The biggest Russian social network Vkontakte has became the most visited website in Russia with 23 million visitors daily. To celebrate its success the founder of the network, Pavel Durov has introduced a new registration scheme. From the 11th of February 2011 the only way to become a member of the network is to receive an invitation from an existing user. On Vkontakte’s official blog Pavel Durov says that now it’s time to return to the “invites only” system, which was introduced in the very beginning of the network’s development. Now some users have rights to invite new members, whilst others don’t have such a privilege as yet. It’s not clear from Pavel Durov’s message on which criteria the members’ rights to issue invitations is based.
Also in his post Pavel Durov emphasises the importance of using mobile numbers for user identification. He says that the only way for a user to access their account if they forget their log in details is via a mobile phone number. An SMS with a code will be sent to the number provided upon the initial account registration. In case a member fails to provide the a valid phone number it will be not possible for them to obtain access to their account.
A person can become a member of Vkontakte by submitting a code sent to their mobile phone by whoever invites them. The screenshot below demonstrates the new “No phone – no account policy”. The screenshot is in Russian, because the new regulations have not yet been translated to English.
The founder of the site hasn’t explained the reasons behind these unexpected changes. Considering the fact that Vkontakte has serious problems with spam this move can be the opening salvo with the spammers. However, the new rules will make a registration process much more difficult for some users and in some cases impossible. For example, if a foreigner who doesn’t have any Russian connections would like to become a part of the network? How can they solicit an invitation?
This change may restrict opportunities for international businesses to interact with the Vkontakte audience and create online communities inside the network. After listening to online discussions of Russian speaking bloggers about their reaction to the introduction of the new rules I have identified a few opinions.
- Vkontakte is seeking ways of making more money by creating a mechanism of selling invitations.
- Vkontakte is increasing its value by making it a more exclusive and desirable place to be, thus empowering their competitive position against Facebook and Odnoklassniki
- Vkontakte wants to expand its database of members’ mobile numbers with an aim to sell it to businesses.
Obviously, these opinions belong to people who dislike Vkontakte. There is a very negative perception of the network by a small percentage of the online Russian population who don’t like mainstream projects and prefer more elite networks such as Livejournal, Habrahabr, Лепрозорий and Facebook.
Well, there is definitely space for speculation. Vkontakte is usually referred to as Facebook’s clone due to the very similar interface and features. However, Facebook doesn’t apply such undemocratic ways of restricting spam. Anyone can register to become a member and it’s absolutely not necessary to provide mobile numbers. In order to restrict spammers capcha forms are being used on Facebook which seem to work quite well.
It’s worth remembering that the laws about spam in Russia are far less strict compared to the US, thus making it much harder for Russian Internet enterprises to fight spammers. Hopefully, new changes will make Vkontakte a more pleasant place to be allowing their members to enjoy communication with each other with lesse spam on their walls and in their inboxes
Despite all the criticism, Vkontakte will remain the most popular social network among Russian speakers, due to its main feature: free access to the massive library of video and music files.