Notes From A Social Has-Been: Bebo To Reinvent Itself Mobile-First

When people muse about how social networks rest on the shaky ground of user fickleness, has-beens like MySpace, Friendster and Bebo are floated as prima facie evidence. In a wonderful piece interviewing Bebo co-founder Michael Birch, he reflects on how his company was outgunned by Facebook in the mid 2000s but still managed to sell itself to AOL in for $850 million by 2008.

The decline of Bebo was dramatic. Despite its 40 million registered users, AOL could not capitalize on the scale it had achieved and sold the network off to VCs at an aching loss, for only $10 million in 2010. Birch bought it back for $1 million and is now retooling the brand for a re-entry. The effort is handled by Birch’s Monkey Inferno company and its CEO Shaan Puri. He teases with the prospect of learning from Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat on mobile to see what comes next in that continuum. “It has to be something different from all the others if it's going to get people hooked.” He is not saying much more but is planning to launch the effort on mobile first.



He acknowledges that reviving a dead Internet brand is unprecedented. But he does still have images from 40 million members whose sense of nostalgia may be piqued by Bebo’s re-entry.

What is interesting, however, is his mature read on what his former archrival Facebook has and has not achieved in the space and why it is vulnerable to competition. While he credits Zuckerberg with keeping a long-term view on the company and not caving to quarterly earnings worries, he does not agree that the company’s massive scale is prohibitive to rivals. “They were trying to become that indispensable social utility -- like email is…and I don’t think they succeeded.”

I think he is quite right. Facebook is not in danger of falling off a cliff, but it failed to achieve Google-like indispensability when the opportunity was most likely for it. Nor did it exploit that advantage the way Google did to weave its way into digital lives with storage, mail, maps, photos, bookmarks and other things that melded the network to the user and made the cross-platform migration simpler.

The larger question of social media rises and falls is whether a social network itself ever becomes a Google-like platform. Social networks have to appeal to us in a different way and so have risks other digital resources don’t. In part because it has an atmosphere -- a tone of which people can grow tired or just grow out of. Is Google really at risk of becoming “uncool?” Once something becomes an everyday resource like power, water, or dish detergent, is it measured at all by hipness? Social networks perhaps do not enjoy this status -- and so always leave the door open for new salons to replace.    

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