October 25, 2011 10:36 pm

Bebo founder Birch launches charity site

Michael Birch, the co-founder of the Bebo pioneering community site, hopes to harness social media for a good cause with his latest project, Water Forward.

Mr Birch, who along with his wife Xochi sold Bebo for $850m to AOL in 2008, is also considering launching a competitor to Chatroulette, the anarchic Russian video site that randomly pairs strangers online and which caused an internet sensation early last year.

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Both projects will see Mr Birch – perhaps inadvertently – coming into competition with Sean Parker, Facebook’s former president. Mr Parker created Causes, a Facebook application with millions of users which encourages support for charities, and has also announced plans to launch Airtime, a Chatroulette-style video site.

Water Forward, launched quietly over the weekend by Monkey Inferno, Mr Birch’s internet incubator comany in San Francisco, uses Facebook and Twitter to attract charitable donations.

Mr Birch said: “Almost by coincidence, there are 1bn people online on social media and 1bn without clean water

“So we had this romantic notion of 1bn of the most fortunate people helping 1bn of the least fortunate. You could never have done this in the past, but through social media we believe you can get these people to come together and collectively make this huge difference.”

Donors pay by buying their friends a position in an online book for $10 and then use the social networks to tell them about it.

Mr Birch said: “You’re not allowed to put yourself in the book, which adds a really nice game element. It’s fun to watch it spread from person to person”.

The proceeds from Water Forward will go to Charity: Water – one of Silicon Valley’s favourite causes thanks to its lean, start-up mentality – which has already raised more than $40m for clean water projects in developing countries.

The site has already won donations from several well-known technologists and entrepreneurs, including Dennis Crowley, chief executive of location app Foursquare; Jeremy Stoppleman, co-founder of the Yelp reviews site; Marissa Mayer, a Google executive; Errol Damelin, head of Wonga finance site ; and Michael Acton Smith, creator of Moshi Monsters children’s website.

Mr Birch said: “It’s reliant on being viral but it’s hard to make charitable giving viral”.

He is already improving the site to reach its initial goal of $10m in donations from 1m people, when a limited run of physical books will be printed featuring the donors.

Mr Birch reckons that although Facebook Causes attracted more users than many expected, it did not result in a large number of donations.

Water Forward was inspired by the Million Dollar Homepage, a 2005 internet hit where Alex Tew, then a student in Wiltshire, England, sold 1m pixels on a single web page for $1 each. Mr Tew now works alongside Mr Birch at Monkey Inferno.

Another Monkey Inferno project, on hold while the team works on Water Forward, is Boya, a video community that could compete with Airtime – yet to launch – and Chatroulette, whose popularity has faltered because of its use for sleazy or offensive purposes.

If it launches, Boya will have greater controls to prevent abuses.

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