Is Facebook becoming the new Bebo?

9 Apr 2010

Once it was pretty clear. Bebo was for the teens. Facebook was for the 20 or 30 somethings and LinkedIn was for the professional types. But now seems Facebook has inherited many of the teen-related problems that dogged Bebo in its heyday.

The news of the demise of Bebo this week shocked many. AOL acquired Bebo for US$850m only two years ago but revealed that it would require a “significant investment” to stop the once-unstoppable social networking behemoth from folding.

As Bebo demises, Facebook is continuing to grow and grow, with some 400m users around the world. In tandem with this growth comes Facebook’s growth as a publishing and advertising giant. With the growth of social gaming on the site, social game firms like Zynga, publishers of the FarmVille game, are already US$300m a year revenue players as players spend money on discretionary items to boost their game play.

Only five years ago Bebo was the new thing. Every teenager had a Bebo account and 11-year-olds who didn’t qualify for the 12-year-old age limit would go to extraordinary efforts to pass the gatekeepers. With its popularity came the age-old problems of bullying, stalking, racism and the spectre of suicide.

The world post-Bebo

This throws up a host of new questions, particularly what’s going to happen to the data that would have graced Bebo accounts in years past. That picture you or your friends posted when you passed out at a party five years ago that was a blast at the time but clearly does not reflect the suited and booted job applicant today? Or what about pictures girls have taken in their glad rags on a night out attempting a Christina Aguilera pose that could wind their way onto porn sites or ads for sexy singles?

It seems, though, that ahead of the expected closure of Bebo many teens have already started the migration to Facebook to keep connected. With the migration no doubt comes all the issues that dogged Bebo in the past. Is Facebook prepared?

Facebook has already been at the centre of cases around paedophile rings, murder and lately the senior police officer in the UK responsible for child protection online Jim Gamble who leads the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre, has warned that officers have seen a significant increase in complaints from parents and children reporting alleged paedophiles, bullies and hackers who are exploiting the site.

Gamble said that Facebook, who has insisted it has a secure internal system, has failed to report a single alleged paedophile to police. He also hit out at Facebook’s refusal to embed a panic button to each user’s profile page, which he claimed would deter paedophiles and protect children.

He said 252 Facebook complaints were made to police in the UK in the past three months – quadruple the number of complaints last year.

Strange currencies

Aside from the sinister aspects of stalking and bullying, a new issue has arisen that Facebook must also come to grips with as it becomes more and more of an e-commerce player in terms of currency and gaming.

It emerged in the last 24 hours that a 12-year-old boy spent nearly stg£300 of his own savings to purchase FarmVille’s virtual currency before using his mother’s credit card to add another stg£600 worth of expenses, buying everything from virtual tractors to virtual food. More than 80m people around the world play FarmVille and vie to become virtual farmers in the hope of generating virtual revenues from crops they can sell online.

Facebook/Zynga have declined to refund the money and the credit card company said it will only return the money to the mother if she’s prepared to brand her son a thief.

As Facebook sees a rich harvest of virtual currency and advertising materialise as it becomes the new social networking network of choice for younger members, it will need to get serious about checks and balances to avoid the problems that dogged Bebo in its early days. Remember, all it takes is a few bad apples …

By John Kennedy

Photo: Former Bebo members flocking to Facebook are potentially moving with them issues encountered on Bebo, such as stalking and bullying

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years