Why I'd prefer to be poked on Facebook than blog on Bebo
The once popular website may be closed down next month
OMG! Just two years after it was sold for close to $1bn, social networking site Bebo looks set to log off for good following a catastrophic collapse in its membership in the face of competition from its more zeitgeisty rivals Facebook and Twitter.
Web services giant AOL, who forked out some €630m ($840m) for the company in March 2008, announced yesterday that it was looking to either sell off or shut down Bebo as early as next month.
"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," according to an internal memo sent to the few dozen remaining worldwide Bebo employees by Jon Brod, AOL's head of start-up acquisition and investments.
"AOL is not in a position at this time to further fund and support Bebo in pursuing a turnaround in social networking."
Potential buyers, however, look thin on the ground, and indeed Bebo boss Stephane Panier has apparently been in talks for the past six months about winding the site up permanently. As further evidence of its likely closure, all 30 Bebo staffers in the UK will be let go at the end of this month.
So, where did it all go wrong for the five-year-old company that was for one brief period among the most popular websites in the world?
The answer, it seems, would be that Bebo has been poked out of existence by Facebook, which has just recently surpassed Google to become the world's most popular website.
According to marketing research firm comScore, Facebook had 462.7 million unique visitors in February of this year, up 68pc from the year before.
In dismal contrast, Bebo, positioned in sixth place, had only 12.8 million, down a staggering 45pc.
Bean-counters at AOL certainly won't be ROFL-ing (that's 'Rolling on the Floor Laughing' to the text-speak-uninitiated) as their dud investment comes to a feeble demise but, as a frequent, some would say obsessive social networker, it comes as little surprise to me that Bebo has become the first major casualty in the online networking wars.
I had a Bebo account for over two years, as did very many others in Ireland. In fact, in 2007, Bebo was the number one trafficked website here, claiming 1 million of Bebo's then 31 million-strong worldwide membership.
High-profile Bebo users at the time included model Rosanna Davison, who ended up having to up the privacy and security settings on her account following an online spat with another girl.
Indeed, at its peak, Bebo was the source of considerable debate and controversy about online safety following stories of alleged online grooming of young people by sex offenders.
Founded in 2005 by British entrepreneur Michael Birch and his wife Xochi, Bebo (an acronym for 'Blog Early Blog Often') emerged as a social networking rival to the then-leader MySpace.
For me, Bebo was a convenient, if not entirely attractive or user-friendly, way to keep in touch with friends at home and abroad. Very quickly though Bebo developed a reputation for being a "tweenage" craze, and anyone over the age of 21, like myself, grew embarrassed to use it.
At the same time, Facebook, which had launched in 2004, was coming into its own, and presented a much sleeker, grown-up-seeming forum for people in their 20s and early 30s. After switching to Facebook, I rarely went back to Bebo, and actually haven't logged in to my account (if it still exists) in two years. I can't even remember the password.
Consequently, Facebook expanded more and more, its cultural cachet eclipsing all its rivals, and even became a major feature of Barack Obama's plan to reach new and first-time voters in the 2008 US presidential election.
Meanwhile, the micro-blogging site Twitter has also firmly cast one of the final nails into the Bebo coffin. Launched in 2006, Twitter has grown exponentially and now claims some 75 million users worldwide, most of whom are also in the key 20s/30s demographic.
Looking back, so many of Bebo's current problems could have been avoided if it had just evolved and continued to develop its functions and services, no matter how difficult or initially unpopular they may be to regular users (as Facebook has done more than once).
This is a criticism that was acknowledged by a source close to the UK Bebo operation, who blamed AOL solely for the site's decline.
"Too many resources were put into the AIM (AOL Instant Messenger) integration and not enough into keeping Bebo bug-free and keeping its core features up to date," said the source.
Is it too late for AOL and Bebo to address those concerns now? That, alas, is the billion-dollar question.