Flattened by MySpace

Wade Roush has been covering the rise of social networking for Technology Review for a couple of years now. But, as he explains in the latest issue, his enthusiasm for the phenomenon is turning to disdain, thanks to what he says is the devolution of MySpace “from a friends’ network into a marketing madhouse.” Roush writes:

I had higher hopes for the technology. To me, the popularity of MySpace and other social-networking sites signals a demand for new, more democratic ways to communicate – a demand that’s likely to remake business, politics, and the arts as today’s young Web users enter the adult world and bring their new communications preferences with them. The problem is that MySpace’s choice of business strategy threatens to divert this populist energy and trap its users in the old, familiar world of big-media commercialism.

Roush worries that MySpace “is undermining the ‘social’ in social networking” by encouraging companies to establish their products as MySpace “members” which can become “friends” with other (human) members: “The company interprets the idea of a ‘profile’ so broadly that real people end up on the same footing as products, movies, promotional campaigns, and fictional characters – not exactly the conditions for a new flowering of authentic personal expression.” In earlier social networks, like Friendster, sham profiles, including those set up for commercial purposes, were scorned as “fakesters.” But MySpace, says Roush, “has been hospitable to fakesters from the beginning – so much so that it’s now perfectly kosher for a company (or one of its fans) to create a profile for a fast-food chain, a brand of soda, or an electronics product.”

Far from being liberating, MySpace “tends to herd its users into niches created for them by the mass market,” writes Roush.

In fact, MySpace can be viewed as one huge platform for “personal product placement” – one different from big-media-style product placement only in that MySpace members aren’t paid for their services. There’s nothing new, of course, about word-of-mouth marketing. What’s sad about MySpace, though, is that the large supply of fake ‘friends,’ together with the cornucopia of ready-made songs, videos, and other marketing materials that can be directly embedded in profiles, encourages members to define themselves and their relationships almost solely in terms of media and consumption.

I’ve been reading From Counterculture of Cyberculture, Fred Turner’s masterly history of how the communalist ideology of the hippies morphed into digital utopianism. As the Internet emerged into the public consciousness in the early 1990s, a loose confederation of countercultural and New Age thinkers associated with Whole Earth Catalog founder Stewart Brand, including John Perry Barlow, Kevin Kelly, Esther Dyson, and Howard Rheingold, came to see the network as a great emancipator. For them, the networked computer, writes Turner, “offered men and women the chance to enter a world of authentic identity and communal collaboration … a world in which hierarchy and bureaucracy had been replaced by the collective pursuit of enlightened self-interest.”

One of the assumptions underlying this belief was that the Net would flatten society’s existing power structure, putting individuals on the same footing as big companies. Turner describes, for instance, how Esther Dyson, in her 1997 book Release 2.0: A Design for Living in the Digital Age,

argued that the Internet would soon dissolve the bureaucracies of the marketplace by stripping away the material bodies of individuals and corporations. Within the electronic confines of the digital marketplace, she claimed, both person and firm would be reduced to packages of information. At the same time, digital technologies would render information about products and markets ubiquitous. Together these features would allow individuals and corporations to negotiate with one another from positions of equality.

Dyson was right, in many ways. We do see evidence of this flattening effect all around us today. And yet what MySpace shows us is that the ultimate consequence may be very different from that imagined by the digital utopianists. Putting individuals and corporations on “an equal footing” cuts both ways, as Roush shows. The big story may not be that the Net gives individuals the power of corporations, but that it gives corporations the power of individuals. What is the marketer’s dream but to have a product speak to each of us intimately, as a friend? In being “reduced to packages of information,” are we simply making ourselves easier to parse and to control? Are we the ones who are being flattened?

8 thoughts on “Flattened by MySpace

  1. eas

    Corporations have already promoted their brands using social tools. In the past, they were paid sales reps, and they were expensive because they had to do messy human things like have families when they weren’t glad handing potential customers and asking them how their own kids were doing in little league. As a result, companies tended to deploy sales reps in areas where a small number of decision makers influenced a lot of commerce, which meant a focus on big ticket items, and influencing the recommendations of doctors, and other respected professionals.

    It’s awful to imagine where things might be heading now. I imagine cyborg sales reps who prowl social cyberspace, commenting on peoples blogs and MySpace profiles using text that was pre-personalized by automatically merging personal content from the users online persona with a scripted message.

    It’s really just the Web 3.0 version of a spambot.

  2. Bertil


    Nick, you are wrong about fakesters: the first ones (and for a significant length of time) were actually user created, and non-commercial; think: Jesus, Georges W Bush, The Flying Spaghetti Monster, Burning Man and Bay Area Funky Club. Friendster killed them against the users’ wish — maybe because they forecasted the comercial use; but I beleive it was more about “controling” a space that was not entirely them anymore.

    Commercial introduction might have two origins:

    – some users made up fakesters that where cool, but commercial; think: PSP, Apple, Video games, etc. This happend on most sites: some clever companies though they could use that.

    – ads were seen as “grown-up” stuff, filtered out, nott relevant by the poplation on MySpace; having them profiled, hence being able to participate in the tanks-for-the-add game, was a very efficient move — provided they had some support, and were ready to fight their way in.

    I dont know about doctors (or rather, I know, and I’m appaled) but I’m more confident that teenagers are too much network-addict and fashion-whores to get into any badly crafted trap. What an actual efficient SNS strategy will bring to those companies is a strategic shift, to acknoledge the non-linear dynamics in there, more than a real free, unfair marketing strong-hold.

  3. Bill Anderson

    So I now see what I knew all along. It’s not the technology that will change us, but we ourselves. I do believe that technology might help; “might” being the operative word.

  4. eas

    I don’t share your optimism, Bertil. People are heavily adapted to be social. As a result, there are a lot of buttons that can be pushed to persuade them to do things they’d like to think they can’t be manipulated into doing. I think network-addicted teenage fashion-whores are going to be particularly easy to manipulate using synthetic social cues, and social media makes it possible at a scale that wasn’t practical in the past.

  5. Mark Devlin

    Isn’t the issue the ownership of the relationship? Fakesters were made by other users, who were equal in status to each other. The problem with MySpace is that it allows corporations to define their relationship with you as a “friend”. It’s clumsy and leads to the abuse of social relationships. In our system (and others) users define their relationship to products more precisely, for example, by defining a shared list of favorite movies. The distinction is that on MySpace the movie is owned by the movie company; on systems like ours the corporation cannot define and control the social relationship. A movie is not owned by the company – it’s a shared resource, and advertising for the item is one step removed from the friendship-type relationship.

  6. Bertil


    Teenagers (or any users for that matter) really don’t mind about what the name of the relationship: they mostly use three words:

    – “[Thanks for the] add”, showing that the initial acknowledgement is key (and proving a much better sociological insight that most academic on what makes a relationship) ;

    – “[Thanks for the] comment”, showing interaction is essential to get closer ties; companies will have difficulty leveraging this aspect, keeping it “personal”; I’m having an argument with danah boyd about whether this is key, and any one who is interested by MySpace should follow her blog (she doesn’t hide other aspects of her life, but she is the clearly the leading expert on those issues)

    – “[Why aren’t I in your] Top 8[?]” hierarchy was made relevant by features, algorithms and usability; and it is still so for users — though most of them just know relations are not about popularity. That’s an old teenagers’ issue, though. And brands are pretty much out of that game too.

    None of this depends on a certain idea of friendship.

    On the upper side, this allows richer, more open conversations; look at how Lonelygirl15 creators draw they plot lines, look at how Gmail and other Google products features are rolled out: a close ear to the public. But most of you already know the argument from the blog Naked Conversation, right?

    It’s an old meme, and not all companies will transform or die — but as I am working in a companies that is dying because of this (an ISP), I can assure you that this is not irrelevant.


    I understand you point: teenagers are greatly and easily influenced (I have 15-y.o. cousins to recall this on a weekly basis) but they are too easily enthusiast for anything for this to be a long term asset for any company — unless the company really tries to innovate, and make sense. Just count how many cloth brands were trendy for the last five years: I don’t know anyone able to list them all. Those would survived either make use great fabric, or offer a constant edge.

  7. forestcall


    I think the main issue is these large sites like mySpace do not have a better marketing system in place. We all know these sites need to make money and thats why sites like youtube are getting $1 billion-

    Therefore I think there should be a point system in place. People post stuff or participate and earn points. They can have an option to turn it off or on. But the ability to categorize a blog posting for example or to view an ad or not view an add. Then points can earn stuff like concert tickets, movie tickets, food, mp4 player, etc.

    The need to monetize these sites is very important. But connecting profiles as product is completely against common logic and good will. The real problem is OLD SCHOOL media. Old School media /marketing people cant get out of the box.

    My company is building a new social networking self-service solution and these issues are important. I appreciate this candid discussion. Thanks!

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