The story of MySpace's rise, fall, and (so far failed) resurrection is a kind of case study for internet companies. In 2006, three years after it launched, MySpace became the most visited site in the US by some metrics, and it became known as a launching pad for musicians after artists like Calvin Harris, the Arctic Monkeys, and Lilly Allen got IRL famous after attracting attention on the social network. In 2005, Rupert Murdoch's News Corp bought MySpace for a then-eye-watering $580 million. Everyone knows what happened next: Users migrated to Facebook en masse, MySpace's aesthetic became regarded as ugly and cluttered. In 2011, Murdoch unloaded the site for $35 million, describing his decision to buy (and then hang onto) MySpace as a "huge mistake."
By then, the site was a punchline as well as a lesson in how quickly a site could become irrelevant. But today it embodies another aspect of online business culture: eternal optimism. The people currently in charge of the site imagine that with a little luck it could return to its current glory, even if no one else thinks so.
"We were trying to be everything to everybody, and we just stopped innovating," Linh Chung, who joined MySpace in 2007 as senior vice president of tech operations, told VICE of the site's downward slide. "That was the main reason we fell from grace."
In 2013, the site, now owned by Justin Timberlake and Tim Vanderhook's Specific Media Group, relaunched. Specific Media, which is part of Viant, is known for being a pioneer in the field of behavioural-tracking technologies, which underpin most online advertising. Featuring a sleek new design and surrounded by a whirlwind of publicity and TV advertisements, MySpace 2.0 drew 31 million unique visitors to the site in two weeks, though many of those people might have been drawn in by the site's premiere of Timberlake's first single in seven years.
Many old MySpace features like private messaging and customizable background designs had been dropped. The idea was to pivot into being more focused on music, along the lines of Pandora, Spotify, and even Pitchfork. It didn't take long before pretty much everyone considered the new MySpace to be a bust. Today, the site looks like just another content portal filled with listicles and aggregation. User can log in through their Twitter and Facebook accounts, and Vevo supplies most of the featured music videos.
But the punchline is that rather than fading away, MySpace is doing better than ever, according to some numbers. In 2014, its traffic grew more than 400 percent, hitting nearly 30 million unique visitors in December. And Viant CEO Tim Vanderhook is talking about a comeback.
"During the past four years, the total number of users ever to be registered on MySpace crossed 1 billion, which is something very few platforms have achieved," Vanderhook told VICE. "Because of that, we've felt the site has far more longevity than people believe."
There's one thing that MySpace has that few other sites can boast: lots of email addresses.
"Our strategy is really simple," Vanderhook says. "Every time we have something relevant to say or offer, we leverage our archive of registered users and email aggressively."
"Having a direct relationship with that many users means we aren't reliant on Google's search algorithm or Facebook's newsfeed to pull in traffic like many popular forms of media today," Vanderhook continued. "We can simply send an email to a billion users at a moment's notice when we're ready to launch something and entice them to check out what we're offering. And with the information we possess on people, we have a much greater ability to reach out and be relevant to them again."
Vanderhook has been using such tactics to drive former users back to the site since 2013, and strongly rejects suggestions that the company is simply spamming people. "It's personalized content that's tailored to each user," Vanderhook said. "And the better that we get at that, the more traffic we're seeing."
It's not just the rise in traffic that's kept Vanderhook interested in MySpace, but also the personal data from all those registered users that can be turned into revenue. For example, the vast mountain of data enabled Vanderhook to launch Viant's new Advertising Cloud product in the UK in September, a tool that helps the advertising technology company's customers (advertisers and marketers) identify consumer bases and push targeted ads using details about registered users' locations, incomes, the number of children they have, and more. (Since many users haven't touched their accounts in years, a lot of this information is out of date.)
But Vanderhook says he's not merely interested in milking MySpace's historical data for profit. He genuinely wants to revive the social media network. He mentions streaming services, connected TV, radio products, all supposedly in development, though launch dates and specifics remain ambiguous. Both the CEO and Jon Schulz, Viant's chief marketing officer, used familiar Silicon Valley buzzwords like mobile, connectivity, and video advertising when discussing the future of MySpace.
Vanderhook has full faith that "the company that gets it all right will become the biggest." Few would bet on MySpace being that company given its past of false starts and miscues. But despite the doubters, the MySpace team remains bullish. As they know better than most, digital audiences are fickle and technological advances can render entire empires useless in an instant. While Google and Facebook seem almost invincible, Vanderhook remains convinced that it's a matter of when, not if, they decline.
"At some point things start to become old and fail," he says. "With mobile devices becoming the dominant form of web browsing, if someone creates a popular voice-activated search engine, then Google.com could be out very quickly. These risks are real and they can happen far faster than people think."
It seems unlikely that MySpace will be able to return to its former glory, but the fact that the site has stayed afloat in one form or another for 12 years in a feat in and of itself. It might never be truly resurrected or evolve into something new, but instead sort of just drift along forever, the web equivalent of an old hotel with a fading sign.
"Can MySpace become as successful as it was before? It will probably be in a new shape or form, driven by a new music or TV platform, but absolutely," says Vanderhook. "The world is very different today and we've made huge traction with something that was not just dead but dead and buried six feet under. And we've been resurrecting it ever since."
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