WWW FAQs: Why is myspace popular and what is it good for?

2006-09-20: Everyone knows that myspace is the most popular social networking site, at least at the moment. But a surprising number of people have asked me why. Teenagers seem to "get it" intuitively, but the rest of us aren't sure what the big deal is. So what makes myspace more popular than the competition?

Almost every feature of myspace is also available on another site. What makes myspace different is the way it integrates all of these features together into a convenient personal "home" on the World Wide Web.

Five Things myspace Is Good For

1. Connecting online with people you know in the real world. Myspace allows you to search for people by their real names, if they've chosen to provide them. Which they often have, because myspace doesn't display your real name - it just allows people who already know it to find your profile.

Knowing someone's real name doesn't give you privileged access to anything, but it does allow you to ask them to become myspace "friends" on that basis. So the question "where are all my friends who supposedly are on myspace?" has an answer.

2. Online networking with people you don't know in the real world. Sure, many "add me as a friend" requests are bogus self-promotion, but even these aren't necessarily boring. If those people post interesting bulletins and have interesting photos and music, you might want to add them anyway. Those who follow blogs written by people they don't personally like will have no trouble understanding this.

Again, myspace is very, very searchable in many different ways. Much more so than LiveJournal. And that makes it easier to grow your circle of myspace "friends."

3. Connecting with musicians, both independent and corporate. Myspace makes it easy to find out what's happening with bands and solo artists you care about. In fact, rumor has it they will soon start selling indie musicians' songs as MP3s at 99 cents a pop. If music is important to you - and it's important enough to most people that it's one of the safest blind-date conversation topics out there - then this is a feature worth having. And the mainstream music industry is so screwed up that any change is welcome.

4. Keeping up with what your myspace "friends" are doing. Myspace offers a "bulletins" feature which is similar to a LiveJournal friends page. Much like RSS aggregator software, but without the learning curve. And the titles of recent bulletins posted by your friends appear right on your myspace page. Which leads me to the fifth major feature.

5. Providing an old-fashioned personal WWW home page! Those who have been on the Web a long time remember when almost everyone had a home page. That was where you shared links to your favorite sites and talked about yourself - not with daily, blog- style, updates, but rather by providing a snapshot of yourself and what you're about.

Home pages are still a great idea for all the reasons they were popular in the first place. Web newcomers are discovering the same thrill that the rest of us experienced in 1994.

Myspace drastically lowers the barrier to entry by allowing users to start with a normal myspace profile, and then add HTML and CSS code with relatively few limitations. This has created an entire cottage industry of myspace profile designers. Allowing users to use HTML and CSS adds depth and credibility to the myspace experience, because users see customizing their myspace pages as "real web designing."

Of course, this results in a lot of people wanting to know why myspace isn't "real" enough to support most of the techniques covered in the WWW FAQ you're reading now. But that's another discussion.

Myspace also allows you to play music by popular bands on your home page, legitimately, for free. Which is something you usually can't do on a private website. If you're a big music fan, that's a compelling feature.

Bringing It All Together

Other sites offer all or most of these features. Sites like Friendster have offered social networking forever. Bands have home pages and online fan clubs, and there have been many attempts at online indie music labels. LiveJournal does a great job with friendslist-based journalkeeping. And free web hosting is provided by the likes of geocities (which has been around almost since the WWW big bang).

But fusing these features not only into a single website, but into a single web page, provides one-stop shopping and creates a snowball effect.

By themselves, none of these features are sufficient - viral marketing isn't as easy as you might think. But bring them together and you reach the point where a new user is likely to bring in more than one person before he or she loses interest. And the end result is a very popular site indeed.

Myspace is very youth-oriented and they don't lose a whole lot of sleep over whether it's appealing to folks who stop and think about their dignity. Therefore it's not for everyone. But the kids aren't crazy. The features they want really are there.

Disadvantages and Limitations of myspace

It's worth mentioning that myspace has significant disadvantages and isn't intended for every need. Those who want to present themselves professionally and want complete control over their page design should certainly set up their own web sites. The advertising is extensive and fairly annoying. It remains to be seen whether the myspace advertising business model will actually allow them to remain in business in the long run. And myspace has experienced security and growth-management problems in the past, with the site often running slowly or breaking down temporarily.

Myspace has been criticized extensively in the past, mostly with regard to stalking incidents and issues surrounding teenagers with myspace profiles. Myspace does require users to be at least 14, and you can't search for users under the age of 18 - good policies, but they work only if kids don't lie about their age.

The question is, can we expect websites to somehow police how old their users are? Not really. Laws requiring it can be passed, but the fact is there's no way for webmasters to know how old your kids are. And to put it bluntly, that's why kids have parents.

Keeping kids safe on the Internet is a parent's responsibility and there's no substitute for close supervision. For more information about effective ways to limit your children's Internet access, see the article how can I protect my kids on the Internet?

Parents need to educate their teenagers about the need to keep personal information off their myspace profile. Some parents may choose to forbid their teens from maintaining myspace profiles at all. Know your kids, limit their access in an age-appropriate way, and keep their computers in the living room right next to yours.

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