann observes that "Brazil is like India in that over many decades it has nurtured a domestic media industry that remains capable of feeding the ravenous demands of its wired population. But whereas India produces hundreds of feature films every year with no state funding, Brazil produces relatively few, dependent on the state."

That's a nice paradox: A nation whose people are notorious for hybrid creativity simultaneously labors under state control of the cultural commanding heights. How the World Works wants to know more. McCann is previously the author of a well-regarded history of mid-20th century Brazilian pop music, "Hello, Hello Brazil: Popular Music in the Making of Modern Brazil." Sounds like it might have a beat that we can dance to.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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Brazil Globalization How The World Works Latin America