Rebuilding Bebo: Shaan Puri reveals his plans for the social network

"The biggest lesson is that the social products that succeed are non-obvious"

Last month, Michael Birch, the founder of the once-popular social networking site Bebo, reacquired the platform for a fraction of the price he sold it for in 2008. 

Besides releasing a tongue-in-cheek video previewing the relaunch of the network, the company have been reluctant to release details about its ongoing development.

I caught up with Bebo's new CEO, Shaan Puri. 

The network is currently being promoted through a self-deprecating satire of a corporate video. What was the thinking behind this?

It took a series of simple decisions:

Firstly to decide not to be boring. Most companies just put up a text landing page with a paragraph that says "sorry...blah blah...coming soon."

Secondly to decide to be honest. I hate when brands try to make a 'cool comeback' when they haven't been relevant in years. You can't throw money at the problem, hire celebrities and run fancy advertisements. People are too smart to be fooled. We are going to refresh the brand now that it's back in the hands of its original founders, but before you can move forward, you must acknowledge the present first. It was a risk, but so far the reaction has been tremendous. People like that we chose to do something funny, honest and self-deprecating.

A brand is an embodiment of the people behind it. Michael and I like to joke around, and don't take things too seriously. So for us, doing a spoof corporate video sounded like fun.

The new Bebo is launching initially as mobile-only. Why?

The concept we have for the new Bebo really works as a mobile app. This is fortunate, because the idea we are excited about for the new Bebo fits into a huge trend right now of people being connected via smartphones.

The social networking landscape is so changeable and unpredictable. Bebo's rise and fall epitomizes this. Why do big companies still invest so willingly?

I think there are two reasons:

1. Its really unlikely that a large company built around a completely different type of business model would ever internally create a social product that wins over the masses. Big companies find it hard to innovate outside of their core product. Yahoo would never be able to create Tumblr from scratch. Even Google has struggled to do it with Google+.

2. Social networks grow fast, and have incredible network effects. Even companies that understand 'social', such as Facebook, find it hard to compete with the Snapchats and Instagrams of the world. Once the big companies notice a startup is worth copying, the startup has built up too much velocity with its viral growth to be stopped.

What lessons have you learnt from the mistakes of other social networks?

Good question. I think the biggest lesson is that the social products that succeed are non-obvious. They sound silly, or like toys at first. Facebook, Twitter, and most recently, Snapchat. Next thing you know, they've disrupted everything.

There has been a lot of press recently about harassment on social networking sites. How should they police their communities?

Like any community, it starts with the people you attract, and the value system they are buying into when they join the site. Luckily, Michael has unique experience in growing a social network from just a few users to many millions, and is familiar with the challenges of managing a community through each phase of growth.

What has presented the greatest challenge in the development of the new Bebo?

We are doing two things at once, which is always tricky. On one hand, we're rebuilding the image of Bebo, and at the same time, we're building the actual product. Both need to be done very well for us to succeed.

Bebo. Photograph: Getty Images

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.

Getty
Show Hide image

Forget the progressive alliance - it was the voters wot won it in Richmond

The Labour candidate on how voters have acted tactically for decades.

The Richmond Park by-election is both a triumph and a setback for the concept of an anti-Tory progressive alliance. As the Labour candidate, I was bombarded with emails and tweets saying I ought to stand down to prevent Zac Goldsmith being re-elected long after it was technically impossible for me to do so even if I had wanted to. I was harangued at a meeting organised by Compass, at which I found myself the lonely voice defending Labour's decision to put up a candidate.

I was slightly taken aback by the anger of some of those proposing the idea, but I did not stand for office expecting an easy ride. I told the meeting that while I liked the concept of a progressive alliance, I did not think that should mean standing down in favour of a completely unknown and inexperienced Lib Dem candidate, who had been selected without any reference to other parties. 

The Greens, relative newbies to the political scene, had less to lose than Labour, which still wants to be a national political party. Consequently, they told people to support the Lib Dems. This all passed off smoothly for a while, but when Caroline Lucas, the co-leader of the Greens came to Richmond to actively support the Lib Dems, it was more than some of her local party members could stomach. 

They wrote to the Guardian expressing support for my campaign, pointing out that I had a far better, long-established reputation as an environmentalist than the Lib Dem candidate. While clearly that ultimately did little to boost my vote, this episode highlighted one of the key problems about creating a progressive alliance. Keeping the various wings of the Labour party together, especially given the undisciplined approach of the leader who, as a backbencher, voted 428 times during the 13 years of Labour government in the 1990s and 2000s, is hard enough. Then consider trying to unite the left of the Greens with the right of the Lib Dems. That is not to include various others in this rainbow coalition such as nationalists and ultra-left groups. Herding cats seems easy by contrast.

In the end, however, the irony was that the people decided all by themselves. They left Labour in droves to vote out Goldsmith and express their opposition to Brexit. It was very noticeable in the last few days on the doorstep that the Lib Dems' relentless campaign was paying dividends. All credit to them for playing a good hand well. But it will not be easy for them to repeat this trick in other constituencies. 

The Lib Dems, therefore, did not need the progressive alliance. Labour supporters in Richmond have been voting tactically for decades. I lost count of the number of people who said to me that their instincts and values were to support Labour, but "around here it is a wasted vote". The most revealing statistic is that in the mayoral campaign, Sadiq Khan received 24 per cent of first preferences while Caroline Pidgeon, the Lib Dem candidate got just 7 per cent. If one discounts the fact that Khan was higher profile and had some personal support, this does still suggest that Labour’s real support in the area is around 20 per cent, enough to give the party second place in a good year and certainly to get some councillors elected.

There is also a complicating factor in the election process. I campaigned strongly on opposing Brexit and attacked Goldsmith over his support for welfare cuts, the bedroom tax and his outrageous mayoral campaign. By raising those issues, I helped undermine his support. If I had not stood for election, then perhaps a few voters may have kept on supporting him. One of my concerns about the idea of a progressive alliance is that it involves treating voters with disdain. The implication is that they are not clever enough to make up their mind or to understand the restrictions of the first past the post system. They are given less choice and less information, in a way that seems patronising, and smacks of the worst aspects of old-fashioned Fabianism.

Supporters of the progressive alliance will, therefore, have to overcome all these objections - in addition to practical ones such as negotiating the agreement of all the parties - before being able to implement the concept. 

Christian Wolmar is an award winning writer and broadcaster specialising in transport. He was shortlisted as a Labour mayoral candidate in the 2016 London election, and stood as Labour's candidate in the Richmond Park by-election in December 2016.