New social platforms have the potential to supplant Instagram and Facebook for cultural dominance.

By Juno Kelly.

Although the first social media site, Six Degrees, was born in 1997, it was the early 2000s that saw virtual communication segue into the mainstream. The noughties welcomed the digital reign of the likes of MySpace (founded in 2003), Friendster (founded in 2002), which is widely considered the first-ever dating site, and Bebo (founded in 2005). As is the fickle nature of social media, they eventually lost their standing, pushed aside by the platforms that would irreparably alter our way of life like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and more recently, TikTok.

As we enter a new decade, it seems as though the time for a new reigning communications app is imminent. Over the last few years, social media users have come to fear Facebook’s privacy breaches, Twitter’s spreading of misinformation, and Instagram’s reportedly detrimental impact on self-esteem, leaving a gap the market for a new generation of culture-defining social networks. Enter audio-only app Clubhouse and the newly revamped Bebo.

On Monday, the popular noughties social media website Bebo—which went on sale in 2013 after filing for bankruptcy—announced it is making a comeback. According to the statement on its homepage, the new site will launch at its original site, bebo.com, later this month. At present, the webpage contains a statement announcing the app’s imminent return, revealing that the new Bebo will be a new-fangled site led by its original founders, husband-and-wife duo Michael and Xochi Birch. (Contrary to widespread reports, Amazon’s streaming platform Twitch did not procure the social media site Bebo in 2019, but rather an e-sports app also called Bebo).

Until yesterday, the website’s unique selling point—or what will set it apart from other platforms—was undisclosed. The bottom of Bebo’s webpage, however, reads, “on the good news front, Trump is banned from Bebo before we’ve even launched. The world really IS moving forward!” Trump’s preemptive ban gives an early look at the site’s stance on misinformation and free speech, the media laws surrounding which are continually changing, particularly due to Twitter’s role in the lead-up to the U.S. capitol storming.

In conversation with the BBC, Bebo co-founder Michael Birch confirmed that tackling misinformation was on his mind when coding the platform, “one of the most damaging things has been the spread of misinformation…For now, people may think it’s a refreshing break for Bebo not to be another news feed of misinformation.”

Like social media mainstay Facebook, the new Bebo will be profile-based. Unlike Facebook, however—which has, for better or for worse, become a primary news source for many—it will focus on direct user communication as opposed to the sharing of content by media outlets. “What we want to do is go back a little bit to this idea of a profile. That you have an identity you’re sort of taking pride in,” explained Birch. In a post-pandemic era, the website wishes to focus on fostering genuine connection. “COVID has had a lot of detrimental effects, but I think it sort of opened people’s eyes to new things in new ways. And people are craving interaction.”

Unlike Bebo, which kept its return under wraps until the month of its proposed launch, Clubhouse has received an influx of publicity over the last six months. The social media app allows users to enter virtual “rooms” where podcast-like audio conversations occur that users can partake in. Profile pictures are the only imagery present, as the app attempts to focus on ideas and auditory connection over appearance. Thus far, Elon Musk and 21 Savage have hosted talks on the app, while early members include the likes of Oprah and Kevin Hart.

Although the app is invite-only at present, elitism does not appear to be part of the company’s baseline, with Clubhouse intending to open up the platform to all imminently. “Our goal was to build a social experience that felt more human—where instead of posting, you could gather with other people and talk. Our north star was to create something where you could close the app at the end of the session feeling better than you did when you opened it,” wrote founders Paul Davison and Rohan Seth on the website’s “blog” page. As such, users can find rooms dedicated to Children’s Mental Health Week, PropTech, ASMR, and entrepreneurship. Henceforth, it can be predicted that the app may usherin an era where education becomes paramount, and information overrides appearance.

Like Bebo, Clubhouse aims to stymie social media’s tendency to perpetuate false information. The website’s guidelines read, “You may not spread false information or spam, or artificially amplify or suppress information.” It has, however, come under fire for not watching hate speech closely enough. As conversations are happening in real-time in continually changing rooms. Clubhouse therefore faces a greater challenge in monitoring content than the likes of heavily monitored sites Twitter or Facebook, making it possible there will be more room for freedom of expression—and with it, unpopular opinion—on Clubhouse than its competitors.

The global pandemic has made many re-evaluate what it is we want from social media. Perhaps the time for filtered selfies, blatant advertising, and misinformation has had its day, and a regard for truth, self-improvement, candid conversation and sincere human connection will shape the next decade.