I've still never met Tom, but he was my first friend when I moved to the internet town of MySpace in the fall of 2005. "That guy? He was the kind of guy who was friends with everybody," I picture early MySpace settlers saying of him. Thomas Anderson, or just 'Tom" as we knew him, was the co-founder of the social media site whose perpetually unchanged profile picture greeted new users and appeared throughout the site like some cult leaders statue. Praise Tom.
I joined MySpace right after high school, when my social-media brain was still pubescent by today's standards. I was too cool for chain letters, but still a sucker for posting "which character are you?" quizzes. It was an accepting new world, where all it took to make a new friend was asking. Users decked out their profile pages with music and wallpaper like it was their first apartment, and the sites "Top 8" feature kept friends sociopathically vying for the coveted positions like an ongoing platonic version of The Bachelor. It was fun; I met cool people, flirted, and developed an early, unhealthy fondness for red notification alerts. (Ooh, a birthday!)
But like most post secondary pursuits, my time on MySpace came to an inevitable close. People were disbanding the internet mecca to settle on other sites, and by the time I started backpacking around South America in 2009, it was either join Facebook or commit social suicide and remain untagged in photos. I converted, and now have daily Facebook updates about Australian politics from people I only knew for a few hours.
It's been said that MySpace returned to its roots as a music focused network once its usage began decreasing. But at that point, who was the music playing for? Was every band page just broadcasting MySpace's swan song on an eternal loop?
I thought about this recently when I was visiting my old family neighborhood. As my brain froze while comprehending yet another new frozen yogurt shop that had popped up, I began to wonder what became of my old online community: had change befallen it too? Did it still thrive or was it simply stuck in time, re-emerging only within nostalgic internet conversations about Napster?
Given that the internet is the ultimate hoarder, I had no doubt that the ruins of MySpace would be pristinely frozen in online carbonite, just waiting to be awoken. I decided to log back in, to disrupt the social media continuum and revisit myself as I debuted online eight years ago.
My first task was remembering my password. Now, this was nearly a decade of passwords ago, and for someone who clicks the "forgot password?" button as much as a new tab, I thought my journey would abruptly end here, halted by a digitally ravaged memory overloaded with disposable information (I can remember what the license plate on the cover of Tremors 2says, but not my online banking PVQs). However, when I arrived at the MySpace login page, which now resembled an aggregated, Yahoo news pop culture feed, my password inexplicably returned to me. It was as if MySpace wanted me back...
I enter and the homepage refreshes. It was the same busy news screen that had been displayed already: Jon Stewart, something about Tech N9ne, etc. Things had indeed changed, and in a frozen yogurt kind of way. It was all the drivel of Facebook without a face behind the posts. I navigated to the bottom of the screen where the alert box had changed to a drab, totalitarian grey. There were no lovingly red notifications awaiting me. As I hovered over my inbox, reality kicked in: "You don't have any messages," it read. "You fucking loner," it implied.
Perhaps what's more surprising than my entire inbox dissipating is that I ever expected it wouldn't. I thought that, along with the Hotmail account this was connected to, my inbox would be preserved forever like a lost diary filled with painful sign offs like "awesome sauce."
Though my inbox had vanished, perhaps deemed too subversive by the current MySpace zeitgeist, my profile remained. There it was with my original picture intact, a bold portrait of myself that was painted for the set of a high school play—postured like I was MySpace royalty. At least one thing hadn't changed, and this was still the best picture I've ever had. However, the wall itself had fallen, my Top 8 had disbanded, and my profile page was now a clunky sideways scrolling page where I was prompted to post updates, mixes, and tracks like I was enrolled in an EDM DJ college course. The old banter with friends was gone and my bio was nothing more than an image; I was a characterless social media bot, a MySpace artist without a medium. So where was everybody?
It seemed I no longer had friends, just "connections." In the social sphere of the future, there are no friends, just followers and acquaintances you use to make contacts, I thought. It seemed to me that MySpace had tried to become the music industry equivalent of LinkedIn's corporate meet-and-greet, where everyone uses exclamation points with freakish enthusiasm like its Take Your Kid to Work Day. I began scrolling through my 120 connections that remained, searching for the green active pulse that signaled online life.
Some accounts had been completely nullified, with androgynous block circles remaining where smiling faces with sunglasses once stood. I assumed others had deleted theirs—protecting themselves from future employers tracing "Jesus is my homeboy" hats back to them. Then there were the ones left completely intact, pristinely preserved in the icy cell block of the web.
There was seemingly no law controlling what was happening here. I decided to send out a few messages to see if even from the depths of MySpace, I could still communicate with the outside Internet world. I waited for one minute (days in MySpace time) then went searching for my friend Aaron. He's the most social media savvy guy I know, and surely a notification would reach him somewhere. My green, online light blipped like a ship lost in the fog, but no responses came.
It seems that nobody had kept up with MySpace's pressure for everyone to become musicians, as not one of my connections had any mixes or songs on their page. Seemingly, things had gone dark in an attempt to compete with SoundCloud, but the artists just never returned and MySpace had despairingly tried to stitch together everything else the internet was doing in a failed last hurrah to keep it's users. Life moves pretty fast, but the Internet moves even faster. I clicked on the discover icon and the first promoted artist to appear was Enrique Iglesias. Holy shit, he's still making music? Or was this some sort of leftover MySpace White Walker? I was just happy to find some sign of life and asked the gentle Latin singer to connect. If we do rebuild MySpace society together then at least I know my Top 8 will be beautiful.
We're now connected, and I'm told we have zero percent affinity (a barometer for how many connections you have in common). That's okay, Enrique; Rome wasn't built in a day. While I waited for Enrique to say something, anything, my inbox remained empty. My cries echoes in a dark web abyss, failing to land in any relevant inboxes since most people had all wisely switched to more comprehensive emails that were no longer connected with MySpace. I began to worry how long I'd spent in this vortex and became caught in an existential crisis of online identities: How was it affecting my other social accounts? How could I exist on MySpace and Instagram at the same time? It was time to find the only person who could help me: Tom.
After rifling through a few tribute pages and bands that used his name as a song title, I found him far down the search line under "people." His profile picture was still unchanged; preserving his friendly and eternally welcoming "I can see your wiener" smile like it was the portrait of Dorian Gray. His bio read like an epitaph and confirmed that, like so many others, he didn't make it. "Former first friend; I'm not working for the company now ya'all :-) Just a user like everyone else. I take a lot of photos these days."
It doesn't look like Tom stuck around to see his city fall. He's into photography now, a pursuit that, like it has for the rest of us, led him to the promising shores of Instagram, where he posts scenic pictures that look like they were made specifically for desktop backgrounds. Tom's last activity on MySpace was on June 24, 2013, when he bid farewell to his children by streaming 20 songs from Tom Petty and Heartbreakers The Live Anthology album. Heartbreaking indeed.
I was beginning to feel very much alone on MySpace, which I even made light of in my first status update in years. This too yielded nothing, and despite my new connection to Enrique, I felt more disconnected than ever.
MySpace was no longer a site for sharing and discovering; it was a tomb filled with the mummified remains of people's profiles prior to the next wave of social stimulation that mercilessly continued to exist. If the internet wouldn't pull the plug, it was at least time for me to. MySpace hadn't only changed, but it had become an entirely differently entity that was severely confused about what it wanted to be. It was like watching your old used cd store get bought by HMV then go out of business. I cue up"We Used to be Friends" by the Dandy Warhols from the Veronica Mars soundtrack, dually symbolizing my current mood and questionable MySpace era taste in music, and logout.
Goodbye MySpace. Goodbye Tom. And, most importantly, goodbye Enrique. I will never forget your friendship during this time, or the that I learned you surpassed Michael Jackson for the most #1 Billboard hits while lurking your profile. Bailamos...
My profile collapses, vacuumed back into the ether of bandwidth, and I'm once again on the home page. Opening a new tab, I type "f" into my browser, and the Facebook URL automatically appears, giddily waiting for me.
I sign into a welcome back fireworks show of red notifications. There are new messages, likes, and updates to events I had never heard of. I was home. I'd returned to my flourishing network knowing how precious it was. The future of social media is always unclear, but inevitably one day the likes of FB will end, everyone's profile will be sold based on analytics and turned into weird spokespages for deodorant, and some new site will have features you didn't even know you needed, like a parent autoreply.
But that's not today; today we must enjoy our networks while they last, while your friends are all still conveniently in one place, where staying in touch takes nothing more than a click, and where hopefully, this story will get more than 10 likes. Even if Facebook is just a glorified platform of self promotion, at least it's free-willed self promotion. As for MySpace, it's still there, and even if I forget about all this in the next five minutes, the internet never will. So cheers Tom and Enrique, cheers to living forever, however odd and embarrassing that may be.
Connect with Aidan Johnston on MySpace