Too big for its britches? MySpace’s meteoric growth might be its own undoing.
FORT WORTH, Texas – More than 400 Arlington Heights High School students are on MySpace.com. Summer Stoker isn’t one of them.
The 18-year-old gave the networking site a try a few months ago. She was disappointed by what seemed like less of a social network and more of a popularity contest.
“It got too fake,” Stoker said. “You have all these people saying they want to be your friend. It’s just a waste of time.”
The idea of the enormously popular MySpace falling out of favor among teens might seem unlikely. It’s the third most-visited Web site in the country after Yahoo and Google, according to the Web traffic firm Alexa.
But at its core, MySpace is just another popular hangout, a digital version of the local mall, coffee shop or music store. And like those locales, its image can change as it grows more popular and its younger users could abandon it for the next new thing.
Some say MySpace’s fast growth is destroying the site’s sense of community, and a host of competitors hope to take advantage of the possible fallout.
“I think it’s losing its value the bigger it gets,” said Todd McGee, founder of the Dallas-based networking site GroupieTunes.com. “Having 30,000 friends on MySpace means nothing. There’s no meaning behind it.”
The history of the Web is littered with once-happening online communities. From the WELL in the â€˜80s to ICQ in the â€˜90s and Friendster earlier this decade, online communities have had trouble sustaining their momentum for more than a few years.
Two years ago, MySpace was a social networking also-ran. With 1.5 million members, it was gaining attention but was not considered a serious challenger to Friendster, then the hottest site on the Web. More than 5 million people had joined Friendster to try out this concept of online social networking that offered the chance to turn your small clique into an expansive network of new connections and potential best buds.
Fast-forward two years. With more than 70 million members and growing fast, MySpace didn’t so much beat Friendster as let Friendster choke on its dust. MySpace is one of the most popular sites online; Friendster ranks 67th, an impressive number if it hadn’t once been expected to reach the top. Last year, media baron Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. bought MySpace for $580 million.
So why did Friendster fizzle?
The explanations vary, but most point to problems Friendster had with handling its unexpected growth. As interest in the site exploded, the once-lively network suddenly seemed cumbersome and impersonal, and Friendster was slow to respond to what users wanted, such as the ability to incorporate media into their profile.
“There’s a kind of a fad or fashion element to this thing,” said David Bell, an associate professor of marketing at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania who has studied the way trends spread online. Bell said Friendster’s fall shows how quickly people can lose interest in an online community if they stop identifying with it.
No one with MySpace or Friendster would return requests for interviews for this story.
Interest in MySpace is still strong. The site has the highest retention rate among networking sites. According to the research firm Nielsen/Net Ratings, 67 percent of the site’s unique visitors from March also visited the site in April.
The growth of MySpace and other social networkers has led other companies to try out the concept. Yahoo and Google have social-networking sites. AOL and Microsoft are developing their own.
Amanda Lenhart is a senior research specialist for the Pew Internet & American Life Project. She’s studied how teens use the Internet since 1999.
Lenhart said MySpace’s early adopters liked how the site helped them discover new bands who had profiles on the site. If the site loses its image as a destination for indie-music fans, it could spell trouble, she said.
“People on the bleeding edge who went to the site to learn about bands may not think it’s so cool right now,” Lenhart said, pointing to the publicity the site has received from its acquisition by News Corp. “It’s gone from more of a funky upstart to more of a corporate institution.”
Todd McGee has spent the past year developing GroupieTunes.com. It allows unsigned bands to interact with their fans in several ways, including selling their songs as ringtones.
“When MySpace first came out, it was kind of like us,” McGee said. “It’s become mainstream, and it’s become too big. Basically, it’s the Internet.”
McGee plans to keep GroupieTunes from a similar fate by keeping it focused on music.
“It’s about people with common interests and people connecting with each other,” he said.
As MySpace has become the main destination for young people, a wide range of adults, from police to pedophiles, are monitoring their actions.
Reports have emerged from across the country of men caught trying to solicit the site’s underage members for sex.
Last month, a Lewisville, Texas, man was arrested in Keller for trying to solicit two 13-year-old girls through the site.
Meanwhile, authorities in Kansas last month were able to foil a possible school shooting by monitoring local MySpace users.
Seeing the potential for problems, Congress is considering a law that would require schools and libraries to bar social-networking sites from public computers.
Bell compared MySpace’s safety issues to a small town growing into a big city. The larger population tends to lead to more crime and ultimately more surveillance by the authorities.
Lenhart noted that MySpace is trying a difficult balancing act by increasing its regulation of the site while still trying to give its members the freedom to do what they want.
In response to the controversy, new sites like YFly.com are now touting safety and privacy as their top selling points. Other niche sites, meanwhile, hope to attract advertisers that have reportedly become wary of being associated with MySpace’s more scandalous content.
“The teens’ interest in working with advertisers is much lower,” said Allie Savarino, head of Sisterwoman.com, a social network launched last month for adult women. Her site’s older-user base “allows us to have a pretty confident set of advertisers coming,” she said.
But the next big thing in social networking might not be a Web site at all but an entire virtual world.
A growing number of online games, called massive multiplayer online games or MMOGs, have begun gaining users who are not just fighting enemies but making friends.
The growth of the site and others such as World of Warcraft point to the future of social networking, he said.
“We live in these 3-D worlds, so why do we want to gravitate to 2-D spaces?” Fleck said.
Fleck pointed to the evolution of video games, which first were two-dimensional but are now mainly more sophisticated three-dimensional fare. Social networking will be the same way, he said.
“We’re all heading in that direction,” Fleck said. “It’s only a matter of time.”