At Glasshouse event, Bebo's Michael Birch avoids AOL talk

Birch co-founded the social network in 2005, then flipped it to AOL for $850 million. He's more than happy to talk about his preference of fish and chips over hamburgers, though.

Bebo co-founder Michael Birch (left) in an interview with Craigslist CEO Jim Buckmaster at the Glasshouse event on Monday night in San Francisco. And a few beers. Caroline McCarthy/CNET News.com

SAN FRANCISCO--It's kind of cheating to showcase the dotcom scene by hosting an event featuring Bebo co-founder Michael Birch and Craigslist CEO Jim Buckmaster. An outsider, observing Buckmaster's interview of Birch on Monday night as part of the Glasshouse salon series on entrepreneurialism, would get the idea that Web 2.0's scions must all be tall, stylish, and exceptionally good-looking.

That outsider would also get the idea that Silicon Valley had the comic timing of Juno, as it was, for the most part, a witty and borderline tongue-and-cheek interview. Bebo's success, Birch said, was "was mainly due to (his) pure brilliance." Buckmaster then reminded Birch that his site could no longer claim to be No. 1 in the U.K., where it had sat on top of the social-media scene before Facebook passed it in reach.

"You still have New Zealand and Fiji, I know," Buckmaster said at the event, held at an expansive new bar called Orson in the heart of San Francisco's start-up-heavy SoMa neighborhood.

"Fiji is an up-and-coming market," Birch replied.

The witty banter was amusing. But want to know the funniest part? Birch's site was sold to AOL for a monstrous $850 million and the interview didn't even touch upon it until audience members (including yours truly) brought it up.

Rather, most of the discussion between the two was centered on Bebo's raison d'etre and its short history (the site was founded in 2005). Buckmaster brought up server problems that came close to halting the site in the manner of Friendster, and Birch replied candidly. "It was quite challenging," he said. "It kind of grew, and then it stopped growing because it wasn't working very well, and then we would fix things and it would start working again."

The audience additionally learned that the British-born Birch prefers fish and chips to hamburgers and that his biggest headache on the site is the occasional whiny teenager. "I think Bebo's single issue we've had is people being mean to other people and trying to solve these life disputes," he said. "You get these e-mails like, 'Jennifer was really mean to me at school today. Can you cancel her Bebo account?'"

There was also talk of the " Open Media Platform ," a strategy Bebo launched to bring professionally-produced video and audio content from partners like CBS and MTV onto the site. "Bebo has been called the first social media network," Buckmaster said. "Is that just marketing hype or is there something to that?"

"It's not just marketing hype, it's incredibly good marketing hype," Birch answered to laughter. "We kind of tried to think how we differentiate, because there's these other two Web sites (Facebook and MySpace)...We have to differentiate, so we thought we'd take the best of both, which was the common utility of one and the media of another, and blend them into one."

He elaborated: "We've always been a much more media-centric site. So where Facebook is openly non-media focused, and MySpace is very media focused, we wanted to become 'media' but in the way Facebook had done it, with the widgets and applications."

Buckmaster also asked what it was like for Birch to work on a site with his wife, co-founder Xochi Birch, and brother Paul Birch. "It's really nice working with my wife," Birch said. "My brother is OK. It's been fine. We're still related. Normally, you start a Web site with friends and it's like, 'Are you still friends?' And often you're not...but (Paul and I) are still related. And friends."

Cute. But what about AOL?

As the event was winding down and the Craigslist exec had only a few questions left, I figured finally they'd touch upon the acquisition. No such luck. "I understand that you had short hair in the U.K., and you only grew it out when you moved to the Bay Area," Buckmaster observed in reference to Birch's shoulder-length locks.

"I always understood it as camouflage in Haight-Ashbury," Birch said.

The discussion was then opened up to questions and answers, and I seized the opportunity to ask the two why neither the term "AOL" nor "$850 million" had surfaced at all throughout the interview.

"850 million is an interesting number. It's a lot bigger than some numbers and a lot smaller than some numbers," Birch responded jokingly. "It's not a prime number." Finally, he addressed the acquisition directly. "There were many other companies (as potential buyers)... It came down to fit," Birch said. More specifically, it came down to AOL's AIM client, which will see deep integration with Bebo. Birch said it offered a much more intimate social-networking experience. "You connect with friends who actually mean something to you, and no one's actually exploited that social graph."

But no matter how press-conference-worthy the questions were, the levity remained. When someone in the back of the room asked Birch where the $850 million valuation at the time of the AOL buy came from, the Bebo founder answered accordingly. "Eight hundred million," Birch said, "was for Fiji."

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About the author

Caroline McCarthy, a CNET News staff writer, is a downtown Manhattanite happily addicted to social-media tools and restaurant blogs. Her pre-CNET resume includes interning at an IT security firm and brewing cappuccinos.

 

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