Friendster lost steam. Is MySpace just a fad?
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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?
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.
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.
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
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
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 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.