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Last Updated: Wednesday, 21 May 2008, 09:29 GMT 10:29 UK
Social networks set 'to open up'
By Jim Reed
Newsbeat technology reporter

Bebo screenshot
Bebo was sold for 417m to AOL three years after being launched

The founder of Bebo says users of different social networking sites will soon be able to share messages, photos and even friends with each other.

British internet tycoon Michael Birch was speaking after completing the sale of Bebo to AOL for 417m in cash.

The 38-year-old said: "You are not going to be locked into one network. There will be a level playing field."

Sites like Bebo and Facebook already allow independent developers to build games, quizzes and other applications.

"One guy in his bedroom can now create a game which spreads through word of mouth," he said.

"It encourages innovation. A lot of new ideas are not necessarily coming from the networks themselves."

Starting out

Michael Birch started his career working in the IT department of an insurance company in the 1990s.

Michael Birch
Michael Birch started Bebo in 2005 with his wife Xochi
"I used to read computer manuals for fun, which sounds very sad," he said. "Then the internet came along and I decided to have a go.

"I told my wife that if I wasn't getting anywhere in three months, I would give up and get a proper job. Three years later, I still hadn't made a penny."

Both Michael and his wife moved to Silicon Valley in the US where they built one of the first social network sites,

It was later sold to an American media company for more than a million dollars.

The rise of Bebo

In 2005, Michael returned with his second major project, Bebo.

"We concentrated on building a community through word-of-mouth," he said.

"It's a little bit like walking into an empty bar. You have to populate the bar so it's got the right buzz."

Bebo now has more than 40m users around the world. Its membership figures in the UK are 25% up on last year at 4.5m.

The future of social networks

Earlier this year, Bebo launched its first proper mobile phone service, letting users receive text alerts and update their profile from any handset.

Twitter screenshot
Birch says sites like Twitter are showing the way forward

It is an area that Michael sees growing in the future.

"The frustrating thing with mobile is that it is not very easy to do," he said. "The phone networks tend to be very protective of the services they offer."

In theory, he reckons it would be simple to offer location-based functions that allow users to see where their friends are at any time.

"The technology has been around for years," he added. "It would be a big part of social networks now if the phone companies had allowed it."

He is also enthusiastic about 'micro-blogging' sites like Twitter that let users send short text-message style updates to their friends.

"It's starting to take off tremendously. In Silicon Valley a lot of people already use it.

"Until you give something like Twitter a go, you are never sure it is going to work. But they gambled and it's working out."

Moving on

Just three years after Bebo first went live, Michael and his wife are now walking away more than 250m richer.

"It's a bit of a mixed emotion," he told Newsbeat. "We have been developing websites for nine years and just wanted to step back a little.

"But I will stay working on internet projects. In a couple of years, I'll be back with another start-up."

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