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.

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.