Is MySpace the next Friendster? The next who? Exactly. Once a social network starts to lose its lustre in comparison with a younger, fresher rival, it's on a slippery slope to obscurity. What MySpace did to Friendster, it's now having done to it by Facebook.
Stats released this month by Web metrics firm Compete show that MySpace has lost a fifth of its US traffic since June this year, with more than 5m users jumping ship in August alone. Talk to many users, and they'll say Facebook looks better, is more technically innovative and, most importantly, is what their friends use.
Game over? Maybe not. MySpace has a new boss and executive team, jointly formulating a master plan to take the fight to Facebook next year. Last month, it announced it was in talks with Facebook about a partnership, in an effort to show it was a different offering.
You can't swing a cat in central London without hitting 17 social-media strategists these days, so we thought we'd get them to prove their mettle with the ultimate challenge: what would they do to regain MySpace's mojo? Here are ten suggestions.
You knew this was coming. Collages of animated GIFs and flashing text aren't just eye-blistering to look at -- they feel dated next to Facebook's clean and uncluttered design.
"Using MySpace isn't fun or easy," says Mel Kirk, social media manager at online dating firm WhiteLabelDating. "The design on pages often renders text unreadable; music videos automatically start playing, getting you into trouble at work and causing slow page uploads; and integration with other sites, such as Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn, isn't apparent."
That's not to say that MySpace should just ape Facebook's look and feel. Far from it. "Facebook feels like it's owned by Facebook, and there I connect with people I know, and people make money from me through advertising," says Paul Dawson, experience director at IT services firm EMC Consulting.
He's backed up by Candace Kuss, director of planning at PR agency Hill & Knowlton. "The Facebook interface is clean, but one size fits all. It's bland, well-scrubbed, yuppie," she says. "It can put you into a tidy demographic and bundle your data for marketers. MySpace is for the musicians, the artists, the rebels. They could add even more customisation elements. Each page could be presented as a gallery of 'My' -- my stuff -- a self-curated look into my life and my circles of friends right now."
Even in its core area of music, MySpace is under attack from Facebook, which has launched new features for bands in recent months. But MySpace is still seen as being on top in this area. "From an audience's point of view, MySpace's strength is music, not social networking," says Jens Bachem, managing director of digital agency Digital Outlook. "It should, therefore, aim to own music for today's connected generation. The real fight is with the likes of MTV and iTunes, not Facebook, Twitter or any other social network."
He suggests MySpace should tap into parent company News Corp's wider media empire and explore a 'freemium' model, "offering the creative music community wider functionality, like Flickr, and reducing its reliance on advertising". Dan Leach, senior account director at Hill & Knowlton, agrees. "Content creators are the most valuable asset MySpace has access to and, by harnessing this power and delivering a useful social platform through which creators can showcase their talents, MySpace will be able to step out of the shadow of Facebook and be a market leader again."
Adrian Moss, head of Web 2.0 at business and IT solutions firm Parity, thinks MySpace should junk the personal social networking altogether, in favour of a music focus. "I'd get rid of the bloated and confusing personal profiles, give the site back to the musicians and watch MySpace turn into a massive social network of fan clubs," he says. "Spotify has proven that people want a new way to enjoy music, without the expense or hassle of downloads or DRM. MySpace could do what Spotify has so far been unable to do -- make music social again."
While we're on the subject of music, what about live gigs? Social-media expert Francesco D'Orazio, from marketing consultancy Face Wired, thinks MySpace could turn itself into a live-streaming powerhouse, focusing on gigs. "MySpace could become the place where you go to watch that Radiohead concert happening on the other side of the globe, or the place where you tune in to listen to and watch a DJ set from your home in Sao Paulo," he says, suggesting that the bands who use MySpace could be provided with the necessary streaming technology to make the idea work.
"MySpace could charge for bandwidth and have a tiered system whereby they charge the promoters based on the number of people -- 50, 100 or 1,000, for example -- allowed to connect to the live stream. Artists would have a channel to promote their events to a global audience, and they could definitely charge for some of the events they broadcast." That said, Facebook has jumped into the live-streaming pool already, teaming up with Ustream to help artists run webcasts on its Web site.
Independent technology consultant Graham Oakes thinks MySpace missed a trick in trying too hard to be a media player while Facebook was outperforming it in the innovation stakes with technologies such as news feeds and third-party applications. He thinks MySpace needs to try to outpace Facebook on a technical level. "If I were MySpace, I'd do this by embracing openness," he says.
"MySpace was into OpenSocial from the outset. Facebook stayed closed. MySpace is subversive. Facebook is corporate. MySpace could open-source its code and tap into a huge community of developers who'd build technical momentum that Facebook could never match. It could also create a locus for supporting Creative Commons business models that might just give a much-needed boost to the music industry. Most social networks are social only at the user level -- their underlying model is as corporate as [any other company's]. By opening up the network at every layer of its operations, MySpace could find a whole new burst of momentum."
Others think openness should also be about more partnerships with other Web 2.0 companies. "MySpace was the first wave, but now it must innovate and integrate with the second wave of social-media services, because it's not the only show in town any more," says independent digital strategist Andrew Grill. "It can, however, leverage other services that exist alongside MySpace, and promote them to their own users, giving them a reason to stay."
Here's an idea that could result in a true meeting of mogul minds. Thomas Power, co-founder of Ecademy, a social-networking site for business folk, believes MySpace should think of itself as a community rather than a platform, separating itself from Facebook and Twitter. "MySpace is a community of music lovers," he says.
"Who controls music distribution on the Internet -- or at least the 5 per cent that's paid for? Apple, through iTunes, which is a platform, not a community. The marriage of market leaders is thus iTunes and MySpace -- a platform with a community on top. [It's like] cheese on toast -- delicious! If I were in charge of MySpace, I would focus all my intention and attention on uniting the two organisations, gluing my community on to their platform, initially through the iTunes API."
Once this is up and running, Power would take the biggest leap and try to "matchmake" the bosses of those respective companies. "This won't be easy," he concedes. "Rupert Murdoch and Steve Jobs are not easy, but they are businessmen and they are entrepreneurs. They can see ahead -- the proof is that they are both billionaires. They will see what I see once they see cash through the till. The first job is to prove it works, and then unite iTunes and MySpace as a single community platform."
Rupert Murdoch isn't known as a counter-culture hero, but perhaps MySpace could maintain its relevance by waving a flag for alternative lifestyles, thumbing its nose at Facebook's bigger traffic by focusing on being cooler.
"I would fully embrace the counter-culture perception it has, focus on appealing to the 18-to-24 crowd, and create an avenue for major commercial brands and advertisers to use it as a strong vehicle to reach this audience," says Rajan Sodhi, vice president of marketing and communications at hosting company Peer 1.
"[MySpace should] focus on music and art, and support programmes related to furthering both -- launching unknown bands, virtual art galleries for artists, clubs, and so on. [It should] accept that the number of users may be less than Facebook, but the usage would be different. Where Facebook focuses on keeping abreast of your friends and what they're doing, MySpace focuses on helping youth, artists and musicians express themselves and the artist within."
Perhaps more interactivity is what MySpace needs to make a comeback. That's what futurologist and former BT chief technologist Professor Peter Cochrane thinks. In fact, what he describes sounds less like MySpace as it is now, and more like Google Wave.
"It lacks the following intimacy or interaction opportunities: a place where I can go to work and collaborate or interact with others; a shared experience area where I can view pics or movies, or listen to music with friends; hot buttons to other sites and facilities tried and used regularly by the MySpace community; and ditto for cool YouTube and iTunes hot buttons," he says.
Mark Redgrave, founder of semantic-Web company OpenAmplify, thinks MySpace should be getting semantic too, in order to "really understand the users' interests, desires and emotions". And then it could use that information to flog better adverts. Well, not adverts...
"Forget advertising, think services," he says. "Imagine if a user who is talking about how bored they are becoming with hip-hop, and how much they dig bossa nova, was offered VIP tickets to the new Brazilian Beats night at Koko? Imagine if that user could then share the VIP offer with his or her friends? These sort of highly targeted, relevant services can be used to dynamically personalise the experience, and power innovative social applications that connect at the very heart of the user's interests."
MySpace may be global already, but some experts think it hasn't gone far enough in catering for different cultures and languages. Nataly Kelly, senior analyst at market-research company Common Sense Advisory, points out that Chinese is just one of the non-English languages supported by MySpace, but that it isn't very easy to find on the site. Kelly's company has issued a report of the top 30 languages used online, but says MySpace only offers 17 of them.
"With an online audience of nearly 37 million people and significant buying power, Korean is the tenth most important language on the Web," she says, by way of example. "But MySpace doesn't offer Korean speakers any option in their language. Also, Arabic has a higher Web-marketing impact factor than Polish or Danish, but MySpace has missed this key language entirely. Facebook has 70 languages available, but where languages are concerned, it isn't quantity that rules, but quality. If MySpace can better target the online communities that matter most, it can certainly get past some of the hurdles that are currently preventing it from competing globally with its rivals."
For some users, MySpace has always been about checking out hot friends of friends of friends. Maybe it should embrace that aspect even more.
"At the moment, it wants to be a shop window for people to tell the world about themselves and build relationships," says WhiteLabelDating's Kirk. "The limitation with this is that it doesn't go very far -- once you've visited someone's page, left a comment and viewed their pics, the game is basically over until the person updates their profile again. Even the game of snooping around people's friend lists is limited, due to closed profiles that lead you up dead-end streets."
Kirk thinks MySpace should embrace the potential of millions of users looking to hook up, and turn itself into a dating site. "It has a massive database of online extroverts and a well-known brand name. Perhaps adding online dating functionality would stimulate and reward their exhibitionism while also encouraging new members to sign up," she says. "The novelty of being able to upload your own video clips and pictures is no longer fresh. Human interaction is the currency that MySpace should focus on, and online dating would build on its proposition and give it a purpose."
Experts giving their views is all well and good, but perhaps MySpace should look beyond the legions of social-media strategists and Web 2.0 evangelists. That's what digital strategist and evangelist Andrew Grill thinks, anyway. "I would ask my 100 million users what they would do if they ran MySpace," he says. "I would probably receive millions of submissions and crowdsource from my own community to make it better."