My biggest worry about MySpace is that it is undermining the “social” in social networking. The general expectation when one joins a social network is that its other members are actual people. On MySpace, this isn’t always so. The movie Jackass: Number Two has a profile on the site, as do Pepsi, NASCAR, and Veronica Mars, the CW network’s teen detective. 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.
As a site organized around an enormous collection of profiles, MySpace was modeled on Friendster and other earlier online social networks. Users are given pages where they can post self-descriptions, photos, short videos, blog entries, and the like. Every profile includes a list of the other members its creator has “friended,” and a comment section where those friends leave feedback. (Most comments are encouraging, casual, and shallow: “Love the new look! How are you not married yet?”)
But one feature that makes MySpace different from earlier sites, and evidently more appealing to users, is its friendliness toward independent artists. Cofounder Tom Anderson, who has a background in the Los Angeles arts scene, has said that he and business partner Chris DeWolfe started the site in 2003 because the older social networks didn’t give musicians, photographers, digital filmmakers, and other artists adequate ways to promote themselves and their work. From its beginning, then, MySpace has functioned as a public stage. It lets bands and solo musicians create profiles, publicize upcoming shows, and upload their songs, which other members can then embed in their own profiles. Filmmakers can upload video clips. Indeed, the site has become one of the main places where unknown artists go to be discovered by major studios, or at least to develop a base of fans who’ll attend shows and buy CDs and DVDs.
In the early days at Friendster, only real individuals could create profiles. Bands were lumped in with other “fakesters,” the term coined by Friendster users for profiles created by impostors or dedicated to someone other than the author, such as a pet or a celebrity. The company eventually relented, and fakester profiles became an accepted part of Friendster’s culture, often taking on the function of fan clubs.
MySpace, however, 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. Other MySpace members can friend these profiles just as if they represented people. As of early October, Burger King had more than 134,500 friends, and the Helio cell phone had 130,000.