A web-century ago, CompuServe was hot. Proto-geeks migrated from their local BBSs to this dial-up network that was available from what seemed the far corners of the globe. I remember logging-in while in George, South Africa so I could stay in touch with my wife and family in Toronto – dialing into the Jo’burg CompuServe number.
CompuServe forums were alive with discussions (and flame wars) on almost any topic imaginable. Companies provided customer service support in their own CompuServe hosted forums. But the unlocking of the internet by Tim Berners-Lee (and, of course, Al Gore) saw CompuServe begin to lose influence and popularity. In 1998, it was acquired by AOL and still soldiers on as the low-end offering from AOL, a shadow of it’s former self.
What’s this got to do with MySpace? MySpace is hot right now. It’s in the top ten most visited sites on the Internet. My kids can be found on MySpace – as can hundreds of their friends. It is the most popular social networking site, with over 60 million users.
Last year, Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp shelled out $580 million for MySpace parent Intermix. A little less than five dollars per potential eyeball.
“Intermix is an important acquisition for News Corp., instantly doubling the number of visitors to our sites and providing an ideal foundation on which to meaningfully increase our internet presence,” said News Corporation’s Chairman and Chief Executive Officer, Rupert Murdoch. “Intermix’s brands, such as MySpace.com, are some of the web’s hottest properties and resonate with the same audiences that are most attracted to Fox’s news, sports and entertainment offerings. We see a great opportunity to combine the popularity of Intermix’s sites, particularly MySpace, with our existing online assets to provide a richer experience for today’s internet users.” [link]
But just because you’ve bought access to those eyeballs, doesn’t mean you own them. A MySpace PR backlash has already begun with the numerous sexual predator stories – MySpace is freaking out parents of teenagers. (Nothing like a good FEAR story to drive news media numbers.) And questions are being asked about the rapid commercialization of MySpace – from a Slashdot Forum post:
News Corp sees Myspace as a perfect avenue to use for cross-promotion of its TV shows and all other media. It would like to use it to sell videos, music, anything that is owned by umbrella companies and has a price tag. I don’t think that sheer and utter commercialization will work though – myspace is not a webstore. It was always my opinion that kids are fickle – push their buttons too hard or try to force something on them and they will just find another online haven.
MySpace walks a fine line amongst the Emergent generation who are social networking on its portal. They are quick to recognize hype – quick to feel they are being exploited – and quick to move on. MySpace is not even three years old. The edgy brand that attracted 10s of millions of users can quickly become just another corporate brand if News Corp treats it as a marketing arm of the corporate monolith. Om Malik in his recent post on Social Networking repeats the Vanity Fair meme, asking if “MySpace is the Paris Hilton of Social Networks?”
Interesting competitors are emerging. I’ve asked my MySpace-using kids to check out MyYearBook, to let me know what they think. Om Malik comments,
…myYearbook is different. It’s beyond cool… it’s orthogonal to cool. For the teenagers in high school, it’s rapidly becoming a necessity… on par with other daily essentials like IM, email, and a cell phone, it’s not just a nice thing to have, it’s becoming a must-have. The way myYearbook does this is by providing teenagers with the tools to digitally and seamlessly extend nearly every aspect of their lives. It would take too long for me to go into many of their unique features here… the best thing to do is to sit with some teenagers and go through the site piece by piece (you’ll hear a lot of “sweet!”).
Emergents are loyal to their social networks – loyal to the relationships they have in both 3D and webflung pixels. They are not loyal to corporations – unless those corporations interact with them in conversation – as people – not eyeballs – or wallets. It’s the Cluetrain story writ large.
MySpace may well continue to dominate the social networking web world. I have my doubts. I expect that in a few years we will be discussing MySpace in much the same way we talk about CompuServe today – which isn’t very often.
For a better understanding of Emergent social networking, read Danah Boyd’s essay: Identity Production in a Networked Culture: Why Youth Heart MySpace.