Why MySpace Fails

If you are an Internet denizen, you are probably familiar with both MySpace and Facebook, both popular social networking platforms on the web. MySpace, which skyrocketed to popularity about 4 years ago, has since waned significantly, dwarfed by the sleeper mammoth that is Facebook.

In April 2008, Facebook finally surpassed MySpace in popularity. As a Web Developer, long-time Internet user, I’ve got some opinions on why this happened. Both platforms are largely similar and serve to fit similar needs. They are, of course, not mutually exclusive (I happen to have an account on both, for example), but otherwise require independent investments of time, so there is an issue of time economy at play.

But the purpose of Social Networking websites is communication. If people are not able to easily communicate with one another, then the site is not doing its job.

The ironic thing is that most of the reasons I cite below as failures have generally been considered features of MySpace. But these features serve to inhibit communication rather than facilitiate it. In brief (will elaborate below):

  1. It allows users to heavily customize their profiles, visually
  2. Users are able to easily change their displayed name
  3. Users can embed music onto their profiles so that it automatically plays when the profile is viewed
  4. The primary focus of MySpace has always been self-centered (see what I’m doing) rather than community-centric (what are my friends doing)
  5. Facebook does a much better job of connecting people, and provides better off-site integration.

#1 It allows users to heavily customize their profiles, visually

Ugly MyspaceWhen MySpace first launched, they expected people to use the standard layout they provided, and only change some of the colors and text headings. Some resourceful web folks figured out how to embed some CSS to override other aspects of the profile layout, including changing the background image, moving boxes around, etc.

There have even been books, programs, and other media available to assist people in maximizing the customization they can do. In recent months (a year ago, IIRC), myspace embraced this movement and made it a little easier for people to do profile customization like this. Their new “2.0″ layout was marginally better and had more features, but not everyone adopted it.

But, as one would expect, great power comes with great responsibility, and most people are NOT graphic designers. See: The Ugliest MySpace Pages

While people may enjoy the ability to make dangerous decisions concerning their use of repeating backgrounds, contrasting neon colors, and animated gifs, those capabilities are not necessary for better communication. In fact, when the background and text are not contrasted enough, it makes it very difficult to read what the user has written which actually prevents proper communication.

By comparison, Facebook has not allowed users any control over the layout / design of their profiles. Users are free to add as much content to their profiles as they like, but the content remains largely homogeneous, so that it is able to be consumed consistently. Users can express themselves by adding content boxes, allowing them to differentiate themselves, but in a way that does not treat a visitor’s eyes with hositility.

#2 Users are able to easily change their displayed name

This may seem like a relatively minor issue, but I can’t tell you how many times I would get a message, see a bulletin post, or get a comment from one of my friends that had just changed their profile picture and their name to something completely different.

The whole point of using a “name” of any kind is that other people are able to easily identify each other based on that name (and the photo, too) alone. But when people can  change that name easily, it inhibits easy communication. There were many times when I would try to create an event and invite people to it, and I would have to spend an inordinate amount of time decoding who was who in the friends list.

More recently, as MySpace realized Facebook was doing it better, they began showing people’s real names underneath the pseudonyms; but it was not universal, so the benefit was marginal at best.

Facebook, by comparison, shows your real name wherever a name is necessary. Provided you have entered your real name initially, it will be consistent elsewhere. Facebook users can look at a photo, see who is tagged or tag others by using the real names. When sending event invitations, one can flip through the list of friends and quickly find all the relevant people.

#3 Users can embed music onto their profiles

This is going to be brief.

Websites should not, generally speaking, have music that automatically plays, unless that is the sole purpose of the website (ie. Pandora, Youtube, last.fm). It introduces an unexpected bandwidth load and assumes the visitor WANTS to hear music at all. It was a bad idea back in the 90s when people would embed MIDI tracks into their websites, and it’s still a bad idea, even when it is possible to use streaming mp3s.

Couple this with people that “pimp their profile” and you end up with a recipe for disaster — sometimes it’s next to impossible to find where the player is because it’s been moved around. I’ve even seen some profiles that have multiple song embeds at the same time, which really makes me wonder if they even know what the heck is on their own profile.

By comparison, Facebook does offer the ability to have music embedded on profiles (via an App), but it does not autoplay.

#4 The primary focus of MySpace has been self-centered

The name is apt: “MY space”. When you look at your profile you see your own information and things that people say to YOU.

Traditionally, the experience was centered around the user themselves. You had your own profile and if people wanted to say something to you (“post a comment”), they had to visit your profile, hear your music, and see your crappy layout. It was similar to blogging culture, except that it was more centralized around the blogroll (“friends list / top 8″). Comments were one-way — you would only see half of the conversation by looking at someone’s profile.

Along the way, they added a “reply to comment” feature, so that you could reply to a comment without having to visit a profile, but it wasn’t nearly as streamlined as Facebook’s asynchronous method.

MySpace has just recently unrolled a new layout that mimics Facebook’s “news feed” component. Seems a little late to the party, but at least they’re willing to be flexible.

Facebook’s news feed feature is more community-oriented — when you’re logged in, you see what all your FRIENDS are doing. Not only what they have said to you, but what they’ve said to each other, what they’ve posted, shared, and done. The whole experience is far more collaborative, which seems more in line with the idea of “social networking”.

#5 Facebook does a much better job of connecting people

Facebook’s “Suggest friends for _____” feature is AWESOME. There have been many times I’ve reconnected with a friend from grade school, and then moments later reconnected THEM with all of my other friends. Personal networks practically explode when someone first signs up to Facebook.

The automatic suggestions of people that the user may know (upper-right corner), is helpful — it’s based on mutual friends, I think, so the suggestions are generally pretty correct.

Searching for people is far easier as well — typing in the name / e-mail address, click the button. That’s it. MySpace may offer more robust customization options for the search query, but it’s really not necessary.

Fan pages and groups are similarly wonderful, particularly with how they integrate with the News Feed. MySpace’s groups feature always felt so cumbersome and tacked-on.

My only big gripe with Facebook is that when you “like” or “comment” on someone’s wall post / photo / what-have-you, there is no way to stop receiving e-mails about other activity on that particular item. There have been many times when I’ve wanted to “Like” something, but knowing that it would receive hundreds of comments (tv shows, fan page postings, etc.), I’ve held back.

Conclusion

I don’t necessariliy begrudge MySpace for their short-comings — at the time they came out, they were simply fine-tuning the common method of social networking (Blogs, at the time). The precursors to MySpace: Friendster, Sixdegrees, etc., shared similar elements, and MySpace definitely maximized those tools.

But times have changed and MySpace is obsolete. The changes they’ve been making, although significant, seem to always feel either tacked on or simply duplicated Facebook features: they are no longer the leader, they’re the follower. The rampant advertising is quite annoying in stark contrast to Facebook’s sleek targeted ads, as well.

The folks behind MySpace, if they want to be relevant again, really need to determine the “next big thing” and develop it from the ground up, then help existing MySpacers migrate over. Taking stopgap measures to always keep up with Facebook will always leave MySpace in the wake of Facebook.

Effective communication is by far the absolutely most important priority of any website — if the users cannot understand what the website is trying to communicate, the website fails. Social media websites are no exception, and since they are generally about bringing people together, it’s even more important.