Once upon a time, there was a Web company that was based not in Silicon Valley but in Santa Monica. It grew at a breathtaking rate. All of its content was created by its users, and though the pages those users created tended to look jumbled and messy, there was an enthusiasm embedded in all that busy-ness, and a fannish passion for pop-cultural pursuits. The company built up such a sheer momentum of traffic that a much bigger company was persuaded to acquire it for a massive sum of money at the height of a speculative Internet frenzy.
This story sounds like that of MySpace, the once-hot social-networking site for bands and their fans that Rupert Murdoch purchased in 2005. Once “the most popular Website in America,” as the title of a recent book had it, MySpace has been left in the dust by Facebook and Twitter in terms of innovation and growth. MySpace is in the news this week because Murdoch and his henchmen have just shown the door to the site’s founding duo, Chris DeWolfe and Tom Anderson, and replaced them with a former Facebook exec. It’s a recession out there, and Murdoch, who somehow believes that MySpace can be his entree to digital power, is eager to turn it around and demonstrate that it can become the online cash cow he has always dreamed of. Good luck there; I think that, even though Murdoch got MySpace for what many considered a bargain price (of around $500 million), it will prove an albatross around his corporate neck.
In fact, though, MySpace isn’t the company I was thinking of in that first paragraph. I was telling the story of Geocities — the MySpace of 1997-1999. Geocities was the most successful of the “build your own website” companies of the mid-90s (there were others, like Angelfire). Before there were blogs, there were Geocities pages, which were sort of like blogs except without the software to manage your content. Geocities pages were easy to build and really difficult to maintain. As a result, Geocities was populated fast — and nearly as quickly became a vast wasteland of abandoned digital real estate. It must have looked good on paper to the bizdev people at Yahoo in 1999, though, because they paid an astonishing $2.87 billion (in bubble-inflated Yahoo stock) for the ramshackle enterprise.
A decade later, Yahoo’s current management — facing tough times and after many rounds of layoffs — has decided to shut Geocities down. I don’t think there are too many people who will cry for this relic of a bygone era.
What I’m thinking is, there’s every reason to think MySpace will follow a similar trajectory, no matter how many executives huff and puff to try to reinflate its sagging appeal. If that’s the case, look for News Corp. to turn off its lights sometime in 2015 — about a decade after Murdoch’s ill-advised acquisition.
BONUS LINK: Harry McCracken surveys the top 15 Web properties of 1999 and asks, where are they now?
Actually, the first thought that passed my mind was what was going to happen to all of that prime web archeology they still host.
I think people of the future should be exposed to our old homepages, even if they can’t understand our nostalgia for “under construction” animated gifs.
Mmm.. No. Or rather, maybe. Social networks do something valuable that UseNet and the old COLS used to do that the general Internat does poorly; sustain connections among people. There are a lot of reasons to loathe MySpace and FaceBook and their ilk, but there are some very positive reasons to think that something survives here:
1. Email is broken and inundated with spam. Facebook messages are opt-in, and hence more spam-defensible. I know people who do not respond to email and only to social network messages now.
2. Google is broken. Searches now bring up links SEO-optimized by asshole marketeers, instead of relevant information. “The Internet” no longer gets you what you want, without a whole love of mining. Social networks don’t provide a direct replacement, but viral spread among friend communities replicates the kind of exponential growth we used to see on the Internet when something cool appears, and no longer do, because relevant search words are instantly hijacked by marketing dweebs.
This isn’t analogous to Geocities; it’s more analogous to Compuserve, MySpace, Facebook, and their ilk are congeries of millions of communities, not just ways to make an easy website. The problem they face is the same problem the early Internet faced; they have no viable, obvious business model. Compuserve had subscription income; the social networks are stuck with ads, at appallingly low CPMs.
Yet they provide real value to their users. and I have to believe there’s a way to capture enough of the value to make for business viability.
There are a few people crying for the relic of a bygone era: