Sunday, March 27, 2011

18/100: The Decline of MySpace

MySpace, going by the latest reports, has lost 50 million users over the last 12 months, of which the last two months, January and February this year, have seen a loss of 10 million unique users. It is now down to 60 million users from its peak of 110 million, and it is expected to fetch a valuation of $50 million, down from $330 million that News Corp paid for it only a few years back.

Compare this with the stratospheric rise of Facebook and its multi-billion dollar valuation, and the decline looks stark and irreversible. This will possibly happen, as the executives look rather directionless and talk about MySpace being an entertainment site rather than a social network. That seems like the business-speak that is sinking the company: It is the social context of entertainment which broadcast media executives never get it.

But it may be the time for social media to grow up. It is no longer enough just to blame old media thinking for new media failures. Remember Friendster, which took the fast track to oblivion on its own right. There was no broadcast media thinking, just plain arrogance of attempting to engineer users' lives.

Look closely and you will possibly find some kind of pattern. The social is powerful. However, the curator of the social, in this context the site owners like MySpace and Facebook, are not as powerful as they think they are. Indeed, the images people construct on their space (servers, shall we say) is an important part of their identity. And therefore, as in the case of Friendster, the executives may feel they 'own' their users. However, this ownership is as transitory as these identities, and while my Facebook identity is central to my life at this time, it is possible to have many identities, and many lives therefore, at this time.

The curators often mistake the power of the network as their own power. They tend to think themselves as the hub, or as the cloud at the centre of all the connections. But, in a way, they are as much a node as anyone else, and their existence depend as much on the existence of others. And while the network needs curatorial efforts, there must be a continuous feedback loop, where the leadership and followership must move back and forth between the users and the executives.

The challenge of social media companies, I shall argue, is that this people power is their product, and that way, they must defer to their product. The literary equivalent of this will be Frankenstein: It is indeed possible for the social media sites to overtake the intentions of its creators and owners and assume a life of its own. And, then, like Facebook or YouTube, its owners must struggle to control the legality of the content and intent. They go too far, and suddenly their sites are bland 'entertainment sites', more like TV than the public square, and the product dies.

This is an ongoing thing and as any curator will know, that's the way it would be. The job of social media platform owners are more like the organizers of a film festival, rather than the owners of a business, or even the publishers of a newspaper. I say film festival because I see the dynamic of a social site being played out between the curators, the producers of content and the viewers and participants, all sides holding somewhat equal power, though each one of them express it in a slightly different form.

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