Whither MySpace?

Rupert Murdoch bought MySpace in 2005 because he was impressed with how Internet users had covered the 2004 tsunami in South East Asia, as the Wall Street Journal’s Julia Angwin recounts in her new book, Stealing MySpace: The Battle to Control the Most Popular Website in America. The titan of print and television news was “amazed that some of the best footage of the massive waves was available online though amateur video—and not on television or in newspapers.” How this amazement equated with his purchasing the parent company of the self-appointed “MTV of the Internet” for the memorable sum of $500 million is anyone’s guess. Angwin does let us hazard a few.

Friendster had slunk off the radar after declining a $30 million offer from Google. MySpace, the Los Angeles-based counterpoint to Friendster, had several million eyeballs signed up and logged on by late 2004. Tom Anderson had planned to succeed where he thought Friendster was failing—and did fail. With a background in advertising and direct marketing, Anderson and co-founder Chris DeWolfe created the Friendster after-party. Identity lost its legalistic connotations and became more about trying things on in front of a new kind of mirror. Creativity, in the form of artistic or seizure-inducing profile pages, had free rein.

As Slate’s Michael Agger points out in a review of Angwin’s book in The New York Times Book Review, MySpace succeeded so quickly partly because its founders were able to solve the “too many dudes” conundrum of most social networking sites (“Dude, Murdoch Friended Us!”, 16 April 2009). Like good nightclub promoters, they sought out the ladies, then created an experience that everyone enjoyed. Few photos were too racy. No color scheme was too decadent. On Friendster (and now on Facebook), users were constrained by the dimensions of their photos, the bland appearance of the written word, and more conservative rules. Facebook does have apps, but they serve the function of varsity jacket patches for your profile that, so far, do little but waste your time and your employer’s money.

On Friendster, users promote each other with testimonials that seem to serve one purpose: help each other find a partner or get laid. For some people I know, in the site’s peak years this actually worked. But there isn’t much else going on there. On MySpace, users can chat, blog, post videos and write messages on eachother’s walls. They can also bully other users, conceal their real identity, and “shoot the paparazzi”. To its credit, MySpace has been an unrivaled haven for musicians and a discovery portal for music fans. But having to take a “smart quiz” in between streaming—streaming!—a band’s songs is a deterrent. It’s hard to grasp the magnitude of MySpace’s $900 million advertising deal with Google when mostly what the user sees of this is low-brow slop that insults even a teenager’s intelligence. Angwin commends MySpace’s ad targeting, but in her case wishes it would understand that she’s “more than a mom!”

But what else do we expect from MySpace, whose parent company Intermix was previously known for having, as Angwin put it to Wired, “a real talent for identifying things that were gonna be hot on the Internet”? No, “not hot in the way that Silicon Valley stuff is hot, but which viral greeting cards with fart jokes on them were really gonna hit it big.” It was this company that Rupert Murdoch bought, and MySpace came with it. As most of us know, Viacom had been wooing MySpace at the same time. Because News Corp settled first, MySpace had to follow its parent company. When this happened, the new baby was bestowed a father figure in the form of Pete Chernin, the number-two at New Corp who brokered the ad deal with Google but will be leaving News Corp next month. Tom Anderson’s contract expires in the fall.

What the impending loss of Chernin will mean for News Corp is being volleyed around the Web. Most rumors indicate that Chernin’s position will be filled briefly by Rupert Murdoch himself, then by one of Murdoch’s sons. But at Fortune’s Brainstorm Tech conference in the summer of 2008, Chernin remained very enthusiastic about the company’s online ventures—more so about the company’s stake in Hulu. Chernin echoed the sentiment that brought Murdoch onto the Internet in the first place: “scarcity,” he said, is the key to driving up ad prices, “and the place I think that is most promising in is video.” But he didn’t stop there. Chernin specifically said “professionally-produced video”, not amateur footage of tsunamis. MySpace Music is the closest that MySpace comes to “professionally-produced”.

As Portfolio’s Jeff Bercovici has put it, Chernin thinks Anderson and DeWolfe are less “social-networking visionaries” than “former spammers who happened to strike it rich.” Angwin’s book also conveys the News Corp heads’ frustration with the “pace and innovation” of MySpace since it became part of the family. As Chernin said at the Fortune conference, Facebook “kicked our butt for nine or ten months.”

Indeed, the real Friendster successor, no less embattled than MySpace, continues to do so, globbing on more users even as it struggles in the wake of the terms-of-service debacle and the hockey-stick success of Twitter. MySpace will get a little of that sparkle now that Owen Van Natta, who comes from Facebook, has replaced Chris DeWolfe. But both MySpace and Facebook need to look beyond what made them famous and beyond the latest Internet craze. Staying ahead on the Internet doesn’t mean mimicking the micro-blogging darling, as Facebook and FriendFeed have lately attempted with their homepage redesigns.

For MySpace, staying ahead might mean continuing to look to MTV for ideas. It’s now known for its reality programming more than musical content, but MTV is admitting its mistakes, taking the think.mtv.com model and turning it into something more than just well-meaning advertisements and a modest subsite. It will be launching some hard-hitting, topical programming this year. MTVmusic.com, meanwhile, is an elegant hub of tens of thousands of high-quality music videos, though the company isn’t doing very much to promote it. All of MTV’s digital offerings are sleekly designed, and its calls to action are a world away from the decently targeted but irritating ads on MySpace.

Several people I know have confessed that they haven’t logged in to MySpace “in years”. This slice of data has been confirmed in “Losing Popularity Contest, MySpace Tries a Makeover”, as well (Brian Stelter and Tim Arango,The New York Times, 3 May 2009). It has as much to do with the frenetic and sleazy experience of using the site as it does with what the site is offering. MySpace may be afraid to change its design, judging by what happened when Facebook did, but there’s no excuse for it to look as Web 1.0 as it does. Van Natta could be the one to change this. But design aside, you don’t even have to log in to MySpace to appreciate MySpace’s greatest gift: music. Discover 10 new bands you’ve never heard of and be a “lurker” while you’re at it. For MySpace to be so passive about this part of the site—and be so in-your-face about others—seems foolish.

All the top social networking sites have the potential to bring people together in professional, personal and even romantic scenarios. Twitter is the site that seems most interested in cultivating that potential. Facebook’s method is to grow the company exponentially, invite everyone and their mother to join it, and try to lasso every Web experience a Facebook user has into the Facebook news feed—ticket purchases, social bookmarking activity, tweets. It’s evidence that social networking alone isn’t paying the bills. But it’s a lame attempt by Zuckerberg to own his users, to make Facebook an omniscient narrator of their life stories.

MySpace is too cool for that. But it shouldn’t be too cool to realize that even the best parties come to an end, and it could be the one to swoop in with a hangover cure.