Should MySpace just die already?

Here's an argument in favor of News Corp.'s shutting down the social network and in the process setting an example in how to wind down a digital fad that's worn out its welcome.

Caroline McCarthy Former Staff writer, CNET News
Caroline McCarthy, a CNET News staff writer, is a downtown Manhattanite happily addicted to social-media tools and restaurant blogs. Her pre-CNET resume includes interning at an IT security firm and brewing cappuccinos.
Caroline McCarthy
4 min read

It goes without saying that News Corp. is familiar with the process of cancellation--it's the parent company of the network that controversially axed "Firefly" and "Arrested Development," after all.

But when it comes to getting rid of a social-networking site, things seem to be a little bit more complicated: After this week laying off nearly half the people who work at MySpace, News Corp. seems to be in limbo over what to do about once-cool social network. Rumor has it that the Rupert Murdoch-helmed media company is shopping it to potential buyers, and at least one analyst is speculating that if a new owner isn't found by the summer, MySpace will just be shut down entirely.

Shutting MySpace down altogether seems pretty unlikely, considering that the site does technically still have millions of users, and an extensive redesign geared toward transforming it into a pop-culture media-sharing site may have generated a mild uptake in interest. It also would be more expensive to close up shop than to sell for even a bargain-basement price. But consider this: in the grand scheme of things, MySpace is probably better off dying a quick death now than prolonging its painful slide into irrelevance any longer.

A big media company's digital strategy has long since shifted from owning and operating a social network, to finding the best way to get its message and brand through the channels of communication offered by the social-media sites that have already proven successful--Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and to a lesser extent Foursquare. So News Corp., it seems, is eager to get MySpace off its hands: "Unofficial rumors are another round of layoffs happen in March," someone claiming to be a MySpace employee posted on Reddit. "My expectation is that MySpace is being prepped to sell within the next few months and that process will include more restructuring."

It's going to be difficult either way, and there is nothing pleasant about the idea of a few hundred more people losing their jobs or the feeling of demoralization that would be sure to hit the people who spent years building MySpace. But one of the smartest lessons from recent trends in Web development has been that if something online doesn't work, there's not as much shame in shuttering it as you'd think. Facebook has built, released, and then cut numerous features. Microsoft, in its transition from MSN to Windows Live, has cast off a few products and offered residual users some options for exporting their content.

There's never been a parallel example of a community site closing on the scale of MySpace. News Corp. could pioneer this by finding a clean and user-friendly way to wind things down, giving members the option to export content and assisting with job transitions for employees. If executed well, it could be held up as a landmark example of when and how to wind things down. Because arguably, as long as the brand name is there and the legacy is there, MySpace is going to be held back by the basic fact that, well, it's MySpace. Its new incarnation as a pop-culture hub is even further focused on being an arbiter of cool than its old social-networking model was. The tarnished name MySpace, even with a newly designed logo, is getting in the way. An edgier re-branding strategy could've involved changing the name entirely and producing a wholly new site, but News Corp. missed that boat.

Besides, though it may be cheaper and seemingly more humane, selling MySpace and keeping it alive under the auspices of a new parent company would be unlikely to generate the turnaround that MySpace has sought after multiple rounds of layoffs and multiple shifts in design and focus. A sale would likely look something like AOL's sale of Bebo, a social network that had proven to be an even more ignominious purchase than MySpace was to News Corp. Never much of a powerhouse in the U.S., Bebo sold to AOL in early 2008 for $850 million--a price tag that seemed ridiculous even then, and a much higher figure than the $580 million that News Corp. spent on MySpace parent company Intermix in 2005. Last year, with Facebook the clear winner in social-networking, AOL sold Bebo for pennies to a private-equity firm. Its fate is unclear.

There's a difference, though. At the time, AOL was struggling all-around and arguably didn't offer much to Bebo. In contrast, the kind of resources that News Corp. offers MySpace should not be underestimated. The moment the site is sold, it will weaken or even sever a lifeline to a powerful media company that has, without a doubt, offered MySpace many opportunities for partnerships, advertisers, content, and other perks. Removing MySpace from a respected media company won't turn it into a start-up--it'll just hasten its decline and potentially make things miserable for the employees who remain.

But the ability to efficiently wind it down, tie up loose ends, and distribute users to appropriate greener pastures--perhaps bringing some new pop-culture and content start-ups into the spotlight in the process--could prove to be MySpace's greatest innovation in the end.

It'll probably have less backlash than canceling "Arrested Development," to boot.