May 14, 2022
Before Facebook, there was MySpace. People logged into a web page every day to write to friends, show off photos, and play music. Some of the things we still do on social networks. The world had been shifting to personal use of computers since the early days when time sharing systems were used in universities. Then came the Bulletin Board Systems of the 80s. But those were somewhat difficult to use and prone to be taken over by people like the ones who went on to found DefCon and hacking collectives.
Then in the 1990s computers and networks started to get easier to use. We got tools like AOL Instant Messenger and a Microsoft knockoff called Messenger. It’s different ‘cause it doesn’t say Instant. The rise of the World Wide Web meant that people could build their own websites in online communities. We got these online communities like Geocities in 1994, where users could build their own little web page. Some were notes from classes at universities; others how to be better at dressing goth. They tried to sort people by communities they called cities, and then each member got an address number in their community. They grew fast and even went public before being acquired by Yahoo! in 1999. Tripod showed up the year after Geocities came out and got acquired by Yahoo! competitor Lycos in 1998, signaling that portal services in a pre-modern search engine world would be getting into more content to show ads to eyeballs. Angelfire was another that started in 1996 and ended up in the Lycos portfolio as well. More people had more pages and that meant more eyeballs to show ads to. No knowledge of HTML was really required but it did help to know some.
The GeoCities idea about communities was a good one. Turns out people liked hanging out with others like themselves online. People liked reading thoughts and ideas and seeing photos if they ever bothered to finish downloading. But forget to bookmark a page and it could be lost in the cyberbits or whatever happened to pages when we weren’t looking at them.
The concept of six agrees of Kevin Bacon had been rolling around a bit, so Andrew Weinreich got the idea to do something similar to Angelfire and the next year created SixDegrees.com. It was easy to evolve the concept to bookmark pages by making connections on the site. Except to get people into the site and signing up the model appeared to be the flip side: enter real world friends and family and they were invited to join up. Accepted contacts could then post on each others bulletin boards or send messages to one another. We could also see who our connections were connected to, thus allowing us to say “oh I met that person at a party.” Within a few years the web of contacts model was so successful that it had a few million users and was sold for over $100 million. By 2000 it was shut down but had proven there was a model there that could work.
Xanga came along the next year as a weblog and social networking site but never made it to the level of success. Classmates.com is still out there as well, having been founded in 1995 to build a web of contacts for finding those friends from high school we lost contact with. Then came Friendster and MySpace in 2003. Friendster came out of the gate faster but faded away quicker. These took the concepts of SixDegrees.com where users invited friends and family but went a little further, allowing people to post on one another boards.
MySpace was co-founded by Chris DeWolfe, Uber Whitcomb, Josh Berman, and Tom Anderson while working at an incubator or software holding company called eUniverse, which was later renamed to Intermix Media. Brad Greenspan founded that after going to UCLA and then jumping headfirst into the startup universe. He created Entertainment Universe, then raised $2M in capital from Lehman Brothers, another $5M from others and bought a young site called CD Universe, which was selling Compact Disks online. He reverse merged that into an empty public shell company, like a modern SPAC works, and was suddenly the CEO of a public company, expanding into online DVD sales. Remember, these were the days leading up to the dot com bubble. There was a lot of money floating around.
They expanded into dating sites and other membership programs. We’d think of monthly member fees as Monthly Recurring Revenue now, but at the time there was so much free stuff on the internet that those most sites just gave it away and built revenue streams on advertising revenues.
CDs and DVDs have data on them. Data can be shared. Napster proved how lucrative that could be by then. Maybe that was something eUniverse should get into. DeWolfe created a tool called Sitegeist, which was a site with a little dating, a little instant messaging, and a little hyper localized search. It was just a school project but got him thinking. Then, like millions of us were about to do, he met Tom.
Tom was a kid from the valley who’d been tinkering with computers for years, as “Lord Flathead” who’d been busted hacking as a kid before going off to the University of California at Berkeley before coming home to LA to do software QA for an online storage company. The company he worked for got acquired as a depressed asset by eUniverse in 2002, along with Josh Berman. They got matched up with DeWolfe, and saw this crazy Friendster coming out of nowhere and decided to build something like it.
They had a domain they weren’t using called MySpace.com, which they were going to use for another online storage project. So they grabbed Aber Whitcomb, fired up a ColdFusion IDE and given the other properties eUniverse was sitting on had the expertise to get everything up and running fairly quickly. So they launched MySpace internally first and then had little contests to see who could get the most people to sign up. eUniverse had tens of millions of users on the other properties so they emailed them too. Within two years they had 20 million users and were the centerpiece of the eUniverse portfolio. Wanting in on what the young kids were doing these days, Rupert Murdoch and News Corporation, or NewsCorp for short, picked up the company for $580 Million in cash. It’s like an episode of Succession, right?
After the acquisition of Myspace by news corporation, Myspace continued its exponential growth. Later in the year, the site started signing up 200,000 new users every day. About a year later, it was registering approx. 320,000 users each day. They localized into different languages and became the biggest website in the US. So they turned on the advertising machine, paying back their purchase price by doing $800 million in revenue back to NewsCorp.
MySpace had become the first big social media platform that was always free that allowed users to freely express their minds and thoughts with millions of other users, provided they were 13 years or older. They restricted access to profiles of people younger than 16 years in such a way that they couldn’t be viewed by people over 18 years old. That was to keep sexual predators from accessing the profile of a minor. Kids turned out to be a challenge. In 2006, during extensive research the company began detecting and deleting profiles of registered sex offenders which had started showing up on the platform.
Myspace partnered with Sentinel Tech Holdings Corporation to build a searchable, national database containing names, physical descriptions, and other identity details known as the Sentinel Safe which allowed them to keep track of over half a million registered sex offenders from U.S. government records. This way they developed the first national database of convicted sex offenders to protect kids on the platform, which they then provided to state attorney generals when the sex offenders tried to use MySpace.
Facebook was created in 2004 and Twitter was created in 2006. They picked up market share, but MySpace continued to do well in 2007 then not as well in 2008. By 2009, Facebook surpassed Myspace in the number of unique U.S. visitors. Myspace began a rapid decline and lost members fast. Network effects can disappear as quickly as they are created. They kept the site simple and basic; people would log in, make new friends, and share music, photos, and chat with people. Facebook and Twitter constantly introduced new features for users to explore; this kept the existing users on the site and attracted more users. Then social media companies like twitter began to target users on Myspace.
New and more complicated issues kept coming up. Pages were vandalized, there were phishing attacks, malware got posted to the site, and there were outages as the ColdFusion code had been easy to implement but proved harder to hyperscale. In fact, few had needed to scale a site like MySpace had in that era. Not only were users abandoning the platform, but employees at Myspace started to leave. The changes to MySpace’s executive ranks went down quicky in June 2009 by a layoff of 37.5% of its workforce reducing, the employees went down from 1,600 to 1,000.
Myspace attempted to rebrand itself as primarily a music site to try and gain the audience they lost. They changed the layout to make it look more attractive but continued a quick decline just as Facebook and Twitter were in the midst of a meteoric rise. In 2011 News Corporation sold Myspace to Specific Media and Justin Timberlake for around $35 million. Timberlake wanted to make a platform where fans could go and communicate with their favorite entertainers, listen to new music, watch videos, share music, and connect with others who liked the same things. Like Geocities but for music lovers. They never really managed to turn things around.
In 2016, Myspace and its parent company were acquired by Time Inc. and later Time inc. was in turn purchased by the Meredith Corporation. A few months later the news cycle on and about the platform became less positive. A hacker retrieved 427 million Myspace passwords and tried to sell them for $2,800. In 2019, Myspace accidentally deleted over 50 million digital files including photos, songs, and videos during a server migration. Everything up to 2015 was erased. In some ways that’s not the worst thing, considering some of the history left on older profiles.
MySpace continues to push music today, with shows that include original content, like interviews with artists. It’s more of a way for artists to project their craft than a social network. It’s featured content, either sponsored by a label or artist, or from artists so popular or with such an intriguing story their label doesn’t need to promote them. There are elements of a social network left, but nothing like the other social networks of the day. And there’s some beauty in that simplicity.
MySpace was always more than just a social networking website; it was the social network that kickstarted the web 2.0 experience we know today. Tom was everyone who joined the networks first friend. So he became the first major social media star. MySpace became the most visited social networking site in the world, often surpassing Google in number of visitors. Then the network effect moved elsewhere, and those who inherited the users analyzed what caused them to move away from MySpace and either through copying features, out innovating, or acquisition, have managed to remain dominant for over a decade. But there’s always something else right around the corner.
One of the major reasons people abandoned MySpace was to be with those who thought just like them. When Facebook was only available to college kids it had a young appeal. It slowly leaked into the mainstream and my grandmother started typing the word like when I posted pictures of my kid. Because we grew up. They didn’t attempt to monetize too early. They remained stable. They didn’t spend more than they needed to keep the site going, so never lost control to investors. Meanwhile, MySpace grew to well over a thousand people to support a web property that would take a dozen to support today. Facebook may move fast and break things. But they do so because they saw what happens when we don’t.