Remember Bebo? What happened to New Zealand's most popular social network

A decade-and-a-half ago - before TikTok, Instagram and Snapchat, before Facebook took over the world - there was Bebo. And for a few short years, Bebo ruled New Zealand's social media.

Launched in 2005 by husband-and-wife team Michael and Xochi Birch in their San Francisco home, Bebo was a worldwide alternative to MySpace and Friendster.

"Bebo's personality was fun. Weird. Creative. Anyone who was on Bebo understood that, and rocked it," Michael Birch said in retrospect.

It was loose and light-hearted. You could decorate your page with background artwork - known as 'skins'. There was a whiteboard for drawings, space for a profile description and boxes for your favourite bands. You could rank your top 16 friends and family. You had a limited amount of daily hearts you could give out to 'Share the Luv'.

And now it's gone.

Newshub investigates what happened to New Zealand's most popular social network, and how it continues to influence our lives.

Why did Bebo become so popular in New Zealand?

Despite starting in the US, Bebo exploded in popularity in the UK and Ireland as well as the Southern Hemisphere.

As it blew up, Bebo offered Francisco Cordero McNamara a job in 2007 as Bebo's general manager for Australia and New Zealand. He suspects Kiwis travelling in those countries brought it back home.

"It was very much aligned with the core values of Kiwis and somehow it just ticked all the boxes and really captured the spirit of Kiwis," Cordero McNamara says.

Whatever the reason, Bebo was a great fit for New Zealand and our culture. When he took over in 2007, Bebo wasn't just the biggest social networking site in New Zealand - it had the largest number of page views of any website here.

Cordero McNamara first realised just how popular it was in New Zealand when he flew down under to take charge. As he came through the airport, one worker asked him what he did. He still remembers how their eyes lit up when he said he ran Bebo for New Zealand.

"What caught my eye was people would ask me what I did and the moment they knew I ran Bebo people would go 'OMG'! People were so excited," he says.

It was particularly popular with Maori and Polynesians, and also struck a chord with the New Zealand 'scene' subculture - the mashup of metalcore, pop-punk and post-hardcore music.

"Bebo really resonated with minorities - communities that may have felt underrepresented in government and society had a place," Cordero McNamara says.

Bebo encouraged self-expression without requiring any real technical ability - always a bonus with Kiwis. It allowed people to customise their pages with background artwork without requiring the HTML coding knowledge MySpace needed.

"Bebo was chaotic in a way, but not as chaotic as MySpace because we had the templates," Cordero McNamara says.

"While it had that same self-expression element, it was easier to use than MySpace, where if you didn't know how to code it was hard to change. Bebo was much easier to use as it was plug and play."

Bebo was everywhere. Two-thirds of secondary school children were estimated to have a Bebo page in 2007 and panicked schools blocked the website to stop students logging in.

Both Telecom and TVNZ announced exclusive partnerships. Even the Electoral Enrolment Centre gave the Orange Guy a Bebo profile for the 2008 election.

Bebo was completely dominant. Until it wasn't.

The end of the party

Bebo was a company ahead of its time. It was attempting to carve out a strategic space for itself by turning into what looks in many ways like a mash-up of today's social media giants.

This combined a social media component (like Facebook) with support for users to upload music and videos (YouTube creators) as well as creating its own series (the original production model of Netflix and Disney+).

But while Bebo was popular down under and in the UK, it struggled to take over in the US. Facebook always had an image of exclusivity and education due to its start amongst the elite US colleges. When, in 2006, it opened up to everyone over 13, it swiftly started spreading around the world.

"I was a Bebo fan to be honest. The only reason I stopped using it was because people had started to migrate to Facebook," one former user told Newshub.

Cordero McNamara says Bebo could see the challenge coming, which drove its efforts to create its own niche. 

"We could see Facebook breaking into New Zealand, but at the same time we were doing different things," he says.

"We had a very strong competitor. However we were better at self-expression, we'd done a very good job bringing in bands and being able to reflect youth identity.

"We had a platform that could bring together independent content producers who wouldn't normally have the platform to do so and we provided that for them."

Despite the rising challengers, it attracted the attention of AOL Time Warner, which was looking to expand its online presence. In March 2008, Bebo was sold in a deal worth US$850 million.

"We were the best buyable social network for AOL. They couldn't afford Facebook as it had gotten so big," Michael Birch told the Irish Times in 2015.

But this, Cordero McNamara says, was when "everything changed".

"It's the classic example where a company was acquired ahead of its time," he tells Newshub.

Bebo became a small part of AOL Time Warner, which failed to fully understand what Bebo was and how to grow it.

"The first thing was we shut down the advertising arm [in New Zealand] even though we had booked into the new financial year," Cordero McNamara says.

"[It was] very strange because we were the most successful website in New Zealand. It was very sad, I had to talk to a lot of these brands and tell them we were closing down.

"I had convinced them to work with us and then we were just terminating those relationships."

Much of the Bebo executive team left - many to talent network company Maker Studios - and users too began to leave in increasing numbers.

Just two months after Bebo's sale it lost its position as the top social networking site in New Zealand. Its decline after this was swift. By 2010 just 4 percent of Kiwis said Bebo was their main social networking site. 

"Facebook has overtaken Bebo and now dominates the New Zealand online social networking space," a Nielsen Media Research report that year stated.

In June 2010, Bebo was sold to a hedge fund and in 2013 the company filed for bankruptcy.

The original founders - the Birchs - bought back control and Bebo was relaunched with an instant messaging app, before it pivoted to allow people to stream themselves playing games to Twitch.

In 2019 it was bought by Amazon, through its subsidiary Twitch. The link to the Bebo homepage no longer works.

Bebo lives on

Bebo is gone, but its spirit lives on.

Cordero McNamara says much of today's current social media landscape traces back to that moment when MySpace, Bebo and YouTube were competing against each other, all converging into one platform.

"When I see Instagram and TikTok it reminds me of Bebo," he says.

"There was a lot of 'self' in Bebo and MySpace. If you think about TikTok, it's not just about silliness and fun and getting noticed and sharing… the talent has become really important now. There are people who are creating media companies, talent becoming corporations."

Cordero McNamara himself now works to protect them as chief operating officer at an LA company called SuperBam, which tracks people's videos being uploaded to YouTube and ensures the monetisation goes to the original creators.

"I've moved on to a place where I defend the rights of content creators and chase down pirates. We're doing really well and providing different sources of revenue to these companies," he says.

And for Kiwis, the word Bebo brings back the nostalgia of being young - the photos, the friends, the memories.

"I have come across people from New Zealand and they had a big smile on their faces when they remember Bebo," Cordero McNamara says.

"It was a big part of their identity and growth, and connections were made that will forever be associated with Bebo - and that sense of adventure and community continues today."

Main image supplied with permission via Cari-anne from her DigiDownload Etsy store.