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Bebo snapped up by AOL/Time Warner
AOL/Time Warner’s purchase of social networking website Bebo for $NZ1.05 billion is a timely illustration of the current trends in new media. Firstly the list of global top sites is currently packed with social networking websites with MySpace, Facebook, Hi5 and Orkut all sitting pretty in the top ten alongside long time stalwarts like Yahoo, Google and MSN ( ).
“Social Networking” websites are enormously popular right now, both with internet users and the mainstream media (whom seem to have only just discovered that millions of people use the internet for social communication). Different sites are not only occupying different geographical locations (while most Kiwis have never heard of Orkut it is the number 1 site in Brazil) but also different demographics (Bebo users are generally younger than Facebook users). Whether this popularity is a long-term or short-term phenomenon remains to be seen, but the large media companies are following the eyeballs and investing heavily in buying up popular sites with GDP sized piles of cash.
All of this is leading towards an oligopoly where the major global internet websites are owned by a small number of web empires, notably Google, Microsoft, AOL/Time Warner, and News Corporation/Fox. Microsoft’s recent bid to takeover Yahoo at a cost of close to US$45 billion underlines the magnitude of these empires.  Interestingly a homegrown example of this convergence can be seen in New Zealand with Fairfax (Trade Me, Stuff, Find Someone, Smaps etc.) facing off against APN (NZ Herald, Search4Jobs, Finda, Eventfinder etc.)
The public could be forgiven to think that we are simply moving towards a status quo where the day-to-day information most people get from the internet will be governed by a small number of very large corporations. However history has shown that the internet doesn’t necessarily play by the rules of traditional media. Not only are the young generations almost devoid of long-term brand loyalty but the breadth of information/ entertainment options on the internet beggars belief.
To put it in context; in the early 80s your average New Zealander could chose from 2 television stations, the entry of TV3, Sky and other small networks upped the number of currently available stations to 60 odd stations for those who pay a monthly subscription. While on the internet there are an estimated 100,000,000 websites available – many of them only a few clicks or a Google search away.
That millions of people currently use “Social Networking Website A” doesn’t necessarily mean that they will still be there in 12 months time. History shows that if something better (or even just different) comes along users can and will move to it - something which the big players are well aware of.
For what it’s worth my humble view is that while online communities are incredibly important they don’t directly translate into broad social networking sites which rely purely on catering for mainstream demographics. The internet has allowed niche cultures and communities to flourish as ever before – most of whom have particular needs, interests and activities they wish to focus on.
While the massive size of the big sites gives them incredible traffic firepower it also leaves many of their users feeling their message, voice or content has been lost within an ever increasing ocean of generic content. If you’ve ever tried to search YouTube for a specific video you may sympathise with this view.
What seems likely is more (informal and formal) partnerships between the web empires and regional/ special interest sites as niche communities work through their own identities and interests to create, catalogue, consume and converse about information from the broader webiverse.