My name is danah boyd and I'm a Principal Researcher at Microsoft Research, a Research Assistant Professor in Media, Culture, and Communication at New York University, and a Fellow at Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet and Society. Buzzwords in my world include: privacy, context, youth culture, social media, big data. I use this blog to express random thoughts about whatever I'm thinking.

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Friendster lost steam. Is MySpace just a fad?

People keep asking me “What went wrong with Friendster? Why is MySpace any different?” Although i’ve danced around this issue in every talk i’ve given, i guess i’ve never addressed the question directly. So i sat down to do so tonite. I meant to write a short blog post, but a full-length essay came out. Rather than make you read this essay in blog form (or via your RSS reader), i partitioned it off to a printable webpage. If you are building social technologies or online communities, please read this. I think it’s really important to understand the history of these sites, how users engaged with them, how the architects engaged with users, and how design decisions had social consequences. Hopefully, my essay can help with this.

Friendster lost steam. Is MySpace just a fad?

I do want to highlight a section towards the end because i think that it’s quite problematic that folks aren’t thinking about the repercussions of the moral panic around MySpace.

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:

  1. Youth will lose (even more) freedom of speech. How far will the curtailment of the First Amendment go?

  2. All users will lose the safety and opportunities of pseudonymity, particularly around political speech and particularly internationally.
  3. Internet companies will be required to confirm the real life identity of all users. At their own cost.
  4. International growth on social communities will be massively curtailed because it is much harder to confirm non-US populations.
  5. Internet companies will lose the protections of common carrier which will have ramifications in all sorts of directions.
  6. 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.
  7. There will be a much greater barrier for new communities to form and for startups to build out new social environments.
  8. 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….
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36 comments to Friendster lost steam. Is MySpace just a fad?

  • Thought-provoking as always, with some home truths brilliantly articulated. But:

    There’s leading the way and there’s leading the way. Some kids in the 60′s and 70′s were leaders. Some were free-riders. Some were just plain nihilists. I think of Linklater’s “Dazed and Confused” in this respect. The 60′s didn’t fade so much as morph first in to mannerism and then into decadence. The decadence was authentic, sure, but it was also destructive–destructive of the very ideals the 60′s professed so vehemently (and violently). Nothing guarantees a fully functioning moral compass: not youth, not age, not education, not religion, not anti-religion, not books, not computers, nothing.

  • Talk about some great early morning brain food. Thanks for writing this.

    Couple of thoughts:

    While I agree that the “hanging out” motivation factor works for a great number of technologically-oriented youth, I feel the persistence of use is fueled by something greater. Friend-making behavior strongly involves information-gathering; in a time-limited paradigm, we have to make our decisions based on the information we have. Obviously, social connector websites answer information needs – as we use them, we learn about those around us, consciously or subconsciously affecting our friend-making judgments.

    Teens and young adults live in a consistent state of friend-network renegotiation. They meet new people in classes, at transitional jobs, in bars, at parties, at church. A space where *everyone* can be researched is immensely valuable, and how we share our identities signals the types of friends we’re trying to aggregate. In a sense, the decisions we make when we aggregate are economic – the notion of “productivity” gets slightly skewed. As we browse these services we are being productive, we’re simply answering our own social information needs.

    This brings us to what I believe is the key question: what happens when users feel their information needs are no longer being met by their social sites? You have profoundly articulated the problem with Friendster – they never understood the need they were chosen by the community to serve, nor did they want to do it. This was a fatal blow to the nature of community, and it meant death for the service. What happens with MySpace, though, when the teens and twenty-somethings “age out” of constant social aggregation? What happens when the users get married, find stable jobs, choose a church and so on? Is hanging out enough? Is there any reason why social connector sites should only work for the young?

    I believe this is why we see the movement toward youth in all the social connector sites. Facebook allows high schoolers, Sconex is establishing a loyal following among high schoolers in urban areas. As you covered, Myspace has a very low age limit. The drive toward the ultra-young follows traditional brand identity motives: get them young and develop a consumer for life. However, as these sites find, just like your sneaker brand speaks volumes about you in high school, your social connector website choice speaks to your identity.

    I think the key question is how well all of these sites, Myspace included, will answer the information needs of its community going forward. There are already problems with Myspace; the injection of content into the site by News Corporation will stem the bleeding for some time. In the end, though, the site that wins will be the site that best understands and answers the information needs of its users. I wonder if the one-size-fits-all approach works (even if it is highly customizable, like Myspace), or if the future will segment and we’ll see segmentation. I tend to think that youth culture has a very hard time fitting into a one-size-fits-all mode; that said, we’re only at the beginning of something very big right now.

  • The section that you’ve just highlighted is something I’ve been concerned about but not quite had the words to articulate… It’s frightening and quite frankly, it enrages me.

    Do you know of where one might find any proposed legisltation for such things?

  • I disagree.
    First, Myspace is something of a fad. If it is ever seen as largely bloated and blaah, a new web site with a newer look could replace it. The “in” crowd will move over first, followed by their friends and their friends friends …

    Second,
    I think Friendster lost out to MySpace because Myspace had the better look. Friendster is more straitlaced, fill-in-the-blank; Myspace is very freestyle, express-yourself.

    The challenge at myspace will be to add tools that update its look and relevance, faster than an entireely new site could. This is a case where being the frontrunner is a disadvantage, because whatever you change, you can;t afford to annoy your current 60 million customers.
    - PrBl

  • OR… like the mall, the playground, the wherever, teenagers, being fickle creatures may decide that the internet is stupid, and find somewhere else to hang out… I’m guessing this will happen when the representative age of the members actually reaches the teens, and when the ‘older kids’ stop hanging out there.

    that is a youth pattern, like wearing make-up, having friends who drive, etc. When the teen-space becomes safe, they stop going.

  • Michael Chui

    Not directly related to your essay, though I chime in that I find it very interesting, but this also tangentially refers to MySpace:

    GDC Day Two Notes: Putting the Fun in Functional

    I’m somewhat surprised you haven’t linked the term “superpublic” with anything to do with globalization (or glocalization, for that matter). That’s the first thing I thought of when I read it.

  • Wow, you cranked that out in one night?

    I found this particularly interesting:

    “All users will lose the safety and opportunities of pseudonymity, particularly around political speech and particularly internationally.”

    There seems to be a the belief in the whole Web 2.0 crowd that pseudonymity should go away. That everything should be tranparent, and real, verifiable identities should be behind every Web identity.

    I agree with you – there’s something cool and liberating about the pseudonymity that the Web brings… it’s sort of like being on vacation in a foreign land, maybe folks feel like they can be less restrained. While this can bring challenges to those who administer a social network, it sure makes it more interesting. The fear of a paper trail can be a real inhibitor to creativity, I think.

  • rae

    Great stuff, as always. What I find so interesting is that while teens are on myspace they’re also on buzznet and xanga and LJ and facebook and every other web 2.0 you can think of. It’s like a giant tug of war for their loyalty, and it will be interesting to see who can lock them in and fulfil their needs for the long-run. I know from personal experience that there is a bit of a negative feeling of college-minded 20somethings toward myspace, because they have facebook to suit their needs. But if you’re not in college you don’t have that option. I wonder if we’ll see segmentation of teens who are geared toward college and those who are geared toward local industry (Eckert’s Jock/Burnout situation) in their longterm social network use online.

  • Kudos again. One can only assume the hyper branding of sxsw haze may have been a lubricant. So many tastemakers fighting for attention.

    I think segmentation and localization via the cell is the next fad. News corp can’t keep their political voice silent come primaries and the current batch of tastemakers will move on.

    But will social search really make the direct marketing any more bearable? Kids are getting hip to it and will go outside our borders to avoid it.

  • Lawrence Krubner

    The 8 points you make are crucial. You bring out more clearly than anyone else has that the issues at stake go far beyond the fate of one company. There are questions to be answered about what sort of society we want to live in, and how free we want it to be. I hope everyone in the tech industry (and related industries) reads this essay.

  • Gardner – yes, there will always be freeloaders – that’s part of a cultural movement at any level. There were definitely things that were destructive about the 1960s, but our ability to live in a mediated society persists today. We can no longer imagine life without TV, without the ability to see what people are doing across the globe.

    Fred – i definitely think that quite a few MySpace users will “age out” of the current system. The question remains whether or not new young users will join or whether the current system will age with the original inhabitants.

    Nikkiana – i’ve received numerous lawsuits, but no proposed legislation. As far as i know, people are still in subcommittees in most states.

    Hapto – ayup! Teens don’t want a perfectly clean place. They want the dirty graffiti alley.

    Michael – oh, superpublics are definitely related to glocalization. Be patient. One day i’ll have a dissertation out there.

    Lawrence – ::blush:: yes… when i have an explosion, things pour out. Otherwise, i stare at the screen.

    Rae – but it’s not a tug of war for loyalty, just like teens wear A&F, Gap and Nike without thinking. Different spaces are used differently and teens move fluidly between them. And yes, many of the college 20somethings find it lame for different reasons than the high schoolers.

    thesubjective – the SXSW haze is always a great stimulator! The question is what do teens want with social search? What are they looking for? Why do they care that their friends have found it first?

  • Point 4 and 8 seem a bit in conflict – what’s hard to do is confirm identity across borders. Within a country it can be very easy.

    In Sweden, the community site of a major newspaper, which has something like 10% of the entire Swedish population as members, has started confirming identity of participants against their social security numbers. I have that from the community editor of a major Norwegian newspaper, so I don’t have exact references, sorry. Thank goodness we don’t have that here.

    I think you’re right to highlight issues of freedom of speech. I just got my nearly-ten-year-old her first real computer of her own, and faced with the option of giving her a managed account on it with me as administrator, I bawlked. I mean, I know about all the dangers, but really – not let her install her own programs? That’s hardly going to let her feel in charge of her technology. Cripple her access to the web? Sure, I wouldn’t let her out of the house on her own after 7.30 pm, so there’s an equivalent in the RL, but there’s something about access to information that just seems very important, even if you’re a kid.

    Off topic a little, I know, but anyway, thanks for discussing this.

  • I found your essay very interesting – thanks! I can see many parallels to the development of Swedish sites similar to MySpace.

    I guess that the Swedish community that Jill refers to must be LunarSorm (LS), where I have been conducting ethnographic fieldwork for some time now. LS has about 1.4 million active members, which is actually *more* than 10 % of the total population in Sweden. The average age is 18 and more than 80 % of all Swedish youngsters between the ages 15-20 are members.

    LS originates from another community in the late nineties and received its present format in the year 2000. Thus, it has been around for a while and has been the “flagship” of online interactions in Swedish media for several years. For a while LS was almost equivalent with Internet youth culture in Sweden and consequently media have had the searchlight on the community, writing big headlines about all the dangers and fears connected with letting your children hangout on LS.

    To make a long story short – two things have happened. 1) LS have been forced (by public opinion) to set up restrictions, including confirming identity of participants against their social security numbers. But it’s still quite easy to fake your identity anyway. 2) Several other communities similar to LS have emerged that attracts people that find LS to be lame.

    In a way LS has become more and more of a “police state” but not in any extreme way. It is still a “super public” and very popular. Even if other Swedish communities flourish, LS is still the greatest. Actually, I think that LS has benefited from the growth of other community sites, since the media now thinks its more rewarding to lament about the rubbish they find at other communities.

    So, I guess LS is an example of a community that had to change due to the moral panic. But the LS crew have managed to balance the freedom and restrictions and the community still attracts young people. Teenagers still join LS, and parents are still anxious about the place. But I think LS is close to the edge, more restrictions and then perhaps the population will abandon LS for other communities.

  • If MySpace is a fad … well it’s certainly a very popular fad here in the UK. According to The Guardian, MySpace had more hits in February than the BBC site (http://technology.guardian.co.uk/news/story/0,,1731594,00.html)

    The article was also looking at the likely impact of the fact that Murdoch owns both MySpace & The Sun (most read “news” paper in the UK).

  • percy

    anything which is cool is destin to become uncool.thus is the way of stuff.

  • In this youtube video, a teenage girl talks about her breakup and says, now he’s blocked me on myspace so there’s no way to even talk to him.
    http://youtube.com/watch?v=jXe8pyY9G80

  • in this youtube video a girl talks about her breakup and says, “now he’s even blocked me on myspace so there’s no way to talk to him”
    http://youtube.com/watch?v=jXe8pyY9G80

  • I really liked your analogy of the police state (a la Friendster) and grafitti park (a la myspace). I went to the SIMS school before they remodeled. There was an upstairs lab (quiet, clean,high cubby walls and even had someone monitored if the paper was too low). The downstairs lab was total anarchy. There was a continuous smell, diseases on the keyboards, holes in the floor, but there were always a set of people that really liked it down there. We felt free to express ideas, socialize, and collaborate. It’s really interesting how technology sites like physical spaces can encourage/discourage social behavior as you have proven here. really cool =)

  • I like the question you asked right off, because it’s not something a lot of Myspace users seem to think about: is it just a fad? Will Myspace be as dead as Friendster in a few years? Being caught up in it, one tends to lose the ability to see the forest for the trees.

    I noticed you mentioned the difference in the commenting system: I definitely think that was part of a huge factor failed. I can no longer remember if Friendster had bulletins back then but I do see them now, but the lack of ability to communicate freely as one can on Myspace definitely killed my interest in it a few years ago.

    And the ability to hack and transform profiles, also a huge thing. I noticed a good portion of my quadmates time on Myspace is used to find these holes in their platform.

    The idea of trying to figure out how to live in a super public is awesome. :)

    Also, you were talking about potential factors of people not using Myspace in the future: there are some who are teens in their later years and those 20-somethings who simply find Myspace totally uncool (there’s even a 43things.com goal related to becoming unaddicted), and also ever since Rupert Murdoch bought it, those who are very politically active and against FOX have pulled themselves away from it as well.

    Very cool essay! Also got me thinking about how facebook.com would factor into all of it, thinking maybe the situation with that site is different because it is specific to 2 major groups of people who desire connection so very much.

  • Great stuff. Waiting for the thesis :)

    I don’t know if you’re aware of Federman’s ‘Ephemeral Artefacts’
    http://www.mcluhan.utoronto.ca/EphemeralArtefact.pdf

    interesting interferences

  • Neat essay danah!

    I’m with you 100% til you get to the part about “moral panic” at the end. I see your point, but I think there’s another side to it. Consider the following two statements:

    a) I know my Mom can read my postings, but I think she should just get over it.
    b) My Mom can read my postings?? Oh #$R@#$! I mean, I knew they were public, but it never crossed my mind that my Mom might read it….

    Both of these of course occur. But in my experience, the latter is more common than the former. I think there’s a gap between reality and people’s expectations that’s just stunning. The pushback is very often people from category b waking up and smelling the coffee.

    Someone sent me a funny link: a forum for a MMORPG guild. It turns out that two of the guild’s regulars are mother and son. So the son posts something about a quest–timestamp on the post: 4 am. Result: he is sooooo grounded! The ribbing from his guild mates was a hoot to read.

    So are writers going to get more cautious or readers get a bit more tolerant? A bit of each I suspect.

    But someone’s still going to get bit–bigtime. Amy’s Prediction: in 20 years, no one will be qualified to be President. Because the gunk in everone’s blogs will still be archived out there somewhere, and… yeesh, what political ammunition!

  • you raise some very interesting concerns here. i’d love to read the full-length piece. i’m often thinking about public vs private as i write my blog under my own name. i’ve recently discovered that advertisers/marketers are afraid of sites like myspace due to the lack of control over UGM (user generated media) and how what’s deemed as negative content will reflect on their brands. yet, i see potential myspace killers stepping up to the plate. tagworld.com is growing at an alarming rate – and this perhaps would not have even been possible w/out friendster or myspace.

  • Gardner: morality is a common sense of a set of people. On failing countercultures see Ken Goffman at http://counterculturethroughtheages.com/

    When will the pseudonimity be ruined by Identity 2.0?
    http://www.identity20.com/media/OSCON2005/oscon_videos/OSCON_Keynote_Lg.wmv.zip

  • I think it is a good essay in many ways, but it is wrong to make such a direct comparison between Friendster and MySpace.

    Friendster was a pioneer of social networking, with its main goal being building a network that enables people to meet new friends using what was then an innovative approach. The business model they came up with was based on dating.. which was not a great choice, but not necessarily bad one.

    MySpace is a place for self-expression and self-promotion, the social networking aspect is key, but in a way it is just a tool for people to get their profile/content in front of people.

    So, yes Friendster could have identified the opportunity around profile-building, self-expression and publishing, but in the same way you can blame Amazon for not building an eBay-like service early-on, blame eBay for not building paypal-like service, blame Microsoft for a million opportunities they missed.

    The point is these are two very different companies, with different people at the helm, and pursuing different markets. MySpace seems to have proven to be a much more attractive service and business, which was translated to News. Corp buying them for over $600M..

    with regard to the prospects of MySpace falling from grace. I think it is indeed a possibility. Especially since they were acquired and it’s not clear whether management will stay for long. In any case they will not disappear for a few good years, there is a great network effect to what MySpace is doing, people are much more invested in MySpace than they are in Friendster or IM services. Competitors such as TagWorld may come up with a better product, and if MySpace will not be able to keep up with the innovation they will start to lose ground.

    Time will tell.

  • Appreciate this essay, Danah.

    Interesting point about Friendster continuing to grow overseas (tho’ eMarketer says Friendster is still No. 6 among 12-to-17-yeear-olds in the US !). One factor to consider might be different views of authority and hierarchy o’seas, particularly in Asia – greater tolerance for power-wielding by individuals and organizations perceived as powerful. But then, Cyworld in Korea, representing 1/3 of the population and 90% of Korean teens & 20-somethings, according to Business Week , seems to be more MySpace-like than Friendster-like.

    Love your users. Acknowledge your architecture flaws. Great rules for community-building.

    I’m sure people have noticed that myYearbook.com uses a tagline something like, “Better than MySpace,” and brags about not having advertising. But it must be helping MySpace that losing one member often has to mean losing entire peer groups, which are harder to uproot, no? Maybe not *that* harder – will be interesting to watch.

    One theory I’ve had is that social-networking sites will get more vertical and many will be more geographically specific, like a new one for people in London, a music-clubbing-oriented one in Dallas (I think), and STLPunk.com in St. Louis. Anybody else seen signs of that?

    I hope the panicked public won’t succeed in turning MySpace into another controlled space. I think you’re right, Danah, that we all, our society, would lose something if we don’t allow social-networkers to learn how to live in “this super public.” A fearful desire to control is so pervasive these days!

  • I wonder – can social networking websites support a community that ages forward?

  • Extremely thoughtful essay. Thank you.

    I’m curious as to how you would evaluate other sites like Orkut and Facebook within the framework of your essay.

  • Very interesting, thanks for sharing…

    I personally am not into myspace but my students at my highschool thrive off myspace…

    when i was in highschool it was IM and ICQ (mostly IM)…but communication culture is changing dramaticly…hence this little note I feel compelled to share with a complete stranger…hum?

    –RC of strangeculture.blogspot.com

  • Here is a crazy thought; could MySpace fail because it simply isn’t any good?

    It is a total mess. There is no order and in my mind no point to the site. What does one actually gain from the site other than pages of people going ‘me too’, ‘rofl’, ‘you suck’?

    We are in the year 2006 and MySpace has the design and usability levels of sites we saw back in 1997. Why on earth News Corp paid $500 million for the site I will never know.

    But maybe I am wrong, don’t get it, and MySpace is this fantastic new way to share content and is the future of the web. I hope to all that is pure and good that is not the case.

  • That was very enlightening. We’ve encountered many of the very same issues; it’s very interesting to find such a well-articulated taxonomy of social networking systems.

    I do beg to differ about tribe.net, however. They actually just did a limited version of the same thing that Friendster did, but as a result, the site has been decimated. Of 58 friends on my friends list, only three log on there now with any regularity.

  • Amy put forward these two scenarios:
    a) I know my Mom can read my postings, but I think she should just get over it.
    b) My Mom can read my postings?? Oh #$R@#$! I mean, I knew they were public, but it never crossed my mind that my Mom might read it….

    There’s also the case that was reported towards the end of last year…

  • Just letting you know this article has made it to the most popular page on VCNewsCentral. Well done!

    VCNewsCentral.com is a brand new blog & news aggregator, just like digg and reddit, but specifically for VC and Startup news.
    VCNewsCentral lists postings from all the leading bloggers in the VC industry and then allows anyone to vote on the most interesting postings.

    Check out the VCNewsCentral site and let everyone know what is interesting to you!

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    http://www.vcnewscentral.com/Index.aspx?PageMode=MostVotes

  • Can social networks evolve with human maturation? What will these things look like ten to fifteen years from now? Teens will not always be teens….

  • An excellent socio-psychological profiling. I wonder. Has any work been done to see what the impact of social netowrking has been on those who left Friendster? You mention some never went back but is there hard data on this from which conclusions can be drawn?

    Is there any indication that MySpace is having longer term effects? I’m thinking about the potential for those same teens to develop portable communities that morph over time to take on board other forms of social software?

    My sense is that this generation, if nurtured will pose an employment threat in the sense that they will select companies and organisations that satisfy their need to maintain and grow those social groups. As such they have the potential to acquire value way beyond their educational status but which is transferable to their economic lives.

    I sense there is the potential for enduring effects that will not only change the nature of being a teen, but also the future of being employed for the first time.

    What happens for instance if a teen is brought up on a diet of porn. It’s the industry quietly making the big bucks here. In the UK, we have TV shows dedicated to a youth I simply don’t recongise. We also have comedic porn shows beamed at us on late night Sky TV. As you say, today’s youth has no shame. And why should they when trhe very things that are supposed to be taboo to the rest of society are seen as part of socity by this group?

    While there is nothing inherently wrong in that, I can see it radically altering the social mores attached to ‘work.’ It could well be a harsh awakening for more employers than employees.

  • SutroStyle

    friendster is not done yet, it’s growing- look at alexa. all growth is from malaysia and singapore- they only lost in the US.

    myspace won because they could customise their profiles with arbitrary html – it’s a self-publishing platform, like geocities in the 90s, with a social-networking viral distribution mechanism.

    myspace will be around for a while. the users will not get older, because new 14yolds will sign up

    the only company that is poised to dent them now is piczo

    someone who knows ;-)

  • mohd syafiq omar

    i forgot my e-mail addres but i remember my profile setting can u tell me how i can get back my friendster e-mail addres

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