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March 16, 2023 30 mins

The MySpace era was incredibly influential, and incredibly messy. And it remains largely underexplored. Young people talk about MySpace like a cool scene they wish they could have experienced. Like CBGB, or Studio 54.

But before we get into the experiences that users had — from bored teens to up-and-coming musicians to soldiers stationed abroad — let’s start at the very beginning. Because MySpace does not have a typical Silicon Valley origin story.  

Special thanks to our guests Julie Angwin (author of Stealing MySpace) and Taylor Lorenz (author of the forthcoming Extremely Online). You can share your MySpace story with Joanne McNeil on Twitter @jomc.



See omnystudio.com/listener for privacy information.

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Episode Transcript

Available transcripts are automatically generated. Complete accuracy is not guaranteed.
Speaker 1 (00:00):
My Space used to be the most popular website in America.
It launched in two thousand and three and peaked in
two thousand and eight with over one hundred million users.
At the height of its popularity, a quarter of a
million users were signing up for new accounts every day.

(00:21):
Most of the people on the site were young, in
their teens and twenties. It was at the center of
their social lives. I'm twelve journey routeen. I'm currently thirteen.
I'm turned fourteen September twenty six. I'll be fifteen October fifth, fifteen. Anyway,

(00:41):
I'll need to comment on my pitch cut. I'll take
cute pitch out. Some of you all want to get
to know me lea meet friend request, because I approve
all of them. My name is Joanne McNeil. I'm a
writer who has covered internet culture since the early days
of social media. I have watched social networks rise and fall,

(01:04):
and of all these companies, MySpace has always struck me
as the most fascinating, and my fascination is shared with
a lot of people, including many who were too young
to even have been on it. I wrote a book
called Lurking, a History of Social media since the beginning

(01:24):
of the Worldwide Web, and in my research I kept
coming across young people talking about MySpace like a cool
scene that they wish they could have been part of,
like CBGB or Studio fifty four. Part of what draws
me into MySpace is the era MySpace launched in the

(01:48):
early aughts, when suddenly the Internet was very fast, people
transition to broadband connections after slow dial of ISPs. Another
part of it is the ulture. With this increased bandwidth
and speed, you could share pictures and music files much
more easily than before. Users did this on MySpace. When

(02:11):
my Space launched, social media was an unknown quantity. People
had no idea how to make money off of social networks,
or even if they could make money off of it,
and the consequences of social media had yet to be seen.
Issues like surveillance and harassment became more complex. As users

(02:34):
transitioned from a largely tech space to Internet experience to
image based social media. Things shifted with MySpace, including some
positive new directions. Because MySpace offered Internet users something new,

(02:55):
the possibilities of how to act on it felt endless.
Space offered opportunities for people to express their creativity, and
meet people in ways that felt thrilling and maybe a
little bit scary at the time. Someone could be posting
from their parents' house in the suburbs one minute and
become a superstar musician the next. Oh yeah, that's another

(03:19):
defining feature of MySpace. The grown ups weren't there. The
social network often felt like a house party throne when
someone's parents went out of town. For better or worse,
teenagers say MySpace is a great way to express yourself. Police, however,
call MySpace a predators buffing and now for our next story.

(03:43):
For some people in cigarettes, for others gambling, but for
millions of teens, their newest addiction is MySpace. June sixth,
two thousand and six or six six six came and
went without Satanic groups waging war against Christians, but the
incident left school officials wondering how to deal with problems

(04:04):
arising from conversations on the popular website MySpace dot com.
But MySpace could also be a lifeline. People use MySpace
in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina to keep in touch
with friends and family members after they evacuated Louisiana. Soldiers

(04:25):
in Iraq and Afghanistan use the social network to stay
connected with people back home. MySpace was all of these
things because MySpace wasn't just Tom Anderson and Krista Wolf,
the co founders of the social network, or Rupert Murdoch
who acquired it, or even Tila Tequila or any of

(04:48):
its other famous users who might now be called influencers.
It was a place where millions of people could connect
to one another. I think each platform comes kind of
synonymous with time and culture. So you know, there's like
the vine era, or like we're in the TikTok era now,

(05:09):
or like Instagram, And I think my Space was kind
of like this thing that felt very relevant at least
in certain worlds in the mid two thousands, but it
lost that relevance pretty quickly because it couldn't ultimately like
scale up to be mainstream like Facebook. That's Taylor Lorenz,

(05:29):
Washington Post tech reporter, an author of Extremely Online, a
forthcoming book on influencers. After I spoke with Taylor, she
sent a tweet out to her followers asking who had
memories of my Space and if they would share. These
responses give you a glimpse of people's feelings and memories

(05:49):
about the social network. I can remember being just out
of college, my first job and just agonizing over who
to put in my top eight college friends. People from hell,
new work friends, just complete nonsense. I was the perfect age.
When my Space came around in high school. It was
the first time we realized there were kids just like
us in other towns. It opened up, so I got

(06:11):
sent a bunch of anonymous messages over my Space as
a team that were like nice and affirming, and they
felt kind of magical, and I would respond to them
using my profile page. The anonymous messenger later revealed that
they were my psychiatrist. And I think I was fifteen.
With a hundred million users, there are hundred million stories

(06:31):
you could tell. So what was my Space? What drew
people to it? Why aren't people using it anymore? And
why do people who weren't even born when my Space
launched feel like they missed out on something special. We'll
explore all that in this series, and we will take

(06:51):
you back to that moment, which was incredibly influential and messy,
and it remains largely under explored. You have to keep
in mind everyone was making up the rules on the fly.
This is true of the users, and it was also
true of what was happening inside the company itself. Everyone

(07:13):
was figuring out MySpace in real time. What happened in
the MySpace era would have sweeping implications for all the
platforms to follow. But before we get into the experiences
that users had, from musicians to soldier stationed abroad, let's
start at the very beginning. MySpace does not have your

(07:36):
typical Silicon value origin story. Its founders weren't typical startup guys,
and the success of MySpace back then it seemed just
as unlikely. If you were on MySpace, I bet I

(07:59):
can get asked the name of one of your friends,
Tom Anderson, that Tom MySpace Tom. Tom was everyone's friend.

(08:25):
If you sign up for a MySpace account, Tom would
appear on your friends list automatically. You couldn't see people
unless you had a friend and Friendster was first, and
we were trying to compete, so when people signed up,
they wouldn't see anything. That's boring. So I put myself
as this person that could connect everyone else, so you'd
see people right when you signed up. That was the idea,

(08:46):
and it worked because Tom looked friendly in his profile picture.
He looked like a normal indie rock eye from La.
He even shaved a few years off his age to
make him seem like part of the young crowd on
the site. I mean, Tom is like such an interesting
guy because he does seem like he was sort of

(09:06):
a creative spark behind MySpace. He certainly was an emotional
heart of it, and he was a very private person
but also very experimental. That's Julia Anguin. She's an investigative
journalist at the founder of the Markup. The company first
came on her radar after News Corp acquired it in

(09:28):
two thousand and five. My Space wasn't the first social network,
and we'll get into some earlier examples like Frontster and
black Planet in our next episode, but it quickly surpassed
these competitors. So back in two thousands, I was beat

(09:49):
reporter at the Wall Street Turtle and my beat was
news Corp. I was supposed to just cover Rupert Murdox company,
and and that's how beats were at the journal, you
just really focused on a big company like news Corp
would have one dedicated reporter. And so I actually hadn't

(10:10):
really heard of MySpace until News Corp bought it, and
I remember I had to write up the acquisition. It
was announced late in the day and I was scrambling
and I was shocked at how popular it was. I
was like, what is this thing? Later she wrote a
book about the company at the fallout of this acquisition,

(10:30):
Stealing my Space, which was published in two thousand and nine.
The story of my Space was about a bunch of
people who were really not that good at what they did,
but we're successful. These guys were just really good marketers.
They were really interested in my Space as a way
to get to meet with bands and go and meet

(10:52):
cool girls and go to clubs, and so it was
definitely a party atmosphere. The characters behind my Space were
intriguing to Jolia Sugar up in Silicon Valley, hearing about
these coding geniuses and entrepreneurial legends like Steve and Was.

(11:14):
The MySpace founders were very different. They were not the
crowd I was used to in Tich, which was bunch
of engineers who went to Stanford and had a brilliant
idea and then started, you know, a little startup on
Sandhill Road. Right. They were Los Angeles party dudes. Tom

(11:35):
Anderson had founded the company with Christa Wolf inside a
Los Angeles space startup called e Universe. Before my Space,
Tom had worked for Chris as a copywriter and product
tester at another startup. Tom was a musician. He went
to film school and dabbled in the hacker community as

(11:59):
a teenager. You could definitely say Tom was entrepreneurial. He
had some experience running a porn website too. Cristal Wolf,
who had worked in sales and marketing, was the one
who came up with a name like seemingly everything about MySpace.
It got its name haphazardly my Space. It was just

(12:23):
sort of on a flip. It seemed like a good deal.
I think it was five thousand dollars. Company that was
going bankrupt was selling it and decided to buy it.
Came up with the idea from MySpace, and we're just
scratching our heads for what a good name could be,
and we came up with all these crazy names that
were really ridiculous, like commingo, and then it was just
sort of this moment, Oh yeah, we bought the url

(12:44):
MySpace a year ago. Let's use that Chris had bought
the domain name from a former client, an online storage
startup that one bust, and had been sitting on it
to understand how it all happened, why Chris and Tom
would make a play for social media in the first place,
and how they went on to build America's most popular

(13:06):
website on the opts, it helps to know some of
the backstory on Euniverse, the company where my space was founded.
My Space was just one of many little projects at
this company called e Universe, which was an early kind

(13:27):
of crappy e commerce company that did all sorts of
garbage right. They sold vitamins that were definitely sketchy, and
they did like these pop up ads that were really
gross and like they were in all of these spaces
that were kind of like the underbelly of the Internet.

(13:48):
Back then, people called this spyware or adware. It was
a real nuisance. E Universe had products they offered as
free downloads, like animation that would make your cursor look
like an American flag. But if you downloaded one of

(14:09):
their animations, it might trigger pop up ads, little websites
that could follow a user around as they served the web.
In two thousand and two, e Universe, what would become
the MySpace pairing company, was holding on as one of
the few survivors of the dot com crash. It's worth

(14:31):
remembering like this was after the dot com boom and bust,
So there had been this huge build up where everyone
was like, Oh my god, the Internet's gonna be still amazing,
and all this money raced in the early two thousands,
and then it just blew up in two thousand and
one and collapsed. And basically from two thousand and two
to two thousand and eight or so, people talk about

(14:53):
it as like the Internet Winter, where there was not
really a lot of investment because people were like, uh,
we got burned on all these companies like pets dot
com that really didn't turn out, and so there wasn't
a lot of investors, and so the people who survived
were people who came up with these kind of scrappy,
underbelly kind of businesses, and The Universe was one of those.

(15:18):
E Universe, which would later be renamed Intermix, was not
without its critics. In two thousand and five, the company
was sued for its practices distributing spywear to unsuspecting users.
Elliot Spitzer was Attorney General in New York and he

(15:40):
was pretty aggressive in setting up an Internet Prosecution Bureau.
At the time, there weren't a lot of attorney generals
who were Internet savvy or who had started bringing cases
against Internet companies, because the Internet scene was still very
nascent right and wasn't necessarily seen as interesting targets. Some

(16:04):
of the first ones he brought were against the predecessor
companies of Intermix and Universe. This was the year before
Elliot Spitzer was elected Governor of New York and three
years before his big scandal as Governor of New York.
Very very briefly, Spitzer had a rendezvous with a sex

(16:25):
worker named Ashley de Prey. After the scandal broke, he
resigned as governor in two thousand and eight. Ashley to Prey,
by the way, had a pretty act of MySpace page,
including music tracks, and at the time, gossip columnists were
poring over Ashley's page. But let's rewind back to Elliot Spitzer,
the then New York Attorney General who was cracking down

(16:48):
on spyware. Spitzer was doing important work. He really helped
start this movement to raise concerns about the safety of
my spaces platform. Intermix settled the lawsuit and agreed to
seven point five million and penalties over three years and

(17:09):
to stop distributing adware programs. The case was unusual because
the way people talked about user privacy back then was different.
The advocates at that time in the privacy space were
mostly focused on government surveillance, so there was a lot
of focus on the National Security Agency and police surveillance,

(17:30):
but the privacy community wasn't really focused on corporate surveillance
because there really wasn't that much of it at that point.
Her investigation into my Space as a Wall Street Journal
reporter was a turning point in Julia England's own career.
My Space was when I first learned about the issue

(17:51):
that we call privacy, that I like to call data exploitation.
It occurred to me that basically what they were telling
was they were giving you their users free software. Previously,
if you wanted to set up a website for yourself,
you would go buy software at a store. Back then,
it still cost like sixty dollars to buy some software

(18:14):
and you'd get a box that we shrink wrapped. You
take the CD home, you'd load it up, and then
you could build something. You could build a webpage. But
they were basically giving users that for free, and the
way the users were paying them was with all this
information that exchange data and information from users for a

(18:35):
free online service from a company is a more commonly
recognized trade these days. In rest prospect, I would say
that the legacy of my Space is actually the pioneering
of this business model of monetizing user data. While at

(19:02):
e Universe, Tom and Chris had at their disposal the
company's database of over thirty million email addresses. They had
all these email addresses to announce this new social network
from their windowless office near lax And this social network, MySpace,

(19:23):
was the perfect project for this internet marketing company because
it meant that the emails of everyone who signed up
with a new account could be added to the database.
Tom became the president of MySpace and Chris became its CEO.
Tom Anderson, as Everyone's Friend, had at one point over

(19:44):
one hundred million online friends, but CHRISTA. Wolfe kept to
study one hundred and seventy seven friends. Still neither of
them owned this company. Their lack of independence presented a problem.
Space was a subsidiary of this parent company Intermix and

(20:06):
MySpace they had some autonomy because they ran the site themselves,
so the founders of it, you did have that feeling
that they were their own company. But Intermix had basically
the option to buy MySpace as part of the legal contract.

(20:28):
In two thousand and five, when MySpace was seeing enormous
traffic sixteen million visitors a month, the biggest social network
in the world was sold to News Corps. It was
the head of Intermix who negotiated the deal. Essentially, they
were able to exercise that contract, that ability to buy

(20:49):
out Myspace's shares without the knowledge or consent of the
founders of MySpace. And so they basically did the secret
deal behind the acts of the founders with River Murdock
to sell MySpace from out from underneath the founders, I
mean tragically. Like as a reporter who covers technology and

(21:09):
has covered Silicon Valley for a long time, these kinds
of things happen, I mean more frequently than you would think,
because you know, founders setting up their companies. You know,
just there's a lot of people who prey on their
inexperience and add clauses. And that's a classic thing that
investors do is put in you know, legal language to

(21:30):
give themselves options. Because the fact is the investors and
Intermix wanted to cash out. They didn't want to wait
for you know, MySpace was like, Oh, we want to
be like the vibe of MTV is our vibe and
like all this vibe stuff. But the investors just want
their money, and they want the most money, and so
they set up the terms so that they had the

(21:51):
ability to execute when they wanted to. Chris and Tom
were each thirty million dollars. They left the company. In
two thousand and nine, News Corps brought in a new
CEO and its own people and really took over the company.
The way Richard Rosenblatt, CEO of Intermix, pitched the company

(22:14):
to Rupert Murdock is instructive and how it captures what
people thought of social media. In two thousand and five,
Rosenblatt sold MySpace as a self sustaining entertainment business. Julia
has a great quote from their exchange in her book. Yeah,

(22:34):
I want to read this quote because it's actually such
a great quote that he said to Rupert Murdatt. Mister murdat,
MySpace is the perfect media company. Unlike traditional media companies,
MySpace generates free content through its users. It generates free
traffic by its users inviting their friends and all you
have to do is sell the ads. It was user

(22:56):
generated content old media, meaning before and four you had
to pay to produce a film or fund the recording
of an album. But in the eyes of investors, social
media generated itself because there were users hanging out on
the platform. You didn't need money to produce a film

(23:16):
or record an album. The content is populated on its
own just by being active there. People would watch and
listen and get glued to what happened on the website,
at least in theory and in theory when people were
actually hanging out on my Space. It seems like Rubert

(23:40):
Murdoch wanted to just find a way into the Internet, right.
He was like, I've got all these things. I've got
satellite TV, I've got cable TV, I've got newspapers. But
the future it's going to be the Internet, and so
I want a foothold there. And he was not wrong, right.
My Space was in some sense like an interesting play

(24:03):
because it was a really hot, fast growing social network,
and he was not wrong. The social networking was going
to become big. But what happened was, of course Facebook
ate their lunch, and so it was maybe the wrong
social network to bed on but you know, he had
kind of had a fifty fifty shot there because my

(24:23):
Space and Facebook were the two top ones, so he
at least directionally grabbed, you know, in the right direction,
even if he sort of picked the wrong one. Julia
Anglin has a quote from Rupert Murdoch and her book
forecasting that my Space was on track to be the
biggest mass platform for advertising in the world. Well, you know,

(24:47):
it's funny about Murdoch's quote, right, Like he's just describing Facebook, right,
They're the biggest single mass platform for advertising in the world.
So he wasn't wrong that there was potential there. It's
just that in the end, I think the engineering, the
lack of engineering expertise and talent, and the lack of
focus on an abilities to outcompete on actual quality of

(25:12):
the product is what doomed my Space to fail against Facebook.
And so even though I say that this marketing genius
and hucksterism is important, you still have to have that
underpinning of the great engineering and the great talent. And
that was the thing that ultimately undid them was that
they didn't have that. This unraveling happened very soon after

(25:34):
Julia's book was released in two thousand and nine. By
the time I finished reporting the book, I pretty much
knew they were not gonna succeed. And it was actually
mostly because of the news Corp acquisition. There was so
much turmoil and almost all mergers fail, like that's just
a rule of merger life. And then it is also

(25:56):
true that news Corp didn't know how to compete, right,
because the thing is, this is this giant media company
and they have this hot property, but it's locked in
this battle with Facebook, and this is something that requires
strategic thinking, like should we clean up the nightclub or

(26:16):
should we just double down on that and compete with
Facebook on that. MySpace had neither the edge of a
New York City digital media startup nor the loose libertarian
spirit of Silicon Valley. The social network felt chaotic and
open and a free for all sense, much like the

(26:37):
city where it was founded, Los Angeles. They made the Internet,
which up until then had been kind of like a
nerdy space, feel like a nightclub, like I feel like
a cool place and also slightly dangerous. My Space felt
cool because, however massive it was, it was still a
youth oriented and with various scenes and clicks. It felt

(26:59):
very niche. Plus Internet culture was not yet mainstream. Here
is Taylor Lorenz. Again, my Space was notable and it
was big, but it wasn't TikTok size, right, Like, it
was still relatively small, and the Internet was so much
smaller that I think, you know, people that were big

(27:20):
on the platform couldn't really scale out and achieve like
mass fame because my Space culture was not like the
Internet culture was not mass culture in the two thousands,
and so it just they were sort of inherently niche
and all of this was happening before there was viral content,

(27:42):
before algorithms filtered what Internet users would see. Yeah, I
think that now with algorithms, it just we take a
lot for granted modern Internet users that are younger, that
never had to operate on sites like my Space to
sort of expect the most engaging content to be delivered
to them. And it's just something that you know, was
not the case back in a day, like you had

(28:04):
to kind of really hunt around for different things. There
wasn't like a for you page that you would consume
content on my Space through to kind of to find it.
It was the start of something new through my Space,
we can see how the modern Internet came into being.

(28:24):
More to come in our series Main Accounts The Story
of my Space this season on Main Accounts, The Story
of MySpace, it almost seemed like an extended party, like
an extended digital party. And these investors in Silicon Valley

(28:46):
said black people and the Internet. Back then, it was
like your place to be weird. It was like your
place to like show the like freaky or like alt
side of yourself. It hit me as trobably like Crichino
was like, oh my god, guys super racist. The MySpace
data loss is something that I always put in air quotes.

(29:07):
I have no faith that this was done accidentally. Rupert
Murdoch lost lots and lots of money on my Space
because it turned out was actually not a good business.
Main Accounts The Story of my Space is written and
hosted by me Joanne McNeil, editing its sound design by
Mike Coscarelli and Mary Do. Original music by Alice McCoy,

(29:31):
Mixing and mastering by Josh Fisher, Research and fact checking
by Austin Thompson, Jocelyn Sears, and Marissa Brown. Show logo
by Lucy Kntonia. Special thanks to Ryan Murdoch. Grace Views
and behead Frasier. Our associate producer is Lauren Philip, our
senior producer is Mike Coscarelli, and our executive producer is

(29:54):
Jason English. If you're enjoying the show, leave us a
rating and a review on your favorite podcast po form Sadly,
my MySpace page is no longer around, but you can
find me on Twitter at Joe Mick. Let us hear
your MySpace story aunts check out my book lurking Maine Accounts.
The Story of MySpace is a production of iHeart Podcasts.
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