Mere networks just won’t do anymore

With the announcement of its CEO stepping down a few days ago, MySpace, once the hottest brand on the web that everyone was talking about (Twitter is the latest to catch on that fire, with “Oprah effect” like sugar on top) but for some time it has lost its spotlight to its archrival Facebook. Facebook surpassed MySpace in terms of worldwide unique visitors count ten months ago (a report last month states Facebook’s global user number over twice that of MySpace) and is close to taking its crown in U.S. also. What has happened to the social networking company that spearheaded the frontline of “Web 2.0”?

Om Malik from GigaOM contends that the exits of MySpace founders herald the end of an era in which building an inclusive network was enough to receive all the attention, and “social is now simply part of the web fabric.” Then he likens MySpace to “an 80’s rock band,” implying that people’s infatuation with the service failed to last. A more dramatic wording could be found from an article on Wotnews, which proclaims that “MySpace is Dead”, and goes on further:

Posters on the wall, teen magazines, boom boxes playing the same stupid songs over and over again (automatically!) – that’s not a sustainable situation, by definition. That’s teenage living and that’s what MySpace built its huge site on. Just like being a teenager, MySpace is something that most people grow out of.

Though I do not agree with every single detail of both of the articles, I hold the same opinion with the Wotnews writer that MySpace’s problem is associated with “user experience problem.” Perhaps it has a little to do with my discontent with MySpace’s design (there is an interesting post on Bokardo which illustrates MySpace’s success despite its “ugly” design); every time I step into a MySpace page, I’d encounter annoying banners, flashing buttons and grotesque backgrounds making whatever is written almost impossible to read, overall constituting an appalling view that I must have left back in late 1990s. Its aesthetics so much resembled that of teenage life, with all the garish decorations and goofy doodles. And as the Wotnews article notes, people “grow out of” this kind of culture as they age.

Myspace’s latest stagnation reminds me of a Korean social networking service named Cyworld, which enjoyed its golden days around 2004 and 2005. Compared to MySpace, Cyworld had (and still has) a more lucrative business model, selling virtual decoratives and music tracks that are used to adorn the small-sized web pages, or “minihompys”. People would lace their minihompys with splendid photos from fancy restaurants, theme parks or overseas travels, copy impressive-looking quotes off everywhere, trying to show off in excessive vanity. Cyworld, in a way that MySpace symbolizes the clunky, teenage hue, represented the culture of young females in early twenties, eager to express themselves and display their consumptions in an ostentatious manner. Aside from privacy woes (similar to what its U.S. counterparts are facing), its decline can be attributed to the users grown tired of its gaudy culture, turning to other channels like blogs. Following the diminishing popularity of minihompys, Cyworld launched blog-like services named Home2 and Paper, but hasn’t been able to recreate the magic since.

Cyworld’s minihompys and MySpace pages were in the right place at the right time when even simply linking individuals to each other was enough to induce magnificent sparks throughout the fabrics of inter-personal connections. Suddenly people who wouldn’t have been able to know one another would meet up on the web, exchange all sorts of information, opinions and greetings, all enjoying a fantastic experience. Just as building a personal homepage on GeoCities was cool in 1996, opening a MySpace profile was hip in 2006; whether it is still competent today seems to be at question (GigaOM and Wotnews writers do not think so).

When the core user experience a web service provides, however, is no longer fascinating and meaningful, it would quickly fall behind the pack and die out. Now merely connecting people just won’t do anymore; providing more powerful, robust tools to record and recreate one’s life online, adding to that finding ways to make money off those tools have become critical to survival of so-called social networking services (for instance, MySpace and Facebook each came up with a solution to carry user authentication across the web, called MySpaceID and Facebook Connect). Perhaps it is a homework for all the “Web 2.0” services striving to stay on the present: to stay relevant and meaningful.


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