Free Music and Porn: The Phenomenon of Russia’s Facebook

 

Russians are known for their ambition to have everything their way: automobiles, their own smartphones, Crimea, and…Facebook.

It all started in 2006 when a young entrepreneur from St. Petersburg, Pavel Durov, launched his shameless rip-off of the Facebook social network, called VKontakte (roughly translated as “In Touch”), now more commonly known as VK. It has around 71 million visitors per day, as well as being the most popular website in Belarus, and the second most visited in Russia, topped only by Yandex – the Russian-made search engine service (suck it, Google!).

Basically, VKontakte is Facebook for the Russian-speaking, post-USSR world. That could have been the end of it, if VK hadn’t taken it a few steps further and built its own “theme park”, with unlimited music and a free movie database. Adjusted to the cultural peculiarities of the post-Soviet countries, VK is operating under its own rules. It is actually very charming how what once started as an analogue of a world famous social network, has now become a unique phenomenon not only for the former Soviet Union but worldwide.

Like the other social networks, VKontakte is the place where you stalk your high-school classmates, RSVP to events you will never attend and share pictures for a chance to win an iPhone. It is also a warehouse of literally everything. I reckon that you can find absolutely anything there — it all depends on how determined you are. As a friend of mine said, “I can’t think of a single thing that you wouldn’t be able to find here”. There are multiple public pages and communities that are a crucial part of the whole VK experience. People shop there, try to lose weight by sharing exercise regimes on their pages, and all that while baking cakes.

Communities like “I Draw Like a Retard”, where people share their so-called graffiti drawings that you, by the way, can attach to your or friends’ walls, “Fuck Normality” with quotes about relationshit, or “Overheard” which consists of different sorts of secrets people anonymously share; they all show the general tendency of VK (also, age and level of education) — the users want bread and circuses. The most popular public pages, the ones that have from 5 to 8 million subscribers, are pages full of either stupid pictures and jokes, or movies.

However, what VKontakte is truly notorious for is its music and explicit video collection, or simply put — free music and porn. While the users of other social networks participate in the #FreeTheNipple movement, adult content – be that videos or pictures – is easily accessible on VK, and is openly distributed through the very same public pages.

People have been loving free stuff since the beginning of time, and the ability to freely listen to and download your favourite songs and albums (often — days before the official release) has been the major reason for people being drawn to VK in the first place. But you know that something is not a big deal until it’s banned in Russia.

So when eventually, in 2013, the first copyright lawsuits were filed by such giants as Universal Music Group and Sony Music, it was the worst of times.

It was also the best of times, because Russians are real tough cookies. That being said, if they are used to having something for free, there is no way they would suddenly start paying for it. VK users showed how far into disobedience they can go, and also how creative they can be. In order to break the system and avoid the massive deletion of popular music due to “intellectual property rights violations”, people decided to rename the artists and song titles. This brought about the game of coding and decoding the original artist and song titles, and the true “Only in Russia” moment.

Lana del Rey became the Bathtub Without Doors (try saying Vanna Bez Dverei, and you’ll see why); Coldplay was turned into the Cold Games — the play/game logic; Katy Perry took the name Ekaterina Perova, which assumingly could have been her name if she was born in Russia; 30 Seconds to Mars were 30 Seconds to Well (this is where I stopped understanding the logic), and Nirvana became the World of Bath — Mir Vanny (seriously, these guys have a thing for bathtubs). Also, how do you like David Guetta as The Suburban DJ (I actually kind of agree with that one), or Bruno Mars aka Trousers from Mars? When I woke up to see Baby-Horses (Foals) and Northern Baboons (Arctic Monkeys) in my playlist, I knew I had seen everything.

Or I thought I had.

Apparently, as much as it is a free music player and a home movie theater (and home-movie), VK is a fully legitimate dating site (goodbye, Tinder).

Dating is hard; tell me about it. And when you’re trying to impress a girl online, you, on the one hand, have to be really creative to stand out, on the other hand, you don’t want to cross the thin line and end up in one of the numerous “23 Tinder Messages That Will Make You Cringe” posts on Buzzfeed.

Even though I’m a bit of a retrograde when it comes to dating, and prefer the good old toilet line romances, I really enjoy reading the screenshots of creepy pick-up attempts. I checked it, and it looks like people seriously Google “how to hit on a girl on VK” quite often.

However, it’s all fun and games until you yourself receive a message from a 31-year-old stranger proposing a ménage à trois with “full confidentiality” on your personal VK profile. He seemed to be a gentleman though, inviting me for a “luxurious dinner” first, and promising “cozy sheets” and a “professional tongue-job” later on. And he didn’t even expect me to return the favour! I’m a modern, liberal young woman, but enough is enough.

It freaks me out how easily you can narrow down the search in VK. Just think of it: you can filter people by city (I assume that’s how that creep found my almost empty VK profile) or age, the site also allows to set preferable views on alcohol and smoking, or limit the search by personal priorities (like family and kids kind of stuff), or even military service!

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And it won’t cost you a thing obviously, unlike the online dating services — a total win for the foreigners who go to VK to find a Russian wife – which they do, and do successfully.

While some get what they need and hopefully live happily ever after, others create public groups where they share funny, strange, stupid – you name it – pick-up lines they receive. Like the community “Cemetery of Lame Hit-Ons”, where you can find this:

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As well as lots and lots of other barely translatable stuff.

Putting creepy guys crying for attention aside, VK is definitely a success and a game well-played. It perfectly fits into the culture of its target audience giving it what it wants. Sadly, however, it remains the platform for teenagers and marginals. Hardly any discussion, no matter if it is the community of Miley Cyrus fans or a highly respected news agency, goes without offensive pro-Russian comments and trolling. No wonder all pretentious intellectuals fled to Facebook. That’s where they talk politics, gay rights and equality, upload profile pictures with flags to fight terrorism. To them, VK is a guilty pleasure, the place where you can go to relieve their feelings — look at silly pictures, listen to free music and search for good old porn.