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Was MySpace Downfall Inevitable? Plenty of Blame to Go Around

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Ahead of the news that MySpace has been sold to Specific Media for $35 million, a fraction of the $580 million that News Corp. paid for the site six years ago, I had a flurry of exchanges with some of my former MySpace colleagues about “what could’ve been.”

There will be plenty of Monday morning quarterbacking on the rise and fall of the once largest social network — nay, “social portal,” as it was re-branded back when Facebook began usurping its glory.

One day before the deal, Kara Swisher of “All Things D” (another News Corp. property), said: “The price…[is a] far cry from the $100 million that News Corp. had been aiming for. As part of the deal, sources said the News Corp. unit will be making significant cuts in staff and costs — up to 50 percent or more — all contingent on the purchaser. The staff cuts are, obviously, directly related to the transaction and the winning bidder.”

For the current employees of MySpace, this news will probably only sting for a bit. The current round of layoffs will be hopefully the final one in a long series of them over the past two and a half years that has left an aura of demise floating over the company’s 90210 headquarters.

Some time prior to co-founding this here delectable site, I was MySpace’s Director of its now defunct “IMPACT” section (think “Politics, News & Non-Profits”) and Executive Producer of Political Programming (2007-2009).

The IMPACT team was in charge of producing, along with MTV, the 2007-2008 Presidential Dialogue series, which were the first truly social media-integrated events during the campaign (the CNN-YouTube Democratic debate came first on the calendar, but it received heavy criticism for its lack of transparency). The IMPACT team ran news partnerships with multiple organizations, including both NBC/MSNBC and Fox News.

We developed and maintained a major “green” initiative for the company, including helping to publish a book (on recycled paper, of course); created a plethora of non-profit and charity related partnerships, including a ground-breaking (at the time) PayPal donation widget; ran MySpace Cafes at the Democratic and Republican Conventions, with attendees like Eva Longoria, Bradley Cooper, and Seth Meyers; and with MyDebates, we developed the first ever integration of social media into, and partnership with, the Commission on Presidential Debates, very likely to be a model of all debates in this election season.

With a team of 3-4 (depending on the month) and a constantly shrinking budget, we broke ground and were unbelievably successful. I’m proud of the work we did. Personally, I wouldn’t be speaking at global conferences as a “social media expert” or training companies & non-profits on digital communications best practices had it not been for my time at MySpace. And I definitely wouldn’t have co-founded HyperVocal (my efforts to revamp “MySpace News” back in 2008 are worthy of another column at another time).

I’m sure most employees (former or current) will argue that it was poor management, or a need to hit revenue targets once News Corp. took over, or a bottleneck in the technology department, or lack of resources given to their division, or a poor public relations effort, etc., that set the course of MySpace’s downfall. Any number of these could be true. I suppose we’ll never know for sure. It is most likely a combination of these factors, along with a “low attention span” public. It probably didn’t help to be doing business, and trying to grow, along with all of these issues, in the midst of a global economic crisis.

Unfortunately, I’ll contend that once MySpace had won the masses with its “cool” appeal, it didn’t put enough effort into developing its technology for, and marketing itself to, the “elites” of the growing world of technology consultants that were driving the social media usage throughout companies, charities, political and issue campaigns, and most importantly, news divisions (those people actually writing and talking about these new tools). I’ll leave class arguments to Danah Boyd, but I think there can easily be studies at every business school and panels conducted at every conference about the changing demographics of America and how a company must respond to them (ie a strong dual-pronged approach is necessary).

And I’ll offer yet another reason. Maybe its simply that technology is moving so quickly these days (see: Ray Kurzweil) that the hyper-critical, web-connected public expects their technology to constantly be upgraded. Thus, any company, whether it be MySpace, Google, Facebook or Friendster needs to be spending as much time, effort and cash focusing on its future offerings as it does marketing its current offerings. And even then, as quickly as the public jumped onto the proverbial bandwagon, it can just as quickly jump off.

I was witness to at least two of rounds of layoffs while MySpace was sending me a check, and the entire IMPACT division was shutdown in one round back in 2009. Hopefully, any new owner of MySpace can restart the company and at least grow it to hire a few folks that can be proud to work there.

Either way, for as long as the site is ranking #46 in the country on Alexa (we’ll take that traffic any day), I’ll keep my MySpace page alive and kickin’ (even if just with my Twitter feed)!

Lee Brenner is the co-founder and publisher of HyperVocal. Follow him on Twitter @deepdishpol. You can read his full blog archive right here.

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