Betabeat grabbed a coffee yesterday with a former AOL staffer who worked in the company’s corporate development arm. Naturally the conversation turned to Google+, which has been called the fastest growing social network in history. In one sense this is true, the service has registered more than 18 million members in its first few weeks. On the other hand, almost all of these users already belonged to a social network, albeit one not typically thought of in those terms, Gmail.
As Fred Wilson has pointed out, email is actually social’s secret weapon. It is the new photo alert in my inbox that typically drives me to Facebook. In the same way it is the bright red notification box in Gmail that has been driving me onto Google+. Which brings us back to AOL, which once upon a time, reigned supreme over email and its close relative, the instant messanger.
“At the time AOL purchased Bebo, we were desperate to get into the social networking space. There was an attempt to buy Facebook, but Zuckerberg basically told us to fuck off.” Eventually the company settled on Bebo, which was the biggest social network in Britain.
The bidding for Bebo was mediated by Allen & Co. “They just ran circles around us. It was media guys trying to grab an internet company and they didn’t know better.” The final purchase price was $850 million dollars. “I later learned that the only other serious bidder, Sony, stopped at $300 million. They basically had us bidding against ourselves.”
Much like the marriage of Myspace and News Corp, AOL and Bebo failed to produce positive synergies for either party. The company was eventually sold for an embarrassing $10 million in 2010. “The sad thing was, we had a social network sitting under our noses the whole time, called AIM.”
Like Google, AOL had a base of more than 100 million users who went each day to their inbox and chat windows to communicate with friends, family and co-worker. In the New York media world, AIM still persists at many workplaces as the method of choice for inter-office communication. AOL did attempt to create a social networking component to AIM, called AIM pages, in 2006. But the company never threw significant muscle behind this effort to evolve its massive homegrown user base from email/chat.
It is too early to tell if Google+ will be a lasting success. But its initial momentum is impressive, due in large part to the fact that it relies on email/chat at its core. The integration with Android, which allows for automatic uploads of smartphone photos, means the Google+ is also tied in to the future of computing, mobile. Every time I snap a picture I get a notification in my Gmail inbox, and I have found myself building more photo albums and spending a lot more time inside Google+ than Facebook.