On Bebo.com, and why it’s important to make invitations opt-in

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Web companies of the world, if there is one lesson to learn, it’s this: Be careful when sending out invitation emails.

I just spammed, by complete accident, my whole Gmail address book through Bebo. This is something that may never happen, ever. So how could it?

Given the recent acquisition of the Social Networking Site Bebo.com by AOL (for the bargain of USD 850 million), I had another look at the successful and popular British site. I did so with a new account. Clicking through the features, I also had a look at the Friends tab, which is where you manage your connections and invite friends.

To get your social network together quickly, there’s also the option to have Bebo check your webmail address book (on Hotmail, Gmail etc.), which is a fairly standard feature. Sadly, often all contacts are pre-selected, so if you click to confirm, everybody gets an email from this service with your name. However, usually there’s also an easy way to unselect all of your contacts, so nobody gets an invite in your name.

With Bebo, when you enter your credentials so the service can check out who’s in both your address book and on Bebo, you get a long list of your contacts divided in three parts (all contacts are checked in each part):

  • Friends found on Bebo who are in your address book
  • Friends of friends on Bebo who you MAY know
  • Invite friends to Bebo from your address book

What’s missing? An “uncheck all” button. You can skip this step, but the relevant button it’s not exactly featured prominently.

Despite being quite savvy with this kind of thing, the last part of this list slipped my attention, which resulted in Bebo sending out invitation emails to all of my contacts in my name. Just how horrible this is I don’t even want to go into. Just imagine the same happening to you: All of your friends and family receiving this odd email they know nothing about, bad enough. But it’s also all your current and former colleagues and clients. To all these recipients, it looks like you endorse this service.

I do not endorse Bebo.com.

Bebo is harmless enough, although in my opinion not very well executed compared, for example, to Facebook. Also, it was clearly my own fault to enter my email credentials. Then again, this has become a standard procedure for most Web 2.0 services.

I just finished writing an apologetic email to at least some of my contacts, mostly clients. I don’t ever want to have to write a humilitating email like this again; it caused my friends and clients, and myself, a lot of unnecessary trouble.

While I understand that user numbers are easiest to grow by endorsements and mass emailing, this can’t be the right way to go.

So web companies, get this step right! Opt-in is the way to go, not opt-out. (And don’t even think about doing this Bebo-style, with a multiple opt-out.)

To all who received this email, again, I’d like to apologize. Don’t click the link, it’s not worth the trouble.

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