What does AOL get when it pairs aging instant message service AIM with Bebo, the also-ran social network that it bought for $850 million last spring? A web service that could one day be a main way for people to interact on any web site, the company hopes. Set aside your knee-jerk cynicism about the big tech-media conglomerate trying to innovate, for a moment, because the service is looking better — especially better than what I’d been expecting based on rumors I’d heard last year.
AOL has launched a set of new as well as upgraded Bebo features today, wrapped up in a new user interface. It’s the latest move in its ongoing efforts to make the social network a central tool for helping people to manage information from a variety of its own and other email and media-sharing services.
Now, you can read and comments on feeds from your and your friends updates on popular sites like Facebook, Myspace, YouTube, and Delicious within a single interface — this “lifestream” section is an expansion of the “Social Inbox” that Bebo introduced last December (today’s changes have been rumored for the last month). When a friend on Bebo posts a video to YouTube, for example, you’ll see it in Bebo. Your friend doesn’t need to a Bebo user for this to happen, because Bebo is accessing your friends updates on those other services in order to show them to you here. The Social Inbox already let you import your feeds from Twitter and Flickr, as well as read your email from email programs like Google’s Gmail, Yahoo Mail and AOL.
Within the next several weeks, expect to see Bebo’s still-evolving lifestreams start to be introduced on other web sites, company product leaders David Liu and Darius Contractor told me this morning — a move that could make AIM and Bebo more relevant to web users. More on that in a moment.
The new Bebo interface also lets you update your status on Bebo through third-party services like Twitter, if you provide Bebo with your Twitter user details. For sake of comparison, this is a bit more direct than Facebook’s status updates, which you can update through Twitter if you first install Twitter’s application for Facebook. Other new Bebo features include a “Lifestory” section that the company has been talking about for months; it’s a way to visualize your social timeline by seeing photos, messages and other information from you and your friends in chronological order. Bands and other organizations can create their own, as well. AOL notes that while users will typically see the Lifestory on the top of their Bebo homepage, advertisers may sometimes take over that space. The company also plans to let users share their Lifestories, or events within Lifestories, on other sites, although it’s not yet clear how that will work.
AOL is continuing to build Bebo together with AIM. Some 8.5 million people are using AIM social networking-style profiles, according to comScore — and Bebo will be incorporating those profiles over the next couple of days. The rest of AIM’s 30 million monthly active U.S. users haven’t created AIM profiles, but now they can sign into Bebo using their AIM accounts. This is more significant than just being a new way to boost Bebo usage numbers (Bebo itself gets around 22 million monthly active users around the world, with five million or so of those within the U.S., according to comScore). Bebo and AIM users can combine their list of friends from both services to get a single chat service. The company has already been pushing the connection between the two services, as status updates from AIM began appearing in the Social Inbox when the inbox was introduced in December.
The average Bebo user spends 25 minutes on the site per day, per comScore’s numbers, but the social network is also offering some other features to encourage user content creation and interaction. It plans to introduce a “Stories” feature next month, a sort of in-house blog feature that lets you and your friends collaboratively post text, photos, and stories in a cohesive package that appears within the lifestream interface. The company is also trying to make its home interface more interesting to people, by recommending videos and other media in a side panel that it introduced in December, called the “Social Discovery Engine.”
And, especially for those concerned about their online privacy, Bebo now lets you create restrictions on what your friends can see on your profile, per a new feature called the “Social Slider.” When somebody adds you a friend on the site, you can decide whether they’re a “friend,” part of your “inner circle” or closest of all, a “family” member.
Can AOL add up AIM and Bebo?
Social networking rival Facebook introduced ways of incorporating feeds from other services last year, but has so far seemed to downplay that feature within its interface. Startups like FriendFeed have focused on helping people aggregate and discuss their activities from other sites — and Bebo has long been interested in doing more of that, having bought FriendFeed rival Socialthing last year.
AOL is betting that its diverse group of instant messaging and social networking users want more so-called lifestreaming features on Bebo, and everywhere else on the web. The company is working with a number of web publishers to develop what sounds like a widget, that integrates AIM-based chat and Bebo-based lifestreaming into any other web site or device. The company told me today that this feature will let you chat with your AIM and Bebo friends on other sites — somewhat akin to what Meebo does with Community IM, as we’ve previously heard — except the service will be designed around the Bebo lifestream. You’ll be able to do things like share a video, photo or article from a partner site back with your friends on AIM and Bebo. The company is also integrating the lifestreaming interface in with mobile applications, to make it easy for people to create, share and access this social information from their phones.
AOL’s Liu compares the company’s lifestreaming service to Facebook’s Connect and MySpaceID, rival services that let users access their own information on these home sites. Facebook’s Connect already lets a user share actions that they take on another site back with Facebook. So if you use Facebook Connect to comment on a news article, your friends will see a link to the comment within their news feeds and in your profile feed. By integrating with AIM and Bebo, AOL hopes that its service will provide a more cohesive way to share information. Liu adds that Bebo, which already offers a developer platform for third-party applications, is also looking at how to incorporate more open standards to make it easier for others to access its user data and features.
The company, which is part of the OpenSocial standard for third-party web applications, is also looking at how it can integrate the lifestream with OpenID and OAuth. OpenID is a way for uses to sign into one web service using their identity on another service, although most major companies only use it to let you sign into other sites using your identity on their services — these companies tend to not let you sign in to their services using your ID on another site. We’ll see if AOL lets you create a new Bebo account using your Google or MySpace user identity, for example. OAuth is a way to let a third-party site access your user data on a home site without getting access to everything about you on that site. It could be used by developers to access pieces of information on Bebo — like Lifestories, maybe?
In terms of money, ads will run within the new lifestreaming service, and AOL will develop ways of sharing that revenue with partner sites.
For the time being, its not clear what the Bebo/AIM-powered interface will look like on other sites, nor what technology standards it might use to enable this service. Today’s new features are designed to the company up for that larger move. It’s not clear how well that effort is working so far. The company isn’t releasing data about how users are responding to the Social Inbox so far, but it does say the “Social Discovery Engine” has already led to a 300 percent increase in the number of people following existing media channels, bands and third-party applications on the site.
Many have questioned the amount Bebo was bought for, and some have even heard that Bebo may be for sale again due to poor performance. Today’s features look promising, and — if users agree — they could comprise a big step in AOL’s path towards proving critics wrong.
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