When MySpace got bought for $580 million, I thought it was pricey. Then I thought it was a bargain. Now I wonder whether or not it will survive. A lot has been made of the future of the largest social network. Some people say that social networks have a natural limit to their size, because they cease to become cool at scale. Others think that they'll never be monetized well, because monetization means overcommercialization.
Will MySpace die? Maybe, but not because it's fundamentally impossible to sustain a social network online. I think there are some keys to sustainability for any social network needs to follow to last, and frankly, I'm surprised the networks we've seen so far do such a poor job at minding them. They're not groundbreaking by any stretch, and frankly, I think they're pretty obvious.
Don't shoot yourself in the foot...the site has to work. Friendster crumbled under the weight of its own initial viral success. It didn't throw nearly enough servers and bandwidth at their early problems and the site became nearly unusable at peak times. It really surprises me how often MySpace pages don't load or when features don't work. It's not enough to be crippling, but it is something to watch. If YouTube doesn't have this problem serving all those videos, MySpace shouldn't, figuring as much of the content comes from YouTube and Photobucket anyway.
Keep the bad guys out. This is really the Achilles heal of MySpace. Probably about 3/4 of the friend requests I get are from fake people. Mass invites from bands are one thing...at least those are driven by actual humans who might actually have something legitimate to offer me. The sexy webcam stuff I could largely do without. It's always from blondes anyway, and I don't really like blondes. :) Filtering spam shouldn't really be that hard to do. Part of it comes from defensive messures like sender flagging, but some of it is in the design of the site. Facebook does a great job of keeping the rifraff out by keeping communication within networks of people.
Be the best a what you do best. YouTube was the first to flash and had the most link dense UI, therefore, the best technology for streaming, discovering and having your videos discovered. They still are. LinkedIn has great tools for maximizing the value of your network, even if the site is boring and they don't do a lot of the contact management I'm looking for. What is MySpace's core strength? Self expression? That job is outsourced to the freelayoutosphere. Music discovery? Music discovery is sort of accidently social on MySpace...land on a friend's page, hear their music. Tools like Pandora and last.fm represent the cutting edge in music discovery and last.fm provides a very rich social dataset that could drive powerful and addicting applications on MySpace. MySpace would benefit from innovating around this core functionality or integrating with a partner. Popping the player out of the page and and allowing user radio stations and multiple groups in one player would be a start.
Drive usage through usage. Despite the uproar, I think Facebook's mini-feed feature was brilliant. By providing information on what your friends are up to, particularly because these are people you know, it drives more interaction through data exhaust. MyBlogLog does this quite well. People stop at my blog, they leave tracks, I get curious, I click, I'm on their blog, they click back to me or leave me a message. Without trying, I wind up using the service more and more at each sitting. This is what gets people sucked in and continuing to use the site, because it turns the experience into a living and breathing thing where things are going on that you don't want to miss.
Commercial must be functional. Brands are not my friends so if I'm going to friend them, there's got to be a compelling reason for it. Whether it's to get digital assets like ringtones, or event dates, you need to improve my experience by adding commercialism, not distract from it. Going deeper than just friend requests would be great. I'm friends with Casino Royale on MySpace, but that hasn't gotten me anywhere yet. I couldn't even yank the trailer for display on my page. It hasn't driven a ticket purchase yet...no ringtone... Kind of superficial relationship actually.
Promote users. YouTube is becoming a place to get discovered. MySpace has Cool New People. del.icio.us had the /popular list. Even Typepad has a blog of the day. People want to see their name in lights, and they'd like a reasonable shot at stardom that feels like its in their grasp.
Communicate openly with users. One thing I loved about being on the VC side was the access to the creators of a web service. When I didn't like something or I wanted to request a feature, there was someone to tell, someone who would tell me its in the works or why it can't or won't be done. Craig Newmark accomplishes this by dedicating himself nearly fulltime to customer support and letting someone else run the business of Craigslist. Facebook has a blog without comments and MySpace has Tom, who most people don't really believe is really a person... at least you don't see him commenting on a lot of random profiles. This is a difficult thing to scale, but I think it's very powerful. I want to hear from the founders what they're working on, how they're solving problems, etc. That makes me more patient and makes me feel like I'm being listened to. Without open lines of communication directly with the staff, people give up and go somewhere else.
I hope MySpace does survive, because their tendency towards openness and scale have a lot of untapped potential, and I'd hate to see it die on the vine. That would make advertisers take social networks, and the power of consumers, less seriously.