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Why the MySpace Bubble Will Burst

Do you know a local bar that is overrun with tourists and posers just because it’s the cool place to go? Like a hang-out spot that used be hip and trendy, MySpace is looking less desirable every month. The site’s reputation is taking a beating but it can recover with a much-needed makeover.

Digital Journal — To begin with, the name is misleading. The social-networking giant shouldn’t be called MySpace, it should be called RupertSpace. News Corp chairman Rupert Murdoch bought the money-maker for $580 million US, turning the once fiercely independent site into a vehicle for commercial deals. Despite the takeover, nothing changed. It still looks as ugly as ever.

MySpace leads the social-networking pack for one main reason: media streaming. You can check out a new band’s MP3s, or watch videos of your friends jumping off rooftops. It doesn’t take a genius to load content onto MySpace, and artists from comedians to jewellery designers use MySpace as a key promotional tool. So it’s obvious MySpace has a place in online communities. Don’t mistake that sentiment, though, for an absolution to all of MySpace’s recent crimes.

What crimes, you say? Let me count the ways:

First, MySpace’s updated Terms of Service statement is suspiciously vague: “MySpace expressly reserves the right to remove your profile and/or restrict, suspend, or terminate your access to any part of MySpace Services if MySpace determines, in its sole discretion, that you pose a threat to MySpace and/or its Users.” How does MySpace determine acceptable behaviour? Will the site’s administrators explain to banned users the reason for their expulsion?

I bring up this point because of a recent issue in Toronto. Local band Kids On TV were booted from MySpace after the site decided their profile page contained “sexually suggestive photos.” The band didn’t take this action lying down. “We suspect that although we kept our site visually PG-13 and played by the rules, the discussion of sexuality in our lyrics and the open embrace of radical culture was too much for MySpace,” responded Kids On TV in an open letter.

We shouldn’t be surprised that News Corp (who owns Fox, broadcaster of family-values defenders such as Bill O’Reilly) is trying to please Christian fundamentalists. It’s what they’ve staked their reputation on, whether they know it or not.

What kind of totalitarian Web empire is MySpace trying to create? Kicking off bands for shady reasons is the kind of behaviour that smudges a site’s credibility. And it doesn’t stop there: Tila Tequila, a singer boasting 1.8 million “friends” on MySpace, was told to remove widgets on her page that let fans buy her music. MySpace requested she withdraw her third-party app because it violated the site’s policy regarding “unauthorised commercial transactions.” Basically, MySpace wants artists to use a MySpace tool: the site struck a partnership with Snocap, which makes applications to help unsigned bands sell music.

MySpace used to be the funky kid on the block, but now it resembles a cranky grandmother at a restaurant who wants to send the glass of Sprite back to the kitchen because “it’s too bubbly.”

The latest thorn in its side? MySpace has major beef with PhotoBucket, a photo- and video-sharing service that was recently outlawed from MySpace because some PhotoBucket users were displaying on their pages slideshows framed with a Spiderman 3 ad. Where’s the violation? PhotoBucket, MySpace said, was running “an ad-sponsored slideshow and (encouraging) users to post these ads in bulletins and profiles throughout the community.” But PhotoBucket replied that MySpace never warned them of this supposed problem.

Do you know what makes more sense? Spiderman 3 is a Sony Pictures film, while MySpace is owned by the company in charge of 20th Century Fox films. Hmm, can you say “conflict of interest?”

PhotoBucket founder summed up what no one was saying but everyone was thinking. “By limiting your ability to personalize pages with content from any source,” said Alex Walsh in his blog, “MySpace is contradicting the very belief of personal and social media.”

Which is why MySpace better enjoy its number-one spot while it lasts. The execs there aren’t sweating yet, since the site is still insanely popular — according to a study by Racepoint Group, if you add the time spent by MySpace users in March, it would equal 1,740 years, compared to 171 years by Facebook users in the same month. It’s a strange quantification but it proves the point of how integral the site is to its many users.

The biggest guy always falls hardest, though. Based on my experience with MySpace, the site is ready for a big dive. Its interface looks like a Web designer smoked peyote and decided to lets everyone muddy their page with the worst possible elements imaginable. Want a gaudy background? You got it. Want text so faint no one can read it? Bring it on. Do you want spammers flooding your message board with garbage? Of course you do.

Lately, I’ve heard casual criticism from friends and acquaintances about the mediocre media player MySpace uses on profile pages. I’ve dealt with this problem before: I would listen to three tracks from a MySpace artist, but the fourth track wouldn’t work. Or an error message would let me know I’ve done something wrong. And unlike Facebook, MySpace distracts my eye with Flash ads or emoticon promos (kinda like this) that do nothing but make the site look like a childish experiment.

It’s easy to criticize but harder to suggest improvement. Although News Corp is probably happy with MySpace’s pole position, here’s how MySpace can escape further attacks from users and journalists alike: Clean up policies and the site’s visuals.

A policy makeover is needed to make MySpace realize how integral third-party widgets are to some users. Don’t ban PhotoBucket but talk to them. Learn what users like instead of forcing apps they don’t want. Also important is the policy of full disclosure — if you boot a user, let them know why. Be honest and be respectful. People spend hours, and evidently years, on MySpace so it’s only expected that these customers will be treated like adults. Well, unless they’re underage and enticing more rampant pedophilia.

Secondly, MySpace is covered in advertising, which is another way of saying MySpace is selling out. As expected. After all, it’s now a leading digital business run by an aggressive media conglomerate whose sole purpose is to increase profit margins. But does that mean MySpace users lose out while Rupert Murdoch wins? In order for MySpace to keep whatever street cred it still has, the site’s overall look has to be cleaned up to deliver a more enticing visual experience. Less is more in Web 2.0 design. A sub-section like the Comedy page on MySpace is cluttered with too many boxes and headers, begging the question: “Where should I look?”

I don’t expect MySpace to recover from its scandals in a matter of weeks, or even months. In fact, I’m willing to bet MySpace will never return to the uber-cool status it earned when the site first smacked the world in the collective face. Rather, if MySpace was concerned about its future and not the bottom line, its execs and designers would try to steer the site away from the downward spiral it’s currently sliding down. Sure, the pageview numbers don’t support that downturn, but it’s important for MySpace to listen to the buzz on the street. I’ve heard kids say, “MySpace is so 2002.”

And to be honest, they’re right.

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