More Questions About MySpace’s Prospects

29 Oct ’06

A while ago I wondered how long MySpace could hang on to its visitors. The demographics of those visitors aren’t particularly clear – it may be that a larger proportion of MySpace visitors are adults who really should get out more – but we know at least that many are kids, and as I wrote then, kids are notoriously fickle. This is not a news flash, or at least, by now it shouldn’t be.

Now WaPo suggests that some teens are so over MySpace:

Teen Web sensation MySpace became so big so fast, News Corp. spent $580 million last year to buy it. Then Google Inc. struck a $900 million deal, primarily to advertise with it. But now Jackie Birnbaum and her fellow English classmates at Falls Church High School say they’re over MySpace.

“I think it’s definitely going down — a lot of my friends have deleted their MySpaces and are more into Facebook now,” said Birnbaum, a junior who spends more time on her Facebook profile, where she messages and shares photos with other students in her network.

and in a perhaps more compelling comment:

From the other side of the classroom, E.J. Kim chimes in that in the past three months, she’s gone from slaving over her MySpace profile up to four hours a day — decorating it, posting notes and pictures to her friends’ pages — to deleting the whole thing.

“I’ve grown out of it,” Kim said. “I thought it was kind of pointless.”

From the mouths of babes. (Adult MySpace fans, take note). This is good news for the Facebooks of the world; for the next big thing – for a while, anyway (and hopefully – for the sellers anyway – until the liquidity event). One classroom does not a trend make, of course, and one should be wary about drawing any conclusions, but still – isn’t this exactly the kind of behaviour we expect from kids? It also occurs to me that the recent hubbub over MySpace’s demographics – research, questioned at the time, suggested an older demographic than one might have supposed – might have been an early indication that young visitors to the site are starting to get their kicks elsewhere.

If this is in fact what’s happening, it should not come as a surprise – we learned all of these lessons in Web 1.0, when the adjective of the day was “stickiness”. And of course, we should have expected this kind of teen mob behaviour even then – the sudden wild popularity of a trend, followed soon after by its disappearance into oblivion, is one of Web 1.0’s lingering memories, to the chagrin of many. I haven’t heard the word “stickiness” for years now – maybe it merits a return to the Web 2.0 vocabulary. For the life of me, I can’t think of a single site in that class – feel free to chime in if I’m missing the obvious – that is still around from Web 1.0, or that even survived more than 2 or 3 years (even 1 year?) after the high-water mark of Web 1.0.

But in the modern mythology of Web 2.0, News Corp’s acquisition of MySpace for $580 million last year is still being touted by many as an exemplar of genius, and as a financial benchmark for the next big deal (and the bar will no doubt remain at least there until that next big deal – Google and YouTube, perhaps – ratchets it upward). Perhaps that will turn out to be the sane way to look at it; perhaps MySpace will be successful, and its acquisition will be seen as an act of genius. Or perhaps it should already be seen that way; Google’s $900 million deal with News Corp. over MySpace was seen by many as validation of the acquisition.

But of course that $900 million (which is only a “guaranteed minimum”) is “based on Fox achieving certain traffic and other commitments” and the money isn’t in the bank yet – it’s “expected to be made over the period beginning in the first quarter of 2007 and ending in the second quarter of 2010”. And as this WaPo piece suggests, it’s still early days – if kids are becoming less interested in MySpace, I have to think the demographic they leave behind – 35-55 year old shut-ins – will be much less appealing to Google and to advertisers.

Update: Cynthia Brumfield looks at the issue and asks whether hot web sites are like TV shows. The point she’s making seems to be two-fold. First, even temporary hot-ness can be profitable; in TV for example, it can produce scads of ad revenue (though not necessarily initially for the producer). (Obviously, ditto in fashion, and in just about everything else that is subject to mass market taste and preference). So, to paraphrase, be assured that even if MySpace is a passing fad there is still money to be made. I suspect that you won’t find too many people who would disagree with that, but for myself the issue is how much money, and at what price it ought to be bought and sold when BigWhatever gets interested. And I suspect that valuations – from Skype through to YouTube, and inevitably onto Facebook – have been and will be predicated on a vision of the audience being much more durable than it may well turn out to be (But on the bright side, at least no one has to worry about predicting and discounting far in the future cash flows.)

Second, like TV producers do, the trick for the News Corps of the world “is figuring out where they go from here. They can’t just sit back and expect to rake in the dough, hoping that their hit sites stay hot. They have to move forward and leverage their hits to create the next big thing.” That’s an interesting idea, although I suspect that the process of ‘innovating’ (if that’s what it is) from a “Cheers” to a “Frasier” is considerably easier than innovating from a Web 1.0 hit to a 2.0 hit, or from a Web 2.0 hit to a 2.1 hit. After all, the notion of taking a popular actor (to use the Kelsey Grammar example) or story line (to use the Dick Wolf example), from one hit show to create another seems pretty darned obvious (very TV 1.0), and is more akin to merely knowing that if people dig peach-scented shampoo, they might also dig apple-scented shampoo. It’s not that hard to do if you already know how to make shampoo. And with the exception of a few serial entrepreneurs (who often move serially through quite unrelated ventures) I can’t think of one successful effort by anyone to parlay one hit web phenom into another – at least not on a notable scale. I may be wrong here, but if I’m not, I think it’s because the second kind of innovation (the web) is much harder than the first (related TV shows), and also because fundamentally the web audience – or at least this web audience – is just not portable in that way. For example, when Flickr breathes its last breath, where will its successor come from – the bowels of Yahoo!, or the basement of a 20-something who has very creatively – perhaps even Darwinianly from among the 50 other people who have also been trying to improve upon Flickr since it was released – happened upon ‘the next great thing’? As my friend Mathew notes, at least with social networking sites, success is very difficult to manufacture.

And of course, that’s presumably why the News Corps of the world don’t generally innovate or even create on the web – they buy others who do.

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