According to professor Ozgür Uçkan of Istanbul Bigli University, “Turkey’s major contribution to the internet,” goes by the ironic name of “Sour Dictionary,” or Ekşi Sözlük. The site has 36,000 authors, and over 10 million entries gathered into more than 2.5 million topics, or themes. It attracts 7.5 million unique visitors a month, out of a total Turkish internet population of over 30 million. It’s an enormous success. Unknown outside of Turkey.
The site celebrated its thirteenth anniversary February 15th. The grandfather of blogs, of Wikipedia, Facebook and Twitter, it launched even before Urban Dictionary, the dictionary of slang which itself has 6 million entries and was also launched in 1999.
“The idea was to create a user-made dictionary,” says the site’s founder, Sedat Kapanoğlu, 36. There’s no review process: anyone can create any definition. Like a real dictionary, the entries are ordered numerically, but there’s no limit to how many definitions there can be; they can surpass 10 thousand entries, as is the case with “Love”, or for the prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The most-read definitions are ranked first. In real time.
Copied Hundreds of Times
“It’s not a forum,” Kapanoğlu insists. “We wanted a dialogue between ideas, not people. When a contributor leaves, the ideas and conversations remains.”
“We have more entries than the English version of Wikipedia,” Kapanoğlu says. “But the quality isn’t the same.” Jokes and false info abound. “We believe that no one has the authority to decide what stays on the site,” he says. “We’re neutral in terms of administrating it, and we’ve become one of the largest Turkish sites to defend the freedom of expression in a country where it is threatened.”
Sedat never attended college, but he wrote his first program when he was 10. “I taught myself,” he says. “I love the creative process. I have thousands of ideas. I know what to do with a computer, and I understand the web’s potential.”
He worked for Microsoft in Seattle for 5 years (2005-2009) without anyone really seeming interested in his site. Until the day he realized he was making more money through advertising on his dictionary – only one ad per page — than through working at one of the largest software companies in the world. “That happened when I considered it more of a hobby. And then it started to make more money than I earned with my salary. I had to make a decision.”
Since his return to Turkey, he’s asked with increasing frequency to reveal the IP addresses of anonymous posters. Which explains why his office has three developers and four lawyers. Copied hundreds of times in Turkey, the dictionary has only been cloned in one other country, Azerbaijan. Why not anywhere else?
He has been asked to make the site available, but Kapanğlu is convinced his formula can’t work anywhere else. “We wanted to express ourselves, but had no space for that. The laws of physics don’t apply to social media; every culture needs its own platform.”
It’s a fascinating response, but one that professor Uçkan doesn’t agree with. “The format can be entertaining anywhere,” he says.
If the culture of Harvard students can spread across the globe, it’s either because we’re all American teenagers or because the most particular cultures have the potential for dissemination.
On the condition, no doubt, that they have a Napoleonic drive and the economic resources needed to succeed…