Clash of the Digital Titans: Facebook vs. MySpace

Last Wednesday, I did something crazy and decided to log into my old MySpace account. I assure you, this wasn’t just for nostalgic purposes. It happened after reading several stories of a likely sale in MySpace’s immediate future.

Let me preface this by saying that I have not logged into MySpace in three years. I haven’t been an active user of the site in about five years. So I was shocked to see the once poorly laid out “Welcome” screen now had clean lines and uniform, san serif fonts. This new place was a far cry from the MySpace I remembered using as a teen.

That is, until I started poking around profiles. Custom HTML. Dark backgrounds illuminated by fluorescent fonts. Dancing gifs. And of course, these were all accented by music straight off of “Now, That’s What I Call Music, Vol. 16”. Now this was the MySpace I remembered.  After about 20 minutes, I’d had enough and ran back into the well-designed security that is my Facebook profile.

I had a clear idea of why I left MySpace, but I wondered what prompted others to jump ship and settle in the land of Facebook. So, for the next few days, I decided to dedicate my Facebook status to getting to the bottom of the one of the greatest internet beefs of all time: Facebook vs. MySpace.

After a lengthy discussion, two clear themes emerged to explain why Facebook has remained the preferred social network of the Digital Generation.

Demographics & Growth Strategy

While there has been a great shift in user demographics for both Facebook and MySpace, it’s no secret that MySpace’s initial target audience was late teens and early 20-somethings. MySpace made its debut on the internet shortly after the 2002 launch of Friendster. As the online community’s only major competitor, MySpace offered Friendster users one competitive advantage—the ability to connect with their favorite bands. While Friendster offered bands the ability to promote events, MySpace actually gave them profiles. As Social Media Researcher Danah Boyd points out, “Music played a critical role in increasing its [MySpace] popularity, simply by giving it cultural currency amongst celebrities and by marking MySpace as ‘cool.’”

From the onset, MySpace was open to the public. Anyone with an e-mail address could have a profile, and have access to other user profiles. Its initial growth strategy worked on a small scale, but wasn’t adaptable to support rapid growth. Rather than appealing to one audience and then scaling out, the site opened its doors to the entire world, expecting to have fulfill its users needs with its existing infrastructure. As its demographic started to shift from the late teens and early 20s to pre-teens, MySpace supported it with different features and a drop in age limit. Boyd attributes this drop in age to the fact that  “youth…are inclined to spend more time going through identity development processes because they are trying to ‘figure out who they are.’ …Profiles are particularly supportive of this.  MySpace let these groups run wild.”

Facebook had its sights set on a different demographic altogether. Starting at Harvard, Facebook’s strategy for reaching critical mass was simply to add more campuses to its network. In the early days, users had to have a collegiate e-mail address to obtain a Facebook profile. Initially, the fact that Facebook was only present on a limited number of campuses generated such a buzz among co-eds that students couldn’t wait to join when the service became available at their school. (There used to be a link to request Facebook on your campus next to the login button). Soon, Facebook evangelicals had given the social network a level of exclusivity with which MySpace could not compete.

Facebook was ultimately digital gold to advertisers. Facebook’s ability to produce an entire generation of socially desirable contacts devoted to its use usurped MySpace’s appeal to advertisers. On MySpace, minors’ profiles were not visible as an effort to protect children’s identities in cyberspace. To get around this, many minors lied about their birth year when signing up, appearing older on the site. By having an open sign-up, and no correction mechanism for age falsification, the site was ultimately ineffective to targeted advertising campaigns.

Facebook also gained popularity among co-eds because, as my software developer friend Greg Farnum so poignantly stated, “it fulfilled a critical function at colleges: it made it easy to find out whether people you didn’t know well were single.”

Design & Usability

Everyone remembers the personalized profiles of MySpace. Even today, it’s hard to miss as each profile has a very different tone, layout, color palette, etc. This was all the rage amongst the younger demographic of MySpace as it allowed teens to visually express themselves and formulate their online identities. On the other hand, this also worked to the site’s disadvantage because no one wants to be the stock profile in a community of custom HTML.

Facebook came along and filled the void for an older demographic (whose identity was more closely tied to real-world activities) to connect online, but without having to prove how tech-savvy they were.  A great equalizer of sorts, Facebook leveled the profile playing field by giving everyone a clean layout that allowed users to access the information they were looking for quickly.

On the backend, Facebook is coded in PHP, while MySpace was originally coded in ColdFusion. “The use of PHP over ColdFusion isn’t a huge dealbreaker,” Farnum stated. “But if you’re clever in writing a PHP web app, as Facebook has been, you can make it very scalable.” This variance in coding languages also made a world of difference for user experience. Facebook was able to more quickly adapt to user needs, adding features like chat, tagging, video, event promotion and real-time analytics.

Contrary to popular belief ColdFusion was scalable, meaning that as MySpace grew, the language would be able to support the growing amounts of usage and content. The issue is that in order for ColdFusion to scale correctly, scalability needs had to be somewhat anticipated at the onset of development. If not, the language had limits based on how it interacted with its database. MySpace’s inability to adapt to rapid growth patterns have prompted a redeveloping and redesigning of the site to compete with Facebook’s platform.

In the end, Facebook has emerged the victor in this battle because of one reason: it had a great example of how NOT to create an online social network in MySpace. By building communities of scale, clever development tactics and more smart initial planning, Facebook has surpassed half a billion members and has left a giant footprint on both the digital and physical worlds.

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