Long Live AOL's People Networks! (Or Better Red Than Dead?)
AOL announced today that it has forked over the $850 million dollars in cash for Bebo–presumably in small bills in big bags, so all the fully vested Bebo employees can’t run away quite as fast–completing its acquisition of the quirky No. 3 social-networking site.
As part of the process, it has also created a new business unit, called the People Networks, which will be headed by Bebo President Joanna Shields.
Her new title is EVP at AOL and President of People Networks and Shields will be reporting to AOL President Ron Grant.
The People Networks will combine Bebo with AOL’s AIM, ICQ and other community platforms that AOL said reaches about 80 million users worldwide.
While the new moniker might sound as if AOL (TWX) has become a new Communist Party, the company has obviously placed high hopes in the division to make a lot of capitalistic dough.
More importantly, AOL has got to be betting that the new unit will finally bring its moribund community elements back to the vivacious life they all previously enjoyed.
Consider the slow death of AOL’s once-mighty “people” parts, which clearly dominated the scene early on in the online space.
Which company had some of the first truly usable groups online for the non-geek? AOL.
What company was a pioneer in bringing email to the masses? AOL, my friend!
Who created one of the first easy presence technologies called the Buddy List? AOL again!
And what company was smart enough early on to have two of the finest instant messaging systems ever created, with worldwide reach and upon which all others are inspired? Two guesses and the first two don’t count! AOL with its ICQ and AIM, of course!
BoomTown–who was there when AOL was actually the only true online service of the people, by the people and for the people–was also there to see it almost perish from this earth.
That’s because AOL did squat, as others simply usurped the core consumer concepts it commercialized first.
Let’s be honest, what is Facebook but a souped-up version of AOL? And couldn’t its AIM and ICQ really have been morphed into a more useful version of Twitter, Meebo and everyone else combined?
Still AOL’s Grant has dreams of renewed world domination! (It didn’t work out for Khrushchev, but thankfully Grant does not seem to be shoe-banging to make his point.)
“Unlike other social networks, which have had a difficult time monetizing their sites without jeopardizing the user experience, Bebo created an environment that enables advertisers, brands and media companies to engage in meaningful, relevant conversations with its users,” he said in a statement. “Combining Bebo with our other social media applications, our content sites, and Platform A gives us an unmatched opportunity to create value for these highly engaged audiences.”
Now, I really think Joanna Shields is a sharpie and I have repeatedly posted, well before anyone noticed, about Bebo’s innovative fare (see video below of my visit to Bebo’s London offices last year), including its clever melding of original online entertainment and social networking, such as its “KateModern.”
But I have to hope that Shields and AOL have some bigger plan in mind than simple combination and cross-marketing that is talked about in their press release.
(And, of course, getting a tiny bump from moving Bebo’s ad deal in the U.K and Ireland with Yahoo to AOL’s Platform A, as soon as the contract expires next year.)
Because AOL was the company that showed everyone the way communications, community, content and context could be utilized to unleash to yield enormous power for consumers.
And while it blew that first (and second and third) round, it probably still has to tools to take back some of the power it lost by organizing AOL workers and getting them to put some noble sweat into the effort.
Or, as Lenin once said: “Sometimes–history needs a push.”
Here’s my longish video of my visit to Bebo’s cool Carnaby Street offices in London last summer: