Bebo, Myspace & the failure of Facebook’s competitors

How Google and so many others got it wrong...

Bebo, Myspace & the failure of Facebook’s competitors

Friendster founder Jonathan Abrams in 2003. Picture by: PAUL SAKUMA / AP/Press Association Images

Such is Mark Zuckerberg’s easy dominion over the social networking world these days, when he announced Facebook’s skyrocketing revenue (a cool $5.38 billion) this week, he could also let us know he has bigger fish to fry.

"While helping to connect the world will always be the most important thing I do, there are more global challenges that I feel a responsibility to help solve – like helping to cure all diseases by the end of this century, upgrading our education system so it’s personalized for each student, and protecting our environment from climate change".

With great power and all that... Once upon a time though, Zuck was just your common-or-garden Harvard student (or as close to common as they get) looking to connect dorm rooms, and then, campuses with "Thefacebook".

Since Facebook officially launched to the world – "now you can all connect" – in September 2006, it has laid waste to the social networking competition in spectacular fashion.

Here are the sites who would have been king, and where they went wrong. Maybe the CEO Facebook can fit their resurrections into his philanthropic plans.

FRIENDSTER

Never much of a big deal over here and easily dispatched once Myspace and Facebook got properly noisy, in an alternate universe, it's Friendster that 1.65 billion of us are checking in with every month.

The site was established in 2002 and was important step away from niche messageboards and erasing the more "anti-social" connotations that once came with chatting online.

The father of modern social networks, it initially brushed off blatant copycat attempts from the likes of Google but its reign at the top didn’t last long. Criticisms ranged from the fairly frequent outages it would suffer and how focused it was on the profile page – once you had that perfected, it didn’t offer a "Newsfeed" option that was key to Facebook conquering the globe.

Canadian founder Jonathan Abrams himself admitted two years ago that he saw the threat FB posed due to its popularity amongst college students and suggested they should have launched "Friendster College" to nip it in the bud. He even had plans for their own Newsfeed. Technology problems ultimately did the site in, with Abrams telling Mashable: "The fact that we didn't launch those products was a problem, but even more fundamentally, people could barely log into the website for two years".

Friendster limped on in Southeast Asia before a 2011 decision to concentrate on becoming "the social gaming destination of choice". It has since shut down completely, admitting that "the online gaming community did not engage as much as we had hoped for".

MYSPACE

Easily eclipsing Friendster’s reach, Myspace was launched by Tom Anderson and Chris DeWolfe in 2003. They certainly got their money’s worth when NewsCorp fended off Viacom to acquire the company for $580 million in July 2005. And for a time, Rupert Murdoch got his too – between 2005 and 2008, Myspace was the largest social networking site in the world. At its height in June 2006, it passed out Google as the most visited site overall in the US.

Now in April 2016, it's ranked 1,985th in terms of total web traffic. So where did it all go wrong? Well, that NewsCorp takeover is usually pointed to as the moment when the corporate rot started to set in and Myspace ceased to innovate as Facebook’s features and popularity swelled.

Put simply, Facebook offered the superior, more intuitive interface. It drew in all demographics, where Myspace was always placed at "trendier" end of the spectrum, with its focus on breaking new musicians and helping celebrities (however minor) connect with fans.

Even as early as ’08, Myspace was offering a cluttered and outdated experience. The celebrity focus possibly hurt as well, as users opted to connect with people they actually knew via FB rather than face constant band promotions.

Michael J. Wolf, the former president of Viacom’s MTV Networks, told the New York Times in 2011:

"MySpace was like a big party, and then the party moved on. Facebook has become much more of a utility and communications vehicle".

That same year, Tila Tequila, one of the pseudo-celebrities Myspace helped create, revealed even she had moved on despite still having 3.7 millions "fans" on the site:

"I just lost my passion for Myspace. I haven’t logged on because it’s not simple anymore".

Quite the death knell.

Spotting an opportunity to revive the flagging site, Justin Timberlake teamed up with Specific Media Group to purchase it for $35 million. The relaunch arrived in 2013, with the emphasis on Myspace as a tool for artists to reach fans, but it failed to capture the public’s imagination. It still sees 50 million visitors every month, quite unbelievably, and was acquired by Time Inc in February. That was merely as part of their purchase of ad-tech giant Viant, of which Myspace happens to remain a small piece. An inauspicious end.

BEBO

Probably most Irish teens' first experience of social networking, Bebo never captured the imagination of the American public, but it was a strong third to Myspace and Facebook globally and the unquestionable king of both the British Isles and Australia.

Launched by married couple Michael and Xochi Birch in San Francisco back in 2005, Bebo properly caught fire across the Atlantic.

In the UK, it surpassed Myspace to become the most popular social network around, and anyone in their twenties knows the presence it had on these shores. Indeed, it ranked as Ireland’s most-visited site overall in 2007.

An undoubtedly teenage phenomenon, it perhaps seemed inevitable that an innately fickle audience would "grow  up" and move on... In this case, to Facebook. As social networking juvenilia, Bebo had limited appeal and scope for growth, and was always likely to end up on the heap marked "nostalgia".

Similarly to Myspace, a corporate takeover lined its creators’ pockets but set the site on a downward slope.

The Birch family got out at the right time, selling Bebo to AOL in 2008 – at which point it had peaked – for a figure of $850m that was seen as outlandish even then. As soon as AOL took over, advertising on the site increased and its 40 million users (according to Bebo, though Nielsen put it at 7.1m) started heading for the hills. The BBC would call AOL’s purchase as "one of the worst deals ever made in the dotcom era".

AOL eventually sold Bebo in 2010 for just $10m. Michael Birch himself attempted to give the site a second act when he purchased its assets at auction for $1m in 2013, but the revival didn’t get far beyond an upbeat video.

The Birches currently run The Battery, a private members’ club in San Fran, as well as start-up incubator Monkey Inferno. Whiteboards, flashboxes and Bebo stunnahs are long behind them now. And us.

GOOGLE+

If anyone could take down Facebook, tech giant Google could, right? It seems at times like the entire internet is Google’s own personal fiefdom, but so far it has failed on the social front.

Not the company’s first attempt to conquer social networking (we all used Orkut, Reader, Wave and Buzz, surely...), Google+ was the brainchild of Vic Gundotra, who expended a huge amount of energy telling CEO Larry Page that Facebook would be the death of Google if they didn’t act.

The plan was simple in 2011 – to "fix" online sharing. Gundotra told Wired at the time:

"We’re transforming Google itself into a social destination at a level and scale that we’ve never attempted – orders of magnitude more investment, in terms of people, than any previous project".

The approach was reactive, fearful, and frankly all over the place. Users weren’t keen on having to sign into a Gmail account to use the likes of Youtube, features came and went, and the whole thing looked a lot like Facebook.

After six months, the company itself realised people weren’t engaging with Plus. With 20/20 hindsight, Google+ missed a trick by not focusing on messaging and mobiles, just before FB got that side of things sorted out.

Gundotra left his post in April 2014 and the dismantling of Google+ was well underway. The company started calling its social operations "Streams, Photos, and Sharing" – the implication being that the "streams" failure could be easily separated from its more successful ventures.

In 2015, Scott Galloway, Clinical Professor of Marketing at NYU Stern, told Forbes:

"Google+ is already dead. It has a 98% decline in engagement rate, year-over-year".

No need to shed a tear for the people in Mountain View, though. We’re sure they’ll be just fine.

ELLO

Not so long ago, the young pretender. Whereas many of the previously mentioned sites drowned in the undertow as the Facebook steamliner conquered the Seven Seas, Ello had the audacity to take Zuckerberg’s behemoth on directly (without Google's power).

The anti-Facebook was launched by Paul Budnitz and Todd Berger in August 2014 and prided itself on being an ad-free alternative. If you were worried about FB making big bucks by mining and selling your personal information, Ello was for you.

The right-on approach combined with a minimalist aesthetic and initial air of exclusivity (you had to be invited) got people very excited about Ello in its earliest days, with over 30,000 sign-up requests being processed every hour when it was hot property.

The buzz didn’t last long, and a buggy, ever-changing interface (it started to resemble Tumblr) meant not many users stuck with it. Apparently just 20% of people signing up remained active one week after registration.

Budnitz has said that expansion is not as important as growing Ello in "the right way".

Though they don’t release user figures, a core group seem to have remained committed to the site and its admirable ideals for now. You just don’t hear about it too often...