Can Michael Birch bring Bebo back?

After selling the company he co-founded in 2008 for $850million, Michael Birch bought it back this year for just $1m - but is it too late to save Bebo?

In 2008 Michael Birch sold Bebo, the social networking site he founded with his wife, Xochi, to the digital media giant AOL for $850m. This July he bought it back for just $1m, promising to reinvent the failing brand. Birch says he never imagined he’d own Bebo again, but when the company he started from his San Francisco living room in 2005 seemed certain to fall into obscurity, he felt compelled to step in.

“It seemed like Bebo’s ultimate fate was that someone was going to buy it and use it as an email list or database to get people to join a completely different product,” he says, when we speak on the phone. “We thought we could give it a happier ending.”

Five years ago, Bebo was the third-largest social networking site, behind Facebook and MySpace, with 40 million users. AOL’s chief executive at the time, Randy Falco, described the acquisition as a “game-changer” for his firm. But by the late Noughties, users of social networking sites were defecting to Facebook in huge numbers.

In 2010, AOL offloaded Bebo for $10m to the private-equity firm Criterion Capital Partners, which couldn’t halt the site’s decline. In March 2013, Facebook had 1.11 billion monthly users while, Birch tells me, only a “couple of hundred thousand” sign into Bebo every month.

Birch, who is 43, was born in Hertfordshire and met Xochi while they were both studying at Imperial College London. He says he ended up in San Francisco only “by chance” because Xochi grew up there. Where social media stars such as Facebook’s founder, Mark Zuckerberg, and Twitter’s founder, Jack Dorsey, talk in lofty terms about how their inventions have changed the world, Birch has retained a stereotypically British irreverence. He has posted a spoof product video for Bebo’s relaunch, in which he explains over dramatic background music how Bebo empowered millions to share “potentially career-destroying photos” and how its online doodling feature turned the site into the “single biggest repository of illustrated cock-and-balls ever recorded”.

Birch believes that Bebo’s decline, far from confirming Facebook’s strength, has exposed its fundamental weakness. He learned that “you grow and become very large because of the networking effect, but it can also be your demise because when people start leaving, it tends to be the early adopters and the influencers who go first and they take their friends with them.” He says that Facebook, which floated in 2012, is “overvalued” and can’t maintain its market dominance. Expecting someone to stay on Facebook is like “saying someone is only going to go to one bar for the rest of their life”.

The new Bebo will be a mobile-only app and it won’t compete directly with Facebook. This is partly because Birch believes Facebook’s model is becoming outdated. Having studied his 14-year-old daughter’s online habits, he thinks people will increasingly sign up to several social media apps, and that they will go for more direct, personalised forms of online communication.

Running Bebo will be harder now he’s in his forties, Birch says. He has three children and has lost the “hunger” needed to work 80-hour weeks. As the young tech billionaires who made it big in the Noughties start to approach middle age, they share one common enemy.

“It doesn’t matter how successful or wealthy you are, the people you are most fearful of are the young, up-andcoming people,” he says. “If you ask Google who they are most fearful of, it’s probably the guy in his dorm room, not the big companies of the world.”

While Facebook had over 1.10 billion users in March 2013, Bebo is down to a "couple of hundred thousand". Photograph: AFP/Getty Images.

Sophie McBain is a freelance writer based in Cairo. She was previously an assistant editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 17 October 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The Austerity Pope

Photo: Getty Images
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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.