(CommentIsFree asked me to write this post about AOL acquiring Bebo.)
Poor Bebo. I feel for the residents of their hip and convivial apartment block. It has just been bought by a slumlord.
AOL — which is paying $850m for the social networking site, the other Facebook — is where innovations go to die. Remember Netscape? Bought for $4.2b and now dead. AOL bought a mess of advertising platforms — Advertising.com, Quigo, Tacoda — and can’t make them to get along; the New York Times reports on continuing warfare that has resulted in AOL firing the business talent it just acquired. Back in 1998, AOL bought the pioneering instant-messaging platform ICQ and though AOL’s IM went on to become huge and though ICQ lives still, it was never the leader again. And then there’s what AOL did to Time Warner and its stock (which I bitterly regret holding onto from my days working at the magazine publisher).
In its purchase of Bebo, AOL — like Yahoo, Time Warner, Microsoft, and no end of media companies — is trying to buy the strategy it doesn’t have. And that’s a strategy that rarely works.
The terrible irony is that if anyone should have understood community and how to support, nurture, and profit from it, AOL should have. The problem is that AOL never understood its real value. At various times, it thought it was an internet service provider and then a portal and then an ad network. But all along, AOL’s greatest asset was the community of people under its nose: millions of enthusiasts in countless niches meeting and enjoying each others’ company in forums and chat and personal pages, the platform for community that AOL created.
AOL should have been Bebo before there ever was a Bebo. It should have been the Google of people. It should have been Facebook. Instead, having killed the golden goose of its own community — one it created as the social pioneer of online — it is going to the market to buy a tin gosling.
So what will become of Bebo? I shudder to think. These acquisitions rarely work well. We can look not just to AOL but also to Yahoo, which bought the wonderful photo service Flickr and bookmarking service Del.icio.us. Both live on but without the rush of innovation that made them so valuable and Yahoo has saddled each with its own klunky membership structure.
If history is any guide — and in AOL’s case, it certainly is — I fear that Bebo’s talented, visionary founders will leave in frustration or firings; AOL will bury the service inside its outmoded portal; and AOL will treat the people inside not as people but as ad inventory.
But then, maybe I’m just a pessimist.