The Death Of Myspace – A Former Employee Looks Back

As Myspace fires half its global staff (including the majority of its Australian office), former employee Alex Wain reflects on the website’s rise, what it was like working there and where it all went wrong.

Today really is the end of an era. Myspace Australia is set to officially close its doors at the end of the month – January 31st 2011 to be precise. Until then, staff are sending out those final emails, tidying up those desks and easing the photos and posters off the walls. And whilst I no longer work for them and haven’t for 4 months – I still feel sad at hearing this news, especially after spending 4 years of my life there.

Make no mistake, it has been an incredible ride, not just for me but for the vast majority of individuals involved in the company. For all the external Myspace-bashing, there was an attitude and tangible sense of belief internally that everyone was part of something innovative and ground-breaking, a genuine pioneer in the digital realm. And from 2006-2008 that was actually very true. I would actually have people in the street offer me money to buy any Myspace merch I had, a bag, hat or hoodie – it was that popular!

Initially, there were three of us Rebekah Horne, Alexandra Fletcher and myself, the 3 amigos, 3 people in the right place, at the right time – the very foundation of Myspace in Australia. I even remember my first day in the job, making a phone call and introducing myself as “Alex from Myspace” and the response was “Sorry…from where?”. 8 months later 3.5 million Australians were using the site on a weekly basis.

In the preceding 4 years, I had the opportunity to work out of Los Angeles, Texas, Auckland, Adelaide and Melbourne – I saw parts of the world, I probably would never have seen or experienced in any other circumstance. They empowered me by giving me the freedom to grow as an individual, to take risks, to be proactive and really challenge the conventional way of thinking within the Australian media landscape.

It’s those valuable lessons that I learn during those early years, that have had a tremendous influence on my career since, and most likely always will. A true baptism of fire into a challenging, fast-paced, controversial and dynamic environment driven by sheer mass hysteria and bankrolled by Rupert Murdoch. And it’s those memories and moments, which will always allow me to look back on those formative years at Myspace with fondness and affection.

Early days of Myspace Australia

It was like a little family in a lot of ways, peaking in mid 2008 at around 50 people – long hours, parties, music blaring all the time, no dress code, VIP invites, secret shows, celebrity interviews, launch events…everything you would expect from an entertainment site, except that everyone who worked for the company, literally lived and breath it. I’ve made some genuine friends for life through the Myspace Family, for me, that really says it all about the team dynamic in those early days.

We all believed and knew were part of something truly special. Young upstarts, empowered, ready to take on the traditional forms of media armed with internet acronyms & jargon, that famous US swagger and army of emo kids chanting our name as we walked out onto the big stage. And then in early 2009, Facebook happened.

Allegedly, Myspace had the opportunity to buy them and turned it down. For all the talk of the arrogance of upper management, the greed of Fox (and it’s insistence of plastering every page with ads) through to the utter lack of vision by the key stakeholders – the real reason Facebook won, wasn’t because Myspace made errors, it was because it didn’t feel the need to adapt.

Look at the odds against Facebook, Myspace had music, videos, local partnerships, mobile integration, millions of bands, four times as many users, the marketing sway of the FOX media empire, 22 international offices and $900 million in cash from Google.

And Facebook still won out. You can’t deny that is impressive. But how did they do it? How did they set the sun on what had up until that point been the golden era for MySpace? They did so in 5 ways and not surprisingly, all of them are product related:

1. The Stream – All your friends activity in one continuous stream, updated every minute.

2. Real Names – Facebook forced you to sign up using your own name, which made it much easier to find people you knew, rather than guess their online nickname.

3. Email Verification – They made you verify your email address, this way you got constant alerts and notifications driving you back to the site.

4. Address Book Importer – Rather than searching for friends, you could import your Hotmail, Yahoo or Gmail contacts and instantly be paired with them, in effect shifting your entire network across. If you weren’t registered, they sent you an email alerting you to the fact I’d joined and you should too.

5. Built To Scale – It was designed with one central theme, to be a functional stable social network that would rival all others.

Myspace on the other hand, had no real-time stream. It allowed anyone with a fake name or email address to sign up and the only way you can find your friends on the network, was by manually typing their name in. If they had used the name ‘DanTheMan’ rather than ‘Dan Brown’ there was no way to find them. By the time Myspace had duplicated all the features of Facebook, they’d already lost ¾ of the battle. The rest then came down to design, usability and marketing. No surprises for who won there.

Myspace was never built to have 110 million users at its peak, purely because founders Tom Anderson & Chris DeWolfe never envisaged it growing so rapidly. Amusingly enough, the ability to actually customize your page was a coding loophole that a user exploited originally. The company then decided to use it as the point of difference in the market. It was that very same ability to customize your profile, which would later become their downfall as millions upon millions of hideous fluro profiles, loaded with dozens of animated gifs crashed browsers around the world.

Team Myspace Australia, happier days.

As Myspace’s audience grew to phenomenal levels after breaking into the mainstream (it was at one point the biggest website in the US), it then began the ill-fated attempt to appeal to all the different demographics using the site. A mile wide and an inch deep was the internal mantra. It morphed into a music site, a video channel, a blogging platform, an email client, a place to share photos, a forum, an instant messaging client, even a toolbar in your browser – hundreds of communities within communities from horoscopes to art, fashion through to surfing advice all housed on the one domain. Everyone had something to play with.

The reality though, was a clunky, buggy, bloated, complex and incoherent mash up of poorly designed products without any tangible theme to hold it together. They thought they were untouchable and in the process, stopped innovating and started stagnating instead. Facebook were the polar opposite, laser focused on one thing – enabling you to discover and stay up to date with your family and friends. It similar to comparing Apple and the simplicity of their iPod verses Windows and their pointless feature-packed Windows Media Player that always crashes. And then one day, (as predicted by just about everyone who didn’t work at Myspace) it happened – Facebook overtook in terms of traffic and users, first internationally and then in the US.

You would never hear this in the press, for all the talk of declining audiences, poor design and spam bots crippling the site – working in that environment in 2009 during the rise of Facebook, everyone was genuinely ready for the fight. We had a signed sealed and delivered contract from the 4 major record labels to host their entire music catalogues, they didn’t. We put on free concerts and movie screenings for our users, they didn’t. We helped Kevin Rudd launch his election campaign, they didn’t. We told you what bands were going to make it, they didn’t. But Facebook literally never looked back. They had won through sheer simplicity.

Fast-forward another year and it is here where we end up today – with mass redundancies, skeleton staff and a site a mere shadow of its former glory. A team who’s motivation faded some time ago, a site re-launch meant to inspire in October 2010, but which has been so underwhelming and dismal that it’s resulted in 50% of staff being laid off. All that remains, is a very uncertain future and talk of a fire sale. It has been a dramatic fall from grace, with different CEO’s, leaders, views, visions and politics all playing their part in the past 2 years decline.

But in the end, if you look at it objectively, innovation and product won. And whilst that’s not necessarily a good thing if you’re a Myspace employee right now – it’s a good thing for the web as whole. Myspace was a moment in time, it literally changed the way the world communicated. It changed the way you and I discovered music and above all, it brought the whole world just that little bit closer together. I will always enjoy and be eternally grateful for having played a very small role in that.

Alex Wain lives in Sydney, Australia. He is a former Social Media Marketing Manager at Myspace Australia and the current co-founder of Nothing Cooler Than. He blogs here and tweets here.