March 21, 2006
[Note: this is an essay that would've been a blog post but it got too long.]
A lot of folks have asked me "What went wrong with Friendster? Why is MySpace any different?" I guess i never directly answered that question, even though i've addressed the causes in other talks. Still, i guess it would be helpful to piece some of it together and directly attend to this question.
There is no single answer, but there are a lot of factors that must be considered. To an outsider, Friendster and MySpace seem identical. But they are far from that. They are rooted in different cultural practices and values. People use them differently and they relate to them differently. If you want to understand the differences, you need to understand the history, the decisions that were made, and how these decisions affected practice. Let me address some of the most critical components.
Social technologies succeed when they fit into the social lives and practices of those who engage with the technology.
When Friendster launched, it was quickly inhabited by populations who had good reasons to connect with each other. By and large, the early adopters were living in a region different from their hometown (or living in their hometown post-college and cranky about it). Finding "lost" friends was a fun game - people wanted to connect. Of course, connecting is not enough and it was bound not to last, but it was fun.
Connecting is also the initial activity of newcomers on MySpace, but they move beyond that quickly. Of course, it never completely goes away, especially since MySpace acknowledges that not all "friends" are friends and no one bats an eye if someone collects hundreds of people. It's more like a process of namaste - i acknowledge your soul and you acknowledge mine. MySpace did not try to force people's connecting practices into pre-existing ideas of what should be. They let the practice evolve as users saw fit, without criticism, without restriction. As it evolved, people did new things with it. They used it to flirt, to advertise bands and activities, to offer cultural kudos.
Friendster's early adopters were 20-somethings. While many did not come to Friendster to get laid (just as they say they don't go to bars to get laid), places where large numbers of hott singles hang out are bound to attract other singles, regardless of whether or not they want to admit that they're looking for sex. Friendster was a free site where people could meet other interesting people; at the same time, rejection was OK because no one was actually _looking_ to meet someone. Sex is still the reason why people use the site, particularly gay men. This was a big gain for Friendster and, also a gain for MySpace. Given its singular focus, Friendster was much more successful at supporting this than MySpace, making certain that search worked and was meaningful and that relationships meant something. Of course, that also curtailed its growth tremendously.
Friendster launched at a time when the economy was slow and many web-minded 20-somethings were slacking at menial jobs that they didn't care about (particularly in the SF region where people were only coming out of post-bust depression); many web-minded folks were happy to spend hours futzing online. Economic factors have changed and many web-minded have found interesting jobs. This is only a small cause of Friendster's loss of this group, but one that should be acknowledged.
Friendster was a new thing, full of interesting content that motivated people to surf and surf and surf. Surfing motivated people to post more interesting things. Games emerged. Games were squashed by the company. Surfing got super duper slow. Friendster became less novel and more restrictive and, thus, more lame.
MySpace launched at a time when some of the game-minded were still enthusiastic and the enthusiastic surfers wanted to find more kitsch crap. They jumped on MySpace, created all sorts of culture and profiles complete with massive amounts of media, and helped figure out how to hack the system to make the profiles more expressive. MySpace didn't stop them. As a result, the cultural enthusiasm was nurtured and it grew and grew and grew...
MySpace realized that people were promoting events on Friendster. They contacted promoters and got them to engage with the "cool" people on the site by promoting LA-based events. From this, there was the emergence of band profiles, giving musicians an opportunity to create identity and have a place to point fans to. Music is cultural currency. 20-somethings want to know how to get on the list. Young people follow music and celebrities. Other young people follow the young people that follow music. Music played a critical role in increasing its popularity, simply by giving it cultural currency amongst celebrities and by marking MySpace as "cool." (Even teens who don't care about music recognize that music differentiates people and is part of the "cool" narrative.)
Both Friendster and MySpace saw a drop in ages. Friendster squelched this fast because they saw themselves as a dating site. MySpace supported it with different features and a drop in age limit as they realized there was more to sites like this than dating.
Youth and alienated populations are inclined to spend more time going through identity development processes because they are trying to "figure out who they are." Blogs and profiles are particularly supportive of this. Of course, blogs require having something to say while profiles let you write yourself into being via collage. People do grow out of ongoing identity production, but not for quite some time. (Hell, i still haven't.) Friendster tried to stop this, wanting people to be serious and fit into pre-defined checkboxes - to know who they are. MySpace let these groups run wild and these are the two populations who dominate MySpace - youth (14-24) and 20/30-somethings who participate actively in cultural development (from performance artists to clubgoers to sex divas to wannabee celebrities). These sites are ideal for these populations, even if they make no sense to parents and professionals.
For many teens, MySpace is the first asynchronous messaging system that they use regularly. Sure, they have emails but those are to communicate with parents/teachers/companies, not with friends. People check in daily to see what messages they get. This was starting to happen on Friendster, but server slowness killed this practice. This will make it quite tricky for teens to fully leave MySpace while their friends are still using it.
Identity development requires taking ownership of your presentation of self and really being able to personalize it, morph it to be "you" (even if you is copied from a site that tells you how to be you). Templates are not personalization. MySpace allowed users to really make the site their own, asking one favor: don't overwrite the advertising. Out of respect, most users complied. Think about that: Out. Of. Respect.
Basically, MySpace evolved with its users, building a trusting relationship, figuring out how to meet their needs and cultural desires, providing them with features and really trying to give them what they were looking for. Friendster did not - it fought its users hand and foot, telling them how to behave.
People use the social technologies that all of their friends are using.
Freaks, geeks and queers all invaded Friendster in the early days and they made certain that all of their friends were there. They did so organically in clusters. This was very successful, until they felt alienated from the site. There is a tipping point to get on and a tipping point to get off. Once mass departure began with a few pissed-off folks, it spiraled quickly. While the early adopters left storm-like, canceling their accounts, most users simply stopped logging in frequently because it was no longer the place where their friends were.
Friendster was beginning to get mainstream American 20/30-somethings when it got bogged down by dreadfully slow servers. Mainstreams would (and did) irritate the early adopters, but not enough to make them leave. Yet, both mainstream-ification and slowness played a role in the departure of early adopters. Mainstream-ification played a greater factor in early adopters' lack of interest in returning once the site was fixed.
The slow servers made it very difficult (if not impossible) for mainstream users to engage. Frustrated, many lost interest before they really engaged. It should be noted that slow connections are more common in foreign countries and so this did not serve as the same kind of barrier elsewhere - growth continued during the slow period in Singapore, Malaysia, Philippines and Indonesia. Because of this (and a few other factors), Friendster survived the server disaster in these regions and continued to grow into the mainstream there. And into the youth.
Mainstream American users came on because of mass media, not because of organic cluster effects. When they joined, they couldn't see anything or anyone. It was also not where all of their friends were and often they got bored before their friends arrived; there was never enough of a tipping point for many mainstream clusters.
MySpace stayed out of the media for the first two years. Their growth was completely organic, allowing for significant cluster effects. Additionally, those who heard about it but didn't have many friends there could join and still participate, still see what people were doing. They got a friend - Tom - and could wander around looking at all of the profiles. For cluster influencers, this was critical, and looking around would often motivate them to drag in their friends.
When clusters of friends are all on a social site, watercooler effects emerge. The limited amount of things people could share made this difficult on Friendster; people mostly shared profiles as cultural currency and testimonials did allow for some marking of turf and social hierarchy. Yet, on MySpace, there are a bazillion things to find deep in the nooks, allowing lots and lots to be shared. Allowing media in comments and the ability to share video/pictures via profiles enhanced this.
Testimonials on Friendster took the form of singular acknowledgments of others' existence. Fakesters started turning it into a communication space, but that practice died with the Fakesters; very few users took that on. The comments section on MySpace took the form of a performative guestbook. Whenever someone thinks of someone else, whenever they stop by, they leave a comment... They let both the owner and the owners' visitors take note of their presence. They're writing presence into being in addition to writing themselves into being. This is a very important turn and it really solidifies people's engagement in the site.
Social technologies need benevolent dictators who love their constituents.
Online communities are more like nation-states than technological tools. There is a master behind the architecture, a master who controls the walls of the system and can wage war on her/his people at any point. People know this. They have to trust that the creators have their best intentions in mind. They invest a lot of time and energy into creating an identity in the system - they want to believe that it is worth it.
Killing off profiles destroys the trust that users have in the leader. Doing so will alienate users and their friends. There are good reasons to alienate some groups - spammers, malicious users, etc. But if you start off treating all of your users as potential criminals, you will not build a healthy environment. Kinda like in real life...
Friendster killed off anyone who didn't conform to their standards, most notably Fakesters and those with more creative non-photorealistic profiles. When MySpace users didn't conform, they were supported and recognized for their contributions to evolving the system. (Exceptions made for pornography, spammers, people using hate speech.) When Friendster was faltering because it was "uncool," Friendster users did not stick up for the site. When MySpace began to falter over the predator crisis, many users got outraged at those attacking the system. They wrote supportive notes to Tom, made YouTube videos, wrote messages on their MySpaces. They didn't want outsiders telling them they couldn't have their space.
People need a figurehead to both love and hate. No figurehead can expect that the users will love her/him all of the time. But lashing out at users makes things much much worse. Figure heads need to operate as rockstars - making public appearances, putting on a good show, keep a happy face even when pissed off.
Jonathan Abrams made it clear that he thought very little of his users. Tom Anderson comes across as loving his users, listening to them, being present with them. Abrams wrote nasty-grams and the language he used when writing to everyone was either obnoxious or so corporate-y formulaic that users could not relate to him. Tom apologizes candidly, writes funny messages to users, welcomes comments on his page, responds to users. Users either love Tom or they think he's lame. But very few actually hate him. Friendster users loathed Abrams.
It should be noted that one of the reasons that Friendster continued to grow abroad is that Abrams did not seem like as big of a dick there. He was much more savvy in addressing the press (or they were nicer to him). He killed off fewer profiles and let it grow amongst youth (probably due to being overwhelmed rather than insight). He had a more hands-off approach. He's less hated there and thus, by default, more trusted.
It's not all about productivity.
People often say that social networking sites will succeed when people have something to do. They point to sites like LinkedIn where business people can social network and actually get "value" out of the site. There is no doubt that LinkedIn is great for brownnosers, but there are a lot of folks out there who don't care about "getting ahead" by hegemonic standards.
Suggesting that formalized action and tangible benefits are the only path to success is hogwash. These are simply ideals that contemporary America holds onto in a capitalist society where people are only valued based on their productivity. It is reproduced by technologists who are living in a society full of venture capitalists and stockbrokers and other people who live by the "do or die" mentality. But the reality is that most people's social lives are not so formal, not so action-oriented. Or, at least not in the sense that technologists speak of.
Even when there's no prescribed activity, people are doing things on these sites. They're hanging out. They're dancing in front of digital mirrors. They're patting their friends on their digital backs. They're increasing the strength of their relationships through sharing. They're consuming and producing cultural artifacts that position them within society. They're laughing, exploring and being entertained.
People were hanging out on Friendster before they hung out on MySpace. But hanging out on Friendster is like hanging out in a super clean police state where you can't chew gum let alone goof around and you're told exactly how to speak to others. Hanging out on MySpace is more like hanging out in a graffiti park with fellow goofballs while your favorite band is playing. That said, there are plenty of folks who don't want to be hanging out in a graffiti park and they are not sticking around on MySpace as a result.
It is not about technological perfection.
Portability of identity doesn't matter. Easy-to-use interfaces don't matter. Visual coherence doesn't matter. Simple navigation doesn't matter. Bugs don't matter. Fancy new technologies don't matter. Simple personalization doesn't matter.
Before you scream "but it does to me!" let me acknowledge that you're right. It does matter to you. The question is whether it matters to the masses. And it doesn't. Especially for teens.
What's at stake here is what is called "subcultural capital" by academics. It is the kind of capital that anyone can get, if you are cool enough to know that it exists and cool enough to participate. It is a counterpart to "cultural capital" which is more like hegemonic capital. That was probably a bit too obscure. Let me give an example. Opera attendance is a form of cultural capital - you are seen as having money and class and even if you think that elongated singing in foreign languages is boring, you attend because that's what cultured people do. You need the expensive clothes, the language, the body postures, the social connects and the manners to belong. Limitations are economic and social. Rave attendance is the opposite. Anyone can get in, in theory... There are certainly hodgepodged clothes, street language and dance moves, but most folks can blend in with just a little effort. Yet, the major limitation is knowing that the rave exists. "Being in the know" is more powerful than money. You can't buy your way into knowledge of a rave.
"Coolness" is about structural barriers, about the lack of universal accessibility or parsability. Structural hurdles mean people put in more effort to participate. It's kinda like the adventure of tracking down the right parking lot to get the bus to go to the rave. The effort matters. Sure, it weeds some people out, but it makes those who participate feel all the more validated. Finding the easter egg, the cool little feature that no one knows about is exciting. Learning all of the nooks and crannies in a complex system is exhilarating. Figuring out how to hack things, having the "inside knowledge" is fabu.
Often, people don't need simplicity - they want to feel proud of themselves for figuring something out; they want to feel the joy of exploration. This is the difference between tasks that people are required to do and social life. Social life isn't about the easy way to do something - it's about making meaning out of practice, about finding your own way.
Bugs make technologies seem alive, particularly if they're acknowledged and fixed. They give texture to the environment and people are impressively patient with it if they feel like the architects are on it. It makes the architects look vulnerable which brings them back down to earth, making them real and fallible, but giving them the opportunity to do good. They let the benevolent dictator really serve the people.
Friendster focused on simple and narrow, giving users very limited options and cracking down on all hacks. For a long time, they took away features rather than adding them. They worked to mainstream-ify, to be equally generic to all users. MySpace added features all the time, making it a game to see what had changed, to find new ways of navigating the site. Hacking the site became a cultural phenomenon with websites being dedicated to hacking techniques (brought to you by fellow cultural participants not O'Reilly). MySpace let users define the culture.
Is it all a fad?
MySpace might be a fad, but it will fade for different reasons than Friendster. Friendster has itself to blame - it never loved its users... it never treated them with respect, or learned to understand why they were there... it never give them what they needed to make themselves at home. Friendster never learned to provide for the diversity of users it had - it wanted them all to be the same.
MySpace is in a different position, one far more harrowing. MySpace has grown so large that the needs, values and practices of its users are slamming into each other. It's facing the archetypical clashing of cultures. Yet, interestingly, most users are not that concerned - they're trying to figure out how to live in this super public. The challenge is that outsiders are panicking about a culture that they are not a part of. They want to kill the super public rather than support people in learning how to negotiate it. No one knows how to live in such a super public, but this structure is going to become increasingly a part of our lives. It is no wonder that youth want to figure it out. And it is critical that they do, especially since our physical worlds have become more segregated and walled off, partitioned by age, race, class, religion, values, etc. Yet, it is the older generation that did that segregating and they're not really ready to face collapsed contexts at every turn or to learn how to engage with people who have very different values on a daily basis. Because of their position of power, outsiders are pushing the big red emergency button, screaming danger and creating a complete and utter moral panic. Welcome to a generational divide, where adults are unable to see the practices of their children on kids' terms.
If MySpace falters in the next 1-2 years, it will be because of this moral panic. Before all of you competitors get motivated to exacerbate the moral panic, think again. If the moral panic succeeds:
- Youth will lose (even more) freedom of speech. How far will the curtailment of the First Amendment go?
- All users will lose the safety and opportunities of pseudonymity, particularly around political speech and particularly internationally.
- Internet companies will be required to confirm the real life identity of all users. At their own cost.
- International growth on social communities will be massively curtailed because it is much harder to confirm non-US populations.
- Internet companies will lose the protections of common carrier which will have ramifications in all sorts of directions.
- Internet companies will see a massive increase in subpoenas and will be forced to turn over data on their users which will in turn destroy the trust relationship between companies and users.
- There will be a much greater barrier for new communities to form and for startups to build out new social environments.
- International companies will be far better positioned to create new social technologies because they won't have to abide by American laws even if American citizens use their technology (assuming the servers are hosted outside of the US). Unless, of course, we decide to block sites on a nation-wide basis....
If the moral panic over MySpace succeeds and causes a change in law (which it is looking like it will), everyone invested in social technologies will lose. In other words, stop celebrating the crisis and get off your asses and engage. This panic is not just a funny side note. It is an industry wide problem concerning speech, property and responsibility. I find it deeply disturbing that we are suggesting that technology companies should be operating in loco parentis.
MySpace is in trouble because of its size and rapid growth. As a result of this, there are so many conflicting practices that people are panicking. Even if your kid has a perfectly PG profile, the idea that s/he can hang with R-rated ones is flipping people out, even when the R-rated ones are perfectly normal in the context in which their created. Collapsed contexts due to size. All of you who want to grow in size better be paying attention, because there are severe complications when you grow. MySpace is facing them right now.
We have faced seen massive communities with collapsed contexts before, but the additional factor of youth has elevated this issue to new levels. And, besides, we've never actually seen such rapid growth in a social technology, nor have we seen such a large coherent social community. Note: Usenet, MOOs and YahooGroups don't count because they were far more segmented structurally, especially pre-search. When they emerged, a much larger proportion of the online population used them, and these technologies did not threaten cultural norms (mostly because hegemonic society wasn't online and didn't recognize the power of digital interaction). Other social technologies did not attract an entire generation while alienating their practices from the previous generation. Finally, while people did expose themselves in other technologies, explicit profile creation of this multi-media form takes it all to a new level.
Back to the fad question... No, it is not just a moral panic that could make MySpace a fad. The primary value right now has to do with identity production and sharing, practices that are more critical to certain populations at certain times in their lives and it is possible that "growing up" will be marked by leaving MySpace (both for the teens and the 20-somethings). It is also possible that getting on MySpace will be marked as "uncool" by the next generation (in the same way that fashion changes across generations). Feeling spammed and invaded by advertisers (or musicians) who seek friendship might turn off users and an increase in this could cripple usage. It is possible that the site will stop evolving with its users. It is possible that people will find new, more interesting ways to do identity production and sharing. It is also possible that the next blinky shiny object will attract users away in clumps, particularly if they better support users' desires in an innovative way. But none of these are right around the corner.
When Friendster users left, they didn't go to the next thing. Yes, many Burners went to Tribe.net and created a really flourishing community there; this community is still alive and doing really well. And some of the gothy humans went to MySpace. But the vast majority of Friendster users simply went back to email and IM, web surfing and the occasional blogging. Friendster didn't meet their needs and the core practices of identity production and social sharing that MySpace offered were not significant enough for this group. A huge part of the success of MySpace is an age and culture thing. Part of being an American teen is figuring out who you are, how you fit into society and culture, how social relations work, etc. Part of this process involves sharing cultural objects, hanging out and trying out different self-performances to find the one that feels "right" (think Goffman "faces"). There are plenty of adults who are doing this as well, but it is central to youth culture. Youth will always do this, using whatever medium is available to them. MySpace is far more deeply situated in the cultural values and practices of its constituents than Friendster ever was. MySpace teens may jump ship, but they are not going to stop doing identity work, at least not for a few years.
I began this as a blog post and it grew and grew and i want to put it out there even though i know that i'm missing factors. Still, i think that this should answer many of the questions that people have. MySpace is not the same as Friendster - it will not fade in the same way. Friendster was a fad; MySpace has become far more than that. If it doesn't evolve, it will fade, but MySpace is far better positioned to evolve than Friendster was. That said, i think we're seeing a huge shift in social life - negotiating super publics. I kinda suspect that MySpace teens are going to lead the way in figuring this out, just as teens in the 60s and 70s paved the way to figuring out globalized life with TV. I just hope law doesn't try to stop culture.