Elizabeth Holmes of The Wall Street Journal apparently had the same idea that I did about the portion of MySpace “friends” that are actually ad pages, but being a real journalist, she actually interviewed some relevant people about the subject, like the executive in charge of generating profits from the phenomenon, and produced laugh-out-loud money quotes like this: ” ‘What we really struck upon is the power of friendship,’ says Michael Barrett, chief revenue officer for News Corp.‘s Fox Interactive Media.” He’s probably not even joking. Perhaps he means that people are so enamored of the idea of friendship that they’ll expand it to embrace all of their preferences. But if anything, the phenomenon is more a testimony to the power of social networking, which reduces friends to advertisements for oneself.
Holmes notes the conundrum of fans creating what are essentially ads for products without the company who owns the brand’s involvement or permission: “A profile for Willy Wonka matches the feel of other fictional characters, listing his hometown (‘the Land of Make Believe’), his occupation (‘amazing chocolatier inventor extraordinaire’) and his nearly 61,000 ‘friends.’ But the Willy Wonka site is created by a fan, not the movie studio.” It seems as though amateurs sense a demand for a brand friend and step into the breach when the company is slow to make one of its own (or doesn’t want to pay News Corporation/MySpace for the privilege—MySpace, incidentally, is beginning to resemble traditional media, with companies buying ad space within its domain). The demand stems from the urgency with which people must establish identity through brands by navigating their way through the coded social space they define. Without the brands, the language we have to speak our identity in a way we can trust people will understand is impoverished.