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BeboTo most Americans, Bebo, the third most popular social network (after Facebook and MySpace) in terms of users and pageviews, would be unheard of. The social network was the most popular search term on Google for 2006 and has managed to cause a storm internationally. We decided to delve a bit deeper and investigate what is behind the Valley-based 50 employee startup that seems to be changing the ‘rest’ of the world. Let’s take an in-depth look at Bebo.

Background

Bebo was created by Michael Birch and his wife Xochi Birch in early 2005. Immensely popular in the UK, Ireland, Australia, and New Zealand, its userbase (over 34 million) spans the world. The company, with its 50 employees, is based in San Fransisco, CA, and recently received a $15 million funding from Silicon Valley venture capital firm Benchmark Capital.

Backend Technology

Bebo BackendBebo is powered by Oracle 10g Enterprise Edition Release 2 (announced in last year’s Oracle OpenWorld) running on six processors, which forms the infrastructure required to support, according to CEO Michael Birch to SearchOracle.com, “more than 100 million site page views per day and about 1.2 million image uploads per day” and 7 billion monthly page views. The new Enterprise-grade database system is the same kind that Motorola employs for its biometric systems-related operations all over the world. Bebo upgraded from Standard One Edition in hopes of meeting performance requirements to be able to beat top competing online social networking website MySpace to become number one.

Competition is fierce; when Facebook announced that it would open up to third-party developers, MySpace followed suit. As did LinkedIn and, now, Bebo. Bebo, in fact, did previously allow third party contribution to the website, albeit very selective, in the form of widgets (100,000 of which were apparently created in the first 12 hours of the feature’s launch). It’s clear that each of these sites wants to rule the web with their most powerful weapon – people. No details about any API has been revealed yet, but we expect more information soon.

Safety Matters

BeboIt’s obvious from the time you first enter the website that safety of users is important to the Bebo team; the homepage has a section titled “Stay Safe” that links to BlogSafety.com and their own Safety Tips, the profile page strongly recommends users under 21 to keep their profile private, the registration form features a link to their privacy policy page which mentions, in human English, that “the founders and employees of Bebo take your privacy very seriously.” And for good reason: in March of last year, Bebo received a lot of attention from English media when it was blocked by the Norfolk Educational County because it found that teenagers were using the site for bullying and pornography. This year too, in March, a violent sectarian fight broke out in Northern Ireland that was apparently organized over Bebo.

And yet, when you’re in the business of getting people — diverse, different, and passionate people — together in one place, you’re bound to run into trouble. So although there seems to be a new social networking website popping up every other day, Bebo has learned the hard way the responsibilities associated with running such a site.

Participation & People

Bebo HomepageRegistration to Bebo is easy, and has two standard parts to it. The public profile information, which they warn “may be seen by others”, includes your name, username, date of birth (you have the option of not publicizing your age), gender and country. The second part is your private password and email address, and a word verification (no SnapPages-y animated verification text here). It’s not until after the registration that you’re bombarded with forms to fill so the Bebo community can know you better.

This profile section of the website will look, to anyone even partially informed about database design and normalization, like one huge mess. Besides the 1000-character text area for your usual biographical information (‘Me, My Life, And I’), you are offered seven custom fields to introduce yourself; Bebo recommends ‘Music’, ‘Film’, ‘Sports’, ‘Scared Of’, ‘Happiest When’, and leaves the last two for you to add. The image I got is of the sort of (un)uniformity mess we’re used to of MySpace profiles, with every page being very, very different and very, very confusing. Individuality, perhaps, but at the cost of burdening your senses. A more flexible tag-based approach (like in Facebook) would probably have been a better approach, with automatic completion (like Google Suggest) for the more common tags to maintain uniformity, but that isn’t the case.

Groups, Fan Pages, Schools & Colleges

BeboYour participation in Bebo can also be tied to a certain school or college for those in Australia, Canada, Great Britain, Ireland, New Zealand or the US (which we will call ‘the area’ hereinafter). In additional, members can also huddle around a band (as fans) or user-created groups. Groups and fan pages behave pretty much like profile pages (which I talk about below), and can have their own skins, polls, comments, blog and even a forum. The forum interface is very (almost painfully) basic, but it is there. And creating groups is as easy as giving it a name, description and basic admission settings. You will find (see also the Music, Video, and Authors section below) that Bebo gives you plenty of ways to meet and network with folks who share your interests, whatever they may be.

The Profile

BeboThe profile page is the Beboer’s homepage. Virtually anything you put into the website, and any activity you engage yourself in, will be reflected in your profile. Members get to express their individuality through the many skins available, or create their own and share them. Those basic details you entered previously appear here, along with a photo, member options (‘Send a Message’, ‘Add as a Friend’, ‘Use this Skin/Favorites’, ‘Send-It’, ‘Block/Report Abuse’), links to different sections, and corresponding modules that display your latest friends, photos, White Board messages, videos, blog posts, widgets, quizzes, polls and comments. Depending on how active you (and your friends) are, your profile can be anything from tremendously noisy to downright empty. Most seem to fall in that first category.

Adding information is easy; find a section or Module you’d like to edit and click the appropriate link in your own profile (you obviously need to be logged in for this): ‘Upload Video’ in the Flash Box, ‘Create a Quiz, ‘Start a New Poll’, ‘Write to My Blog’. You can also access most of the sections from the top navigational bar. Let’s look at these now:

Friends
BeboLists your current friends. The ‘Add Friends’ link produces a search box which allows you to search for friends using either their email, username or real name. Bebo makes finding new people very easy, and allows you to invite friends of your friends as your own friends. As a security feature, though, you can’t view profiles of people with private profiles (unless you’re a direct friend or are in the same school or college).

Photos
Bebo allows you to upload your photos and organize them in several albums. However, users are allowed only to upload photos that weigh less than 2MB, are in either JPEG, GIF, BMP, or PNG format, with a maximum image resolution of 640-by-480. You can upload many photos through the browser interface. Click on Browse, select a photo. Repeat as many times as desired. Hit upload. You’re done.

BeboYour recent upload will cause a small “new” icon to appear next to your album in your profile’s front page. Other Beboers can follow this link, or the link in the top navigational bar to get access to your photos. The presentation is nothing stunning: Select an album and the first photo appears in the left-hand column, along with a caption and links to ‘Send-It’ (email to others), ‘Copy’ (to their own albums; you can disable this for albums you choose to retain exclusivity) and ‘Report Abuse’. Thumbnails of other photos in the gallery visible to the left. Your photos are also open for any other member to comment on (a single comment cannot be of more than 1000 characters).

Bebo offers no other features: no tagging, editing, or showing EXIF data. While some of these may be desired, Bebo, being primarily a social place to share photos (and not photographs, as in artistic compositions), might simply want to make things easy to use. If members want a photo management solution, they can go to several other services providers that provide excellent services (although if you want to transfer those photos into your album, you’ll have to download to a computer and re-upload to Bebo).

White Board
BeboThe White Board allows members to leave you (and you to leave other members) personal messages – handwritten, handrawn, handcoloured. When I first thought of a White board online, it didn’t make sense to me. Then I realized it isn’t supposed to make sense, it’s supposed to get people networking, and I suppose if you let people scrawl things in random places (almost), that’s a strategy that works. And who wouldn’t like friends to leave them a truly personal message in a birthday, a new year or when recovering from illness? (The last of which might or might not have been a result of compulsive social-networking).

Blog
BeboThis is obvious. You can write posts or view posts your friends make. The blog entry form is simplistic; it basically has two fields: Subject and Blog Entry, both in plain-text glory. The blog entry does allow basic HTML tags for bold, italics and underline, but that’s about as much formatting as you’re going to be able to do. Other social networks like Twitter provide much more active and engaging (and innovative) ways of updating your friends of what you’re up to but Bebo’s minimalist approach (and it’s not the sort I’m used to) does make blogging easy for everybody. No tracebacks, no pings, categories, nothing. A humble subject and the actual post.

Polls
BeboThis is the strangest feature I’ve seen in Bebo, and no matter how much I try to convince myself that it can, somehow, be useful, I don’t get it. Why would 34 million people want to be polling each other? Member-created polls that are universal to the website that all Beboers could vote on would certainly make things interesting; it could even be useful to learn the responses of a diverse group of net-savvy people to world affairs. But no, polls are personal. “Do you like my photos?”, “Who’s going to win x match?”. Nonetheless, in groups — members are more likely to know each other better and actually have a reason to socialize when formally subscribed to some sort of huddle — polls might make sense to review popular opinion: “Are you okay with Gamma Ray delaying the release of their first DVD?”. Maybe the band in question could then get an idea of whether or not fans mind waiting a little more for a more polished release.

Comments
Bebo CommentsUsers can comment on the photos, blog posts, polls and pretty much anything. Even people. That, perhaps, is a reason the website looks so messy – it’s crawling with comments (decorated with little user icons, sometimes littered with explosions of color). Bebo also has a Mail feature that, surprisingly, allows you to embed into it videos, photos, music, drawings, and widgets. Perhaps the distinction is that comments are for sharing random thoughts that come naturally, and Mail for sharing stuff. In any case, if you’re popular, there can be a lot demanding your attention.

Music, Video and Authors

There’s more to Bebo than just people’s lives – there’s the creative work too. The network allows for communities to be built around shared tastes in music, video and writing. It might be interesting to note that I didn’t find any webspace and bandwidth limitations mentioned anywhere, but I believe that that’s because Bebo aims to be as accessible (to everyone) and avoids getting technical as much as possible.

BeboMusic
Bebo allows you to register your band (but only if you’re in ‘the area’ I mentioned above) and publish your music for the world to hear. If you’re a artist signed to a record label, you can even associate your music with that label so people find you that way. Music pages are not much different from profile pages, save the two unique ‘Song’ and ‘Fans’ sections. Members who like their music through Bebo (or like the letters ‘DJ’ before their names) can create and maintain playlists of songs they like (or otherwise) for easy access at a later time. The flash audio MP3 player is consistent with the ‘simplicity’, let’s say, of the blog and forum – it has just one button to switch between play and stop.

BeboVideo
The videos page shares a certain similarity to YouTube. And why shouldn’t it? Videos are presented in the familiar thumbnails tile, with the usual ‘Recently Viewed’, ‘Featured’, ‘Best of’ and genre-based category arrangement. You can upload add to your profile in three ways: either by uploading the file through the VideoEgg interface, getting a video someone else has posted, or getting it from YouTube. VideoEgg, a third-party video publishing service hailed by its three Yale creators David Lerman, Matt Sanchez and Kevin Sladek as “the leading video solution for today’s online communities, serving 20+ million videos a day”, serves and handles videos and provides the flash-based player. Users familiar with YouTube will feel very comfortable with the video page presentation: at the left side, the video player, url and embed code, and comments; at the right, recently viewed videos (and, of course, the ads). You also have the options to email a friend a link or report abuse (Bebo warns, in bold, red text, in the upload page: “If you upload Porn your Bebo account will be deleted.”)

BeboAuthors
I haven’t seen a literary focus on many social networks websites (although yes, with what little networking experience I have, this isn’t saying all that much). Bebo allows you to register your book, published or otherwisem and gives you the option to provide either the full text to the Bebo community, or just an extract. Much like the band pages, the book pages are like profile pages with unique ‘Read’, ‘Fans’ and ‘Review’ sections. And as you probably figured, members can review the books and sign themselves up as fan. This service, too, is limited to authors from ‘the area’.

The Future

Bebo is not for sale. Not to British Telecom for $550 million. Not even to Yahoo! for $1 billion, as some have speculated. Not yet, at least. Birch has expressed that he is, instead, interested in making the Initial Public Offering and still “continue influencing the business’s future”, according to a Telegraph.co.uk article. And TV. Yes, as in television. Reality TV for the web. Birch, in yet another vision tapping the Internet’s awesome powers of getting mindbogglingly huge numbers of people together, dreams that “rather than having 20 contestants you can have hundreds of thousands, millions of contestants on this show.” Development of the three winning apps is in progress. There’s RockStartup, too, which is an actual reality show about launching a Web 2.0 startup. But Birch’s vision of web reality television in that scale is certainly a new and exciting prospect.

In the very near future, though, we’ll see more of the aforementioned developer tools and information on creating third-party Bebo apps become available. I seriously wonder if, with all these new application platforms cropping up (the virtual world of Second Life being the biggest), it’s a fabulously great time to become a developer. There’s no doubt that traces of a second dotcom bubble show almost everywhere, and the trend of insanely-quick and insanely-rapid development continues unabated. Are we approaching a threshold, a critical breaking point?

Written by | dave

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