Five ways Bebo could actually make a comeback

The site’s founder, Michael Birch, has just bought it back for $1m.

In 2008 AOL purchased the social network Bebo for $850m. Five years on, the site’s founder, Michael Birch has bought it back for just $1m. After years of decline, he is now hoping to turn the site around, but what, if anything, can he do to help it compete with Facebook?

Here are five ideas:

  1. Ditch the boring bits

Teenagers loved the customizability of Bebo. Profiles were vibrant and frequently littered with user-created content. Pages bursting with colour offered individuals a way to express themselves. When the great migration to Facebook was made, many complained that the site was sterile and dull. Most resigned themselves to Facebook as it offered the best way to communicate but some have since joined Tumblr in search of a creative platform. If Bebo can somehow marry the two, it may reap considerable rewards.

  1. Learn from Facebook’s mistakes

Bebo would enjoy substantial support if it simply avoided upsetting as many people as Facebook has. The social networking behemoth has frequently come under fire for failing to properly police its site. If Bebo can offer a platform that deals with users’ complaints more effectively, it will surely enjoy the loyalty of users and advertisers increasingly disenfranchised by Facebook’s complacency.

  1. Become the social network people can actually trust

After a string of governmental and corporate scandals in recent years, people are becoming increasingly concerned about their privacy and the way their personal information is dealt with. It is not unusual to hear of friends deleting their Facebook profiles or Google accounts because of the way their data is handled and even less rare to hear them complaining about it. Bebo should rise to the challenge of becoming the social network people can actually trust.

  1. Get better apps

This is another way to get one over on Facebook. The official mobile apps for the social network are frequently slammed for being unresponsive, but are suffered by those who don’t realise there are alternatives. If Bebo bring out fast and functional apps for Android and iOS, they are sure to win approval from both the tech world and frustrated mobile Facebookers.

  1. Don’t offer a dry cleaning service

Some social networks have, in the past, attempted to be all things to all people. It may be tempting to offer users video hosting, radio stations and a dry cleaning service, in an attempt to keep them engaged, but time and money should first be spent on getting the core features of the social network working well. Bebo must nail the basics before branching out in other directions.

It will not be easy for Bebo to make an impact in the crowded social media landscape and even harder for it to take users from the undisputed king. Birch himself acknowledges he doesn’t know if it’ll be possible to bring Bebo back from the brink. But he is in a good position; he has plenty of capital from the original sale and his own tech company to utilize. If he learns from those that failed before him, he may just have a chance.

Photograph: Mike Lewis

James is a freelance journalist with a particular interest in UK politics and social commentary. His blog can be found hereYou can follow him on Twitter @jamesevans42.

Photo: Getty
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The Prevent strategy needs a rethink, not a rebrand

A bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy.

Yesterday the Home Affairs Select Committee published its report on radicalization in the UK. While the focus of the coverage has been on its claim that social media companies like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are “consciously failing” to combat the promotion of terrorism and extremism, it also reported on Prevent. The report rightly engages with criticism of Prevent, acknowledging how it has affected the Muslim community and calling for it to become more transparent:

“The concerns about Prevent amongst the communities most affected by it must be addressed. Otherwise it will continue to be viewed with suspicion by many, and by some as “toxic”… The government must be more transparent about what it is doing on the Prevent strategy, including by publicising its engagement activities, and providing updates on outcomes, through an easily accessible online portal.”

While this acknowledgement is good news, it is hard to see how real change will occur. As I have written previously, as Prevent has become more entrenched in British society, it has also become more secretive. For example, in August 2013, I lodged FOI requests to designated Prevent priority areas, asking for the most up-to-date Prevent funding information, including what projects received funding and details of any project engaging specifically with far-right extremism. I lodged almost identical requests between 2008 and 2009, all of which were successful. All but one of the 2013 requests were denied.

This denial is significant. Before the 2011 review, the Prevent strategy distributed money to help local authorities fight violent extremism and in doing so identified priority areas based solely on demographics. Any local authority with a Muslim population of at least five per cent was automatically given Prevent funding. The 2011 review pledged to end this. It further promised to expand Prevent to include far-right extremism and stop its use in community cohesion projects. Through these FOI requests I was trying to find out whether or not the 2011 pledges had been met. But with the blanket denial of information, I was left in the dark.

It is telling that the report’s concerns with Prevent are not new and have in fact been highlighted in several reports by the same Home Affairs Select Committee, as well as numerous reports by NGOs. But nothing has changed. In fact, the only change proposed by the report is to give Prevent a new name: Engage. But the problem was never the name. Prevent relies on the premise that terrorism and extremism are inherently connected with Islam, and until this is changed, it will continue to be at best counter-productive, and at worst, deeply discriminatory.

In his evidence to the committee, David Anderson, the independent ombudsman of terrorism legislation, has called for an independent review of the Prevent strategy. This would be a start. However, more is required. What is needed is a radical new approach to counter-terrorism and counter-extremism, one that targets all forms of extremism and that does not stigmatise or stereotype those affected.

Such an approach has been pioneered in the Danish town of Aarhus. Faced with increased numbers of youngsters leaving Aarhus for Syria, police officers made it clear that those who had travelled to Syria were welcome to come home, where they would receive help with going back to school, finding a place to live and whatever else was necessary for them to find their way back to Danish society.  Known as the ‘Aarhus model’, this approach focuses on inclusion, mentorship and non-criminalisation. It is the opposite of Prevent, which has from its very start framed British Muslims as a particularly deviant suspect community.

We need to change the narrative of counter-terrorism in the UK, but a narrative is not changed by a new title. Just as a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, a bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy. While the Home Affairs Select Committee concern about Prevent is welcomed, real action is needed. This will involve actually engaging with the Muslim community, listening to their concerns and not dismissing them as misunderstandings. It will require serious investigation of the damages caused by new Prevent statutory duty, something which the report does acknowledge as a concern.  Finally, real action on Prevent in particular, but extremism in general, will require developing a wide-ranging counter-extremism strategy that directly engages with far-right extremism. This has been notably absent from today’s report, even though far-right extremism is on the rise. After all, far-right extremists make up half of all counter-radicalization referrals in Yorkshire, and 30 per cent of the caseload in the east Midlands.

It will also require changing the way we think about those who are radicalized. The Aarhus model proves that such a change is possible. Radicalization is indeed a real problem, one imagines it will be even more so considering the country’s flagship counter-radicalization strategy remains problematic and ineffective. In the end, Prevent may be renamed a thousand times, but unless real effort is put in actually changing the strategy, it will remain toxic. 

Dr Maria Norris works at London School of Economics and Political Science. She tweets as @MariaWNorris.