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Remember the popular ’90s social networking app Bebo? Yeah, me neither.
The Facebook predecessor, which dominated British social networking for awhile, sold to AOL for $850 million in 2008. The corporate behemoth wasted no time at all in killing it.
But Bebo will not go softly into that dark night. In July of 2013, founder Michael Birch, with the help of his business wingman Shaan Puri, bought back the brand for a pittance of what he sold it for. Last week, he relaunched it.
The new Bebo is a whole new beast. Gone is the social network of yore, and in its place is — what else? — a chatting application.
Bebo is now all about the custom avatar, letting you pick from a range of hair styles, colors, skin tones, glasses, clothing, and accessories. Then when you chat with a friend on the app you can animate your avatar using hashtags. Check me and Product Hunt founder Ryan Hoover in #goddamnit, #chucknorris, #Snapchat #firstworldproblems #ohsnap and #hashtags. There’s no one set list of hashtag illustration options — you have to play with the app to figure out what you can animate. But the options seemed endless.
Within minutes of chatting with Hoover, I started feeling unnaturally fond of my avatar, like she was my little sister in the cartoon dimension or something. One of my favorite features was a custom emoji keyboard that automatically populated in the app, turning regular winky faces and smirks into an approximation of your own face. I wish they’d break it out into a third-party keyboard that integrates with regular iOS 8 messaging.
It could do for messaging what the emoticon did for text: Add a layer of sentiment that was previously hard to translate. Given that we’re moving to an increasingly chat centric world, that matters.
But that’s only if you dream big for Bebo. In reality, the app will struggle to convince people to download it in this noisy app environment. There’s a cognitive barrier to the conversations themselves, where you feel the need to conjure up witty hashtags in the hopes they’ll turn into funny pictures. In other words, it’s not an entirely natural way to chat.
Could it overcome those problems and revamp the Bebo brand? I guess we’ll see; after all, #YOLO.