When the homepage of the once beloved social media site displayed a coming-soon message, rumors began to swirl online of Bebo’s highly anticipated return, which has since been confirmed by co-founder Michael Birch.
Before Facebook’s uncontested dominance through the 2010s, Bebo was a strong contender in the then emerging field of social media, gaining a considerable foothold in Ireland, Britain, Australia and New Zealand.
The site was sold to AOL in 2008 for $850m but was later bought back by Birch and his wife Xochi for $1m.
During the height of its popularity, Bebo seemed to exert an outsized influence on the Irish cultural landscape – mullets were dyed and straightened to achieve the “spicer” style popularised on the site, friendships were forged or torn asunder at the hands of its top 16 function – even Love/Hate crime boss Nigel ‘Nidge’ Delaney was depicted as a Bebo devotee.
While a cynic may view the site’s return as yet another extension of the nostalgia industrial complex that has all but defined millennial cultural output, it’s not hard not to see the appeal of a return to Bebo’s simplistic interface and apolitical landscape in the Q-anon era.
Late last year Myspace, a comparable relic of the pre-Zuckerberg internet was revived by an 18-year-old coder named An, capturing the imagination of Gen-z who missed out on the site’s original run.
Bebo differs from the social media sites that outlasted it mainly because of the large scope of customisation available to users, including skins (profile themes and layouts), flashboxes (videos which would autoplay upon loading a Bebo page) and a variety of apps and widgets that could be embedded into your personal site.
“I used to make custom Bebo skins using an early version of photoshop. They were terrible and embarrassing but the skills I learned from that set the foundation for a lot of what I do today,” said Zak Milofsky, 26, who now works as a photo editor.
Veronica Lee, also 26, recalls being drawn to this element of Bebo when she first made an account.
“I loved that aspect of Bebo, being able to have control over the complete layout of the page,” she told me. “I feel like it allowed for the creative side of the individual to be expressed a lot better than current social media sites.”
This element of customisation made Bebo the perfect space for Irish teenagers to develop their own sense of identity, as well as divide themselves into subcultural groups.
Two prominent but ideologically opposed factions reigned supreme amongst mid-noughties Dublin-area teenagers – both vying for dominance of the coveted, now redeveloped space outside Dublin’s Central Bank.
First were the scene kids, a less brooding emo offshoot focused on brightly dyed hair, clothes from the American chain Hot Topic and an affinity for the kinds of Warped Tour bands who now sport extensive “controversies” sections on their Wikipedia pages.
The spicers, a uniquely Irish phenomenon, were more inward facing then their globalist scenester cousins and sported a unique aesthetic built around elaborate mullets, extensive Adidas wardrobes and a penchant for “shuffling” to hardcore techno.
“I would have liked to think I was a spicer, I had a white Adidas jumper that was washed once a month because I only had one and needed to wear it at all times,” Invisible Friends podcast host Aoife Doran, 23, tells me. “I also had a side fringe so severe that it actually worsened my lazy eye and resulted in me having to wear an eye patch at 13. Not a look.”
As a facilitator of unbridled and often downright confusing youth expression, Bebo was predictably met with moral panic amongst parents – the flames of which were stoked in no small part by media outlets which tended to suggest a link between the site and a rise in binge drinking amongst Irish teens.
“Happiest when: I’m locked at Wez! Drinks: Hino! Dutch Gold! I swear to god it’s actually nice! Cans are mingin’, bottles all the way,” wrote an unnamed bebo user quoted in a 2006 Irish Independent article.
To circumvent the watchful eyes of concerned parents, many mid-2000s teens were forced to take matters into their own hands.
“I surreptitiously made an account in my neighbours office with my friend. My mam walked in, saw what was happening and took away my Gameboy for two weeks because she believed Bebo was the most dangerous thing to youths of the day,” 22-year-old Matt Corrigan admits.
The risk of a confiscated Gameboy was a risk worth taking, as the stigma of being left out of the Bebo craze and the social politics built around the top 16 friends ranking was too great to endure.
“Selecting your top 16 could make or break a friendship. I think the ability to share so much about yourself online was new to the Bebo teens and created a competitive atmosphere where there was pressure to keep updating,” Milofsky says.
Despite Bebo’s ultimate fall from grace at the hands of social media behemoth Facebook, it’s clear that the site holds a particular place in the hearts of Irish millennials. What remains to be seen however, is if nostalgia is enough to get Bebo’s planned relaunch off the ground.