Bebo attempts the near-impossible: A comeback

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.

Clockwise from top left: #goddamnit, #ChuckNorris, #Snapchat, #firstworldproblems, #OhSnap, and #hashtags

Clockwise from top left: #goddamnit, #ChuckNorris, #Snapchat, #firstworldproblems, #OhSnap, and #hashtags

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.

carmelemojisIt’s easy to dismiss Bebo as yet another frivolous first world app. And it totally is. But the app gives chatting an element of personalization, emotion, and imagery.

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.

The #YOLO animation on Bebo

The #YOLO animation on Bebo

Facebook is considering adding a type of “dislike” button

On Thursday, Facebook held its second ever public Town Hall (here’s our coverage of the first). It’s a chance for Facebook users to ask CEO Mark Zuckerberg about the product, the company and his vision. Here are the highlights:

The dislike button

Facebook is thinking about introducing a type of “dislike” button, but it’s not sold on the idea. Zuckerberg said the company has been considering new variations on the like button for some time.

“There are more sentiments people want to express than just positivity,” Zuckerberg said. When people share moments that are sad or controversial, there isn’t a quick, easy way to empathize with them. “People tell us they aren’t comfortable pressing ‘like’ when someone lost a loved one,” Zuckerberg offered as an example.

However, don’t expect the company to roll out a “dislike” button right away. Some people have asked Facebook for a dislike button so they can express negativity. “We don’t think that’s good for the world,” Zuckerberg said. “We’re not going to build that.”

Instead, Facebook is going to figure out ways to express other sentiments besides just positivity.

Getting silly with it

The rest of the Q & A carried on with a mix of quirky and compelling questions.

Several got big laughs from the audience. One woman wanted to know Zuckerberg’s favorite pizza toppings. (“If you’re going to be eating pizza you might as well have fried chicken on top.”) Another asked him, “If we were married, how would you handle Facebook with our daughter?” (Leniently.) A third thanked him for driving up the price of her home with the Facebook campus. (“That’s the first time anyone has ever thanked me for having Facebook raise housing prices!”)

Was Zuckerberg not told about the emotions study?

On a more serious note, Zuckerberg addressed the emotions testing study that garnered Facebook a lot of criticism earlier this year. He implied, but didn’t outright state, that he wasn’t told about the experiment beforehand. “Anything that might affect how you share stuff, that’s something I should know about,” Zuckerberg said. “The way we did it, I think we could have done it a lot better.” He went on to explain that in the future Facebook will have systems to ensure “the right people within the company know about it” and “can decide whether it’s an appropriate or right thing to be testing.”

Graph search

The last piece of product news Zuckerberg shared was around Graph Search. The company wants to roll it out in different languages and other parts of the world, but it has struggled in developing the product. “It’s a lot of work — there are so many different posts on Facebook,” Zuckerberg said. “I think there’s a trillion posts.” Since Graph Search must comb them all to serve relevant answers, it’s a huge undertaking. Zuckerberg admitted that Facebook hasn’t made it easy for the community to tap into its network’s knowledge, whether around places, restaurants, movies or more.

“I’m an impatient person so it’s taking longer than I want to roll out search in other parts of the world,” he said. “We hope to deliver this sometime soon.”

This post was updated with more details as the Q & A unfolded.

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