So here’s a question: What is MySpace?
Aristotle once said:
The greatest thing by far is to be a master of metaphor; it is the one thing that cannot be learnt from others; and it is also a sign of genius, since a good metaphor implies an intuitive perception of the similarity in the dissimilar. (De Poetica)
Organizations–especially startups–must also master the metaphor.
I’ll be the first to admit that emerging technologies are tethered to the market’s dominant metaphors, which are built from people’s current and past experiences. We make sense of the new only in terms of the old.
But I have also argued the issue is not whether new technologies are interpreted through old frames, but which old frames. This weekend, after reading both a WSJ story on MySpace (MySpace, ByeSpace) and a parent’s experience with facebook.com (Facebook… ), I saw the enormous leverage of a good metaphor in business.
So what is MySpace?
Is it the next media platform–a new company with the reach and influence of an NBC? Does its phenomenal ascendance and enormous population of demographically perfect users mean it is the platform that will usher in a new golden age for marketers. What they last saw in the 1950’s with television and its ability to reach 75% of the viewing audience at a single moment? Is MySpace the next television?
Or it is not the network but rather the hot show–the Mickey Mouse Club or Davy Crockett that sold millions of mouse-eared hats and coon-skin caps. The kids across America who watched these shows were the canaries in the marketing coalmines (pardon my own metaphors), giving advertisers a glimpse into the power of that new medium to create and drive buying behavior from the ground up. Before then, kids were an elusive target and, a few decades later, were so bombarded with advertising that no one message carried as much weight. Is MySpace a glorified, 24/7 Mickey Mouse Club?
What I realized this weekend, reading both the business press and a parent’s account of these social networking sites is that, to me, these social networking sites are exactly that. When I was a junior in high school, after basketball games we would all meet at the nearby McDonalds (Mickey D’s). When I was a senior, we shifted to Burger King (the BK lounge). Why the shift? As Yogi Berra would have explained, “Nobody went to McDonald’s anymore, it was too crowded.” The same flocking behavior accounts, on differing scales, for shifting fortunes of the club scenes in LA and New York.
MySpace is the new BK Lounge. Granted, a national one, but it’s the place kids go to see and be seen.
The discerning teenager–and when it comes to social networking, perhaps nobody is more discerning–now talks candidly about where they choose to spend their online time and why. Kids talk about how MySpace is getting too crowded, too mainstream, and they are looking for somewhere else to hang out. Somewhere with a bit of cachet. And for this reason, the club/lounge seems the closest metaphor for social networking sites.
The problem with this metaphor is that, while it accounts for the phenomenally easy growth of MySpace, it also predicts an equally easy abandonment by its users. Time will tell.
I recall you mentioning this “cool club” theory to me last summer on a plane. I agree with you to some degree but want to believe that there is some difference between MySpace and the local hot-spot.
While talking with a friend who is in High School she recounted that doesn’t know anyone who does *not* have a MySpace account. Even if you can only captivate the attention of a small segment of American youth (ages 13-25) there is still an incredible marketing possibility. Even if MySpace is only a show for the demographics they still have a large audience.
I think the success of any social network site (or any website for that matter) will depend on how they evolve with their aging audience. As kids graduate from High School they want to be part of a site that will change with them. MySpace will have to do that or else loose those users to FaceBook or another hot-site.
Google is a site/company that continues to evolve with its customers. As they demand more, Google launches a new service. Social Networking sites have competition. Flickr for example now has to compete with Twittr and Zoomr who each offer their own unique features. If Flickr does not offer these features and others, their users may migrate to the other sites. MySpace has competition in the site iLike.com which brands itself as “what MySpace should have been” and is targeted at music lovers. MySpace should look at acquiring companies such as this or launching new sites that compete.
Social networking is a competitive space and traditional sites are becoming that competition. Companies can integrate Wikis and other collective-conscious software into their site and become more collaborative overnight.
The competition is there, some just don’t see it.
Great comment, Mike. And nice to hear from you!
In fact, it was in talking to some other high school kids this spring that I heard people were losing interest in MySpace…because it belonged to the earlier generation.
You are right that, even as a “cool club,” there is the potential for a much larger customer base. More than can fit into the BK lounge. The challenge for MySpace is to grow with its users but also be attractive to a new set of users.
I realize I’m pushing the metaphors a bit too far now, but I’ve been working my way through the Harry Potter books, and they’ve grown increasingly adult in content. Rowling’s response has been that her readers are growing up, and she is tracking with them. But for new readers like my 6 year-old (alright, new listeners), only the first book or two match her interest and we can’t get through the later ones because the storylines are too complex.
All this is to say, adapting with your audience seems like it can go in one of several ways: improving the experience for everyone (like Google has done very well); evolving with the users who joined you at a particular moment (e.g. the Potter series); and drifting towards the common denominator (the Hard Rock Cafe).
Each can be a lucrative strategy, I accept, but here is where picking the right metaphor is critical. The issue is whether MySpace has developed a sustainable competitive advantage–something that will grow with their success–or something that with success wil become harder to maintain. The danger of being fashionable is that success, going mainstream, sows the very seeds of your eventual downfall. Sure it’s a good ride (and I would take it) but it’s not a long term business.
So true. If I ran MySpace I would not try to evolve the product with the user base, but instead look at other products that I could offer to the aging users.
Just as Gap Inc. has four brands (Banana Republic, Gap, Old Navy, and Fourth & Towne) so should MySpace offer multiple brands. I can already see kids.myspace.com, teen.myspace.com, and college.myspace.com. They should be offering corporate branding and white labeling of their product for business purposes.
What MySpace needs more than anything at this point is to diversify. If you look at Wiki software there are a number of different products and even though it is freely available there exist entire companies (thriving) that package and sell a corporate version for enterprise document editing. MySpace should not miss the boat on this opportunity, or as you say they will be passed up for the next hot-spot.
[…] Andrew Hargadon blogged about MySpace and other social networking sites. So what is MySpace? […]
Hi Andrew, Interesting read. I agree the central issue here is the same old internet challenge of ‘easy come easy go’. Also there’s really nothing new here, MySpace etc seem to me just a reorganising of existing tools like forums, newsgroups and IM, so you righty have to ask is this an sustainable business model? No would be my guess.
All the best…
Easy come, easy go has been a central feature of the Internet since Prodigy’s users abandoned them en masse in 1993 after they tried to monetize their email and messaging boards. This was, in fact, AOL’s big break.
One of the interesting challenges is whether this new generation of social networking sites can evolve enough to appeal to the next generation.
There are some components that provide them an advantage over newcomers/competitors–like the number of people already there–and some components that will work against them–like the number of people already there.
BTW, love Mike’s retail analogy. Made me realize the same holds for dining. In this case, McDonalds and and their subsidiary, Chipotle (“fast casual,” with a natural spin).
Mike’s right, MySpace should be surprising its regular users with new features that shake the notion that they are just a place where everyone hangs out–Google is doing this beautifully. Offer users different ways to enter and act within the space, different ways to identify and distinguish themselves, and all while you have the traffic. Or wait until your competitors do.
[…] Mike has carried the conversation about MySpace in an interesting direction (see his post as well as the comments to my previous post). One of his central arguments is that social networking sites are not all that different from most other “destination” sites: places where people come to connect with similar people. […]
[…] This conversation started with Harga-blog talking about the decline of MySpace as the hot-spot for socializing. I responded and Andrew replied with evolving metaphors. […]