Bebo founder and Smarta investor Michael Birch this week
launched Jolitics, a politics social network for the man on the
street, campaigners and MPs alike. He talks exclusively to Smarta
editor Matt Thomas on Jolitics, politics, launches and the
likelihood of buying back Bebo, the business he sold for $850m to
AOL in 2008.
"I'm not very political," isn't what you expect to hear from the
man who's just started a website he hopes will change the way we do
politics. Not that Michael Birch is concerned.
"That's why I'm the perfect person to start this type of
business," he argues. "I don't have my own political agenda. I
don't want to be a politician. I do have a political opinion,
though. It's designed for me."
And millions like him, Birch hopes. His vision for Jolitics is a
platform where political debate and opinion is crowdsourced and
structured so it can truly influence policy.
Roughly following Parliamentary procedure, members can create
debates, gather feedback and support and send their opinions to
The idea actually pre-dated Bebo and is one that stayed with him
not just throughout that journey but when pondering what would be
his next venture.
"One day there will be a big politics networking site, even if
it's not this one. Of that there is no doubt," he says. "You can
already see there's a silo on Facebook and Twitter, sites that
weren't designed for this purpose.
"A crowdsourced voice has great potential. It can serve vocal
minorities and give them a unified voice where there's coherent
debate and consensus. I want to go beyond what's happening on
forums where there's no end result and debate just rumbles on and
Birch has been careful to ensure the site appeals to all levels
of political activity and interest:
"It should be for the people on it day in, day out who'll become
thought leaders, but also the person who turns up every four years
to vote and then isn't actively involved in politics and has no say
until the next election."
As such, members can remain active or nominate another member to
represent them and their views. "If you nominate someone to
represent you they can use your vote, so there's a pyramid of power
where people can gain and lose power based on what they say and
The goal is to breed political debate with results. To one end
that's fighting apathy and empowering the individual. To another
it's about improving the way MPs interact with constituents. Birch
sees another too: to encourage more young people to become
"Jolitics can become a path by which to become an MP. It creates
a voice for your actions that others can buy into. If you have
10,000 people backing you, then your MP will want to know you - and
that sort of impact filters down in a cascade of approval for
everyone who's backed you.
"Hopefully we'll help get more informed decisions into
government and the best people in the country deciding to be
politicians. It has to be a better country if the best people are
Market research and user testing
The site has been tested in Ireland since October and launched
this week ahead of the Budget. Birch admits a lot more research and
testing time has gone into launching Jolitics than when he set Bebo
live back in 2005.
"It's been through a few iterations and has taken the best part
of a year. We spoke to a couple of MPs. They were helpful and
receptive. It's not a tool for those in power, though: they've
already got enough power.
"We need to get real people using it. We chose Ireland because
they speak English, they're politically active and opinionated.
"We learned a lot. People took it more seriously than we'd
hoped, which was sort of good, but they were entering White Papers
and there was less engagement when documents were so long, so we
learnt to put a limit on proposals."
Birch isn't a test convert just yet, though. He's got other
projects planned and won't always be so thorough.
"There are multiple schools of thought on testing versus just
getting it out there and I'm not sure one is more correct than the
other. It made sense to trial Jolitics because we're launching
country by country anyway. Just putting something out can be hard
when you're launching a social site. If you'd been the first person
who logged into Facebook you mightn't have come back."
"We put Bebo out there and that's what happened when the product
was immature. Nobody came back. But then, of course, it's sometimes
easier to make changes once people are actually using it and you
can ask them what they want. You have to do what you think makes
It'll infuriate the purists, but Birch is in no rush to turn a
profit with Jolitics. "To be honest we've spent no more than two
minutes talking about it," he says unapologetically.
"In those two minutes we looked at advertising a bit and the
potential for a fundraising model, but I'm viewing this project
with more of a social mindset than pure entrepreneurial. We'll
Buying back Bebo?
You could argue that's a luxury afforded by a man who landed
$850m just under three years ago in what was surely, just months
before the financial crash, one of the greatest timed exits of all
Despite previously denying it, there have been continued rumours
he'd be interested in buying back the ailing Bebo - but Birch
maintains he's not tempted.
"I did invest back in Bebo so I hold a minority interest," he
says. "Never say never, but I can probably rule out buying it back.
Bebo was my life when I was running it and I don't want that
"The guys there approached me, the CTO is a good friend of mine
and I have a lot of ideas I'm still excited about - but I don't see
any scenario where I'd buy it back. I've got skin in it, so I have
a say, but I wouldn't want to do it without it being my life and
that's not what I want."
So what does the future hold for a mostly Birch-less Bebo? Can
it halt its alarming slump in fortunes? Birch thinks it's possible,
but not without a fairly drastic makeover.
"It needs to reinvent itself and find a new identity, but a lot
of people still use it and it has a lot of traffic. It needs to try
to be what Facebook isn't, be a fun place and offer experiences
that Facebook and its utilitarian ambitions can't."
You can start debating on Jolitics now: www.jolitics.com