Myspace goes cool, crisp and clean

There was a time, long ago, when Rupert Murdoch’s MySpace was biggest beast in the online jungle of social networking. Before Twitter was even conceived, while Facebook was a mere university project, the site was a pioneer in status updates, personal profiles and photo-sharing.

But it’s been downhill for the last four years. Long eclipsed by Facebook and with a distinctly uncool parent company, the website is reinventing itself with an extensive redesign and a shift towards “social entertainment” that, it hopes, will help reverse its declining audience and revenues—and which could dress the business up for a face-saving sale by News Corporation.

Rolled out to the US this week and the UK in mid-November, the revamp cleans up the notoriously ad-saturated, cluttered pages, introduces a real-time feed more than reminiscent of Facebook’s news feed and adds new sharing features, including cross-posting to Facebook and Twitter.

“This is way more than a redesign,” MySpace’s chief executive, Mike Jones, tells the Observer.
“This is a new strategic focus for the business, a complete rebuild of the majority of technology that runs the MySpace platform and a long-term commitment [to] our strategy of social entertainment. News Corp made a big commitment in allowing us to go down this path and follow this strategy.”

These days, Facebook so dominates social networking that it is difficult to remember MySpace’s own time in the limelight. It claims now to have 130-million active monthly global users, while the internet metrics analyst comScore puts the figure at 90-million for September 2010, down 18% year-on-year. In the UK, traffic is down 35% in 12 months to 2,738-million users.

Rupert Murdoch astonished many in the media industry when News Corporation swooped on MySpace in a $580-million acquisition in July 2005. The deal was the result of an in-depth study by an internal team charged with making News Corp a serious presence on the web. But it hasn’t quite worked out that way: Murdoch did not count on Facebook’s exponential growth. ComScore puts Facebook at 620-million global users for September 2010, up 51% in 12 months. Gartner analyst Ray Valdes says this month’s redesign is essential to try to stop MySpace “sliding into oblivion”.

While more similar to Facebook in its crisper design, it also tries to differentiate itself by establishing MySpace as a more distinct, youth-focused brand. But even this might not be enough, Valdes warns: “The niche-oriented approach might be successful if MySpace were a spanking new start-up that can control its first impression to the market, but MySpace has been around the block several times and the brand is unfortunately tinged with the aura of a has-been. The odds are against it.”

With its old-media parent and its messy, dated design reminiscent of moribund web pioneer GeoCities, MySpace had become an easy target for ridicule in the tech community. But it still commands a significant, if declining, audience. With a clearer strategy that finally puts bands and music—always its most compelling offering—at the centre of the site, it will aim to win back a core community that, in many cases, are moving on to other sites. Solo bass guitarist Steve Lawson was one of a number of musicians who signed up to “Quit MySpace” day last week, exasperated by what he describes as a site that has been playing catch-up with more innovative rivals since 2006—but with a “paymaster that has no interest whatsoever in providing useful, accessible, community-based tools for musicians”.

“I didn’t delete my MySpace page as a protest,” he says. “I deleted it because it added confusion to my web presence. It was an ugly, clumsy, inaccessible version of information that was available in a much better form elsewhere.”

David Ham manages the UK band Marner Brown, who released their debut single last month. The band uses MySpace, as well as ReverbNation and SoundCloud, but now sees Facebook as the major networking channel for bands and artists.

“MySpace has moved from being primarily a social tool to a noticeboard,” Ham says.

Short of a miraculous turnaround, will MySpace come to be regarded as one rare failure in the mighty News Corp empire? “News Corp underestimated just how fast the social media business could change,” says Simon Dyson, senior analyst at Informa Telecoms & Media. “They thought they could maintain their dominance in the same way they have for pay TV.”

If News Corp does try to sell, it is unlikely to get anywhere near the $580-million it paid; Evercore Partners recently valued the site at half that. “If it had to sell it at a big loss, it doesn’t look good for a renowned company such as News Corp to have failed in such a big way.

“The problem now is that once a social media site loses popularity, it never seems to be able to get it back. No matter how much News Corp spends on it, it will still be seen as the social media site of yesterday.” -

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