AOL's Bebo social network is getting a new focus today. In addition to its own native social network features, the site is getting a "social inbox" that aggregates the activities of its users' friends, no matter which social networks they use.
Many social network users are already familiar with this concept. Facebook can take in a lot of feeds from other services, for example. And FriendFeed is the ultimate social aggregator, at least functionally. The difference with Bebo is that your friends don't have to join the service for you to see their updates. You'll see the updates from all the friends you are connected with on all your services in the single Bebo in-box. For example, if you tell Bebo your Twitter ID, all the updates from people you follow on Twitter will show up in your Bebo in-box. (Some of the new aggregation features won't be online until January.)
Much of the functionality of Social Inbox comes from Socialthing, which AOL acquired in August.
Bebo Social Inbox will also aggregate e-mail in-boxes from several services. And, like Facebook, it will have an embedded instant messaging function, using the AOL Instant Messenger network. But it won't integrate non-AIM instant messaging buddy lists together, like Meebo does. "We're in the process of figuring that out," AOL's senior vice president of people networks, David Lui, told me.
In addition to reading data from your friends' services, Social Inbox will also act as a limited outbox, allowing you to post comments back to some of the originating feeds. AOL is working with various standards and social network companies directly to enable the two-way links. Liu believes it's in everybody's interest to work both ways, and he says talks are going well.
The product will also give users content recommendations based on friends' posted online activity. "We're not going to try to guess what you are interested in," Liu said. Rather, the service will bubble up the content and media links that your friends are sharing the most.
To log in to the new service, you'll need either a Bebo or AOL ID. The company is looking at supporting Google Friend Connect for log-ins in the future.
This new product is being launched in part to give Bebo a boost in the U.S., where it is not a leading social network. It has about 6 million monthly unique users in the U.S., according to ComScore, compared to 26 million worldwide. AIM has about 30 million. Facebook is running at about 130 million monthly active users, according to Facebook. "The strategy is to convert AIM users to Bebo," Liu said. He also noted that the demographic profiles of AIM users is not the same as the newer social networks. "We understand the older [25+] demographic," he said, referring to AIM users, "and it can be monetized."
Regardless, the product itself looks useful. Certainly there are several companies looking to solve social network clutter, but AOL's solution looks fairly clean and straightforward. I'd like to see a widget version so I can watch my network without going to the Web site, and I am curious to see how this aggregation space shapes up in 2009. It's going to be very competitive.