Commentary

Buh-Bye Bebo -- Or Why It's Impossible To Save A Flailing Social Network

Jeez. It sure is hard getting traction for your flailing social network these days, so if you're in that game, better not to even try.

I'm reminded of this a lot, but never more so than with the news yesterday that AOL was either going to sell or shutter Bebo -- which it spent $850 million acquiring only two years ago. According to an internal memo posted by PaidContent: "As we evaluate our portfolio of brands against our strategy, it is clear that social networking is a space with heavy competition, and where scale defines success. Bebo, unfortunately, is a business that has been declining and, as a result, would require significant investment in order to compete in the competitive social networking space. AOL is not in a position at this time to further fund and support Bebo in pursuing a turnaround in social networking."

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Further, PaidContent has a great chart that demonstrates that probably no amount of funding could resurrect Bebo. Between February of last year and this year, as Facebook went from about 275 million monthly uniques to about 463 million (for a gain of 68%), Bebo's dropped from about 23 million to 13 million (or a decline of 45%). I don't care who you are, and how much money you have, but that drop isn't possible to recover from. It's actually somewhat amazing it took AOL this long to decide to pull the plug on its Bebo ambitions. And, frankly, anyone else would be a fool to buy it. If it's not already obvious, I'll explain why below.

I'm sure the thinking back when AOL bought Bebo was, among other strategic considerations, that if you glommed a network of content sites that had huge traffic (as of December 2008, AOL properties had upwards of 100 million unique visitors per month), to a promising site in the hot social networking space, you could stick the two together and have a huge presence in social. But that's like saying that Elmer's Washable Glue is as good at keeping things stuck together as welding is. The ties that bind random visitors to a site to that site's owned-and-operated social network are nowhere near as strong as those that tie friends within a social network to one another. It's the ultimate expression of the consumer being in control.

Not to digress, but as it happens, last night I had about the most enjoyable social networking experience I've ever had, and it couldn't have happened if Facebook weren't so damn good at welding. It all started because I wanted to find out when my high school dance teacher, Walter Schalk, was holding his annual dance revue, which sent me down a rabbit hole of memories about my hometown. One of the first Google links was to a Facebook discussion within the "I Survived New Canaan" group about Walter Schalk -- the travails of learning the waltz as a 6th grader while holding the hands of a boy (eek!), having to wear red leotards on odd days and blue leotards on even days, and on and on. Pretty soon an hour had passed, but I'd learned what other kids who'd grown up in New Canaan, Conn. thought of the movie "The Ice Storm" (which was based on our town and shot there), that I wasn't the only one who remembered Breslow's, and what a terror one of the local cops was if being a hellion was your hobby back in the day. To be able to wallow in online reminiscences like that, you need to be bound together with a major part of your community, and that's what Facebook does.

Even if Bebo had been moderately successful within the AOL family, could I have had anywhere near as satisfying an experience? Of course not. Facebook has become the default. Therefore, although I seldom go out on a limb like this, it's increasingly difficult for me to see how Facebook won't be dominant for at least the next decade or so. For that kind of thing (as opposed to the different social networking experiences that Twitter and LinkedIn provide), why go anywhere else?

While Bebo is today's poster child for social networking gone wrong, the nature of social networking glue also explains other desperate moves within the social networking space. MySpace is said to be on the verge of adding Facebook Connect, the ultimate expression of the fact that the game between MySpace and Facebook is long over. It also explains why Google so dramatically overstepped its bounds when it first rolled out Buzz, by pushing the button on auto-following for Gmail users, when we hadn't asked to follow anyone or even join Buzz. Of course, it pulled back on that strategy, but what it was trying to do, like AOL probably meant to with Bebo, was make glue out of disparate ingredients while forgetting that ultimately the ones who have to mix them all together are the people who might participate in the social experience.

To paraphrase a certain movie from 1973 about "a dystopian future," social media is people. And Bebo's never going to get 'em.

3 comments about "Buh-Bye Bebo -- Or Why It's Impossible To Save A Flailing Social Network".
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  1. Steve Sarner from if(we), April 7, 2010 at 4:09 p.m.

    I think this is one of the most important points in your post Cathy:

    "For that kind of thing (as opposed to the different social networking experiences that Twitter and LinkedIn provide), why go anywhere else?"

    The key is to have a different social networking experience. Those social networks with a difference from Facebook which offer true value to their membership can be very successful - and many are thriving today - as others stall or decline.

  2. Deanna Mcneil from Ruiz McPherson Communications, April 7, 2010 at 4:09 p.m.

    "social media is people". What a perfect summary

  3. Scott Farrell from Awareness, Inc., April 7, 2010 at 10:45 p.m.

    While I agree with with much of the original post, quite a bit of the ire turns to milk when one laments life in New Canaan, CT.

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