in internet


I always secretly hoped I’d never grow old and unhip, but every few months I’m reminded that the world is passing me by.

It all started with the askew hats. Two or three years ago I was walking down the street and saw some guys wearing baseball caps with the bills pointed off at crazy angles, like their hat was making a left turn but their head hadn’t caught up. Every time I see a kid with his hat all akimbo I want to grab his arms, smack him in the face, and straighten his hat out. It’s irrational, I know, but drives me crazy in a “get the hell off my lawn you crazy kids!” sort of way.

The online equivalent of this is of course, Myspace. Chalk me up as another early adopter design geek that thinks he knows users inside and out. I have almost a decade of experience running my own communities and Myspace baffles me completely.

I know there are millions of young people using it, but I can barely figure out what people use their profile pages for. Sometimes there is a blog, most often it’s blank. Most all of them look like 1997 guestbooks filled with pointless me too testimonials from people with equally baffling profiles. When you click from one to another to another, you are transported back to Geocities back before Yahoo bought it, flaming animated gifs and all.

I can see how Myspace looks more attractive than Friendster because you have so much more freedom with your space, but if we give users flexibility, is this really what they want?

Apple has made the iPod the most popular music player on earth, but it’s clean as a whistle. How could the same people love their super sleek music player and also love the gaudy oversaturated flashing/pulsating monstrosity of their Myspace profile?

I know I’m not alone in this, but it’s good to see people smarter than me are making sense of it because I’ve been thinking about Myspace for months and I’m still baffled as to its success (I know the social component is the biggest part, but as a designer I’m mostly focused on the membership’s design output).

Next time I see Clay Shirky, I want a hug and a story of how it all makes sense somehow.


  1. I’m in complete, 100% agreement. Every time I browse through profiles (including those of some friends) on MySpace, I’m completely dumbfounded by the unreadability (is that even a word?) of them. Apparently, flashing yellow text on a lime green background is not only badass, but it’s perfectly readable if you’re between the ages of 14 and 25.
    As for the askew hats thing, that’s probably one of my biggest pet peeves (it’s right up there with the 3″ long denim skirts and Ugg boots). I think we should start up a posse in downtown Portland and just go around slapping these people and turning their hats straight 😀

  2. What’s truly baffling is that MySpace *doesn’t* really allow you to customize your space all that much. All the flaming background images and dancing babies appear to be largely the result of various “MySpace Profile Editors” available (and heavily linked to, of course) from 3rd party websites. Of course, working inside the existing MySpace HTML/CSS has required these editors to do some pretty “interesting” things with JavaScript, IFrames and so on, and this is what leads to many MySpace profiles transcending the merely tasteless and becoming just plain broken. Let alone the type of embeds they allow in comments. Hell hath no fury like an G3 PowerBook trying to instantiate 5 copies of Windows Media Player. Grr…

  3. In terms of customization, I kind of see MySpace as the Livejournal of the social networking world. Plenty of teens are spending hours and hours participating in communities and tricking out their pages with unattractive, garish schemes but that’s exactly what they want. Isn’t it just the same as when every PC user got their first copy of a desktop publishing application and went crazy with font optionss, only now their audience is the world? Democratization at its finest!
    I graduated college just in time to miss out on the Facebook frenzy, and I witnessed only a tiny bit of Friendster uptake among my peers. But now the students entering college are all about MySpace and probably sniff at the Facebook.
    Generation gaps on the Internet should probably be measured in cycles of 2-4 years, I suppose.

  4. myspace IS the geocities of the 2000’s, except you can know even less about HTML and/or design in order to get up and running, and you don’t even have to publicize your weird geocities URL once you are done, you just have to be present on the site and other people will see you. and you can blog. it’s like the ultimate in vanity, and really now, what do people like more online other than themselves? even if they may make themselves look like they have the worst design sense in the world, it is at least theirs. i think that feeling of “i made something!” preceeeds anyting that a premade template provided my myspace could give them, even if it happens to get generated by someone else’s super-duper myspace profiler-styler tool.
    (and personally, as a single guy in his 20’s who lives in a large urban area, myspace is also one of the best online dating sites around. it’s free, it has more features than most online dating sites, and believe it or not, there are a lot of fairly normal people using it)

  5. I understand FaceBook (having signed up with my alum email account, to see what the fuss was about). Aesthetically, FaceBook is the anti-MySpace: clean design, lots of breathing room, (Though the kind of things that users put up about themselves on FaceBook very much scares me.)
    Perhaps I’d understand MySpace better if someone were to tell me that every site designed after 1997 is blocked from anyone with a MySpace account. I think danah gets it, though: it’s not the look that matters, but the ability to change it.

  6. What’s even more surprising to me is that many of my students don’t even check their e-mail, but they definitely check their MySpace accounts.

  7. Myspace is just like a Flickr, in terms of its appeal–except it’s not so sterile or uptight (relatively, of course).
    If I couldn’t excited about Myspace, I’d definitely worry I was getting too way uptight about the web. . .

  8. I’m sort of in the same boat. I’m just so repelled by the design of the user pages, that even though I can understand the intellectual reasoning in terms of social dynamics I think I can comprehend it, at a deeper level I’ve felt as though there’s this huge gap in my understanding – I just can’t grok/embrace it.
    I actually tried “designing” my profile page tonight and discovered that while “customizable,” it’s actually just about impossible to customize a profile and actually make it look good (described in a bit more detail here.
    I wonder that if the tools were provided, whether you would see some well designed pages… but reflecting, I think that it’s definitely part of the way they’re maintaining their primary (tween-teen) audience.
    For a long while, the hangu up on the profiles has absolutely blinded me from the actual core of MySpace’s success: that it has the feedback loops and communication mechanisms that provide a sufficiently rich language for teen social interaction in a single, comfortable, and accessible environment, which is certainly nothing to sneeze at.

  9. It strikes me that the baffling nature of MySpace to us oldsters is probably part of its allure to youngsters.
    And don’t drive so damn fast down my street!

  10. Count me among the baffled.
    Tom’s comment above is correct, though: there are a large number of “normal” people using it. By this I mean that several of my customers have mentioned it to me, have asked me if I have an account. These are forty- and fifty-year-old purchasing agents who buy boxes from me. If this doesn’t make you go WTF?, I don’t know what will!

  11. I’m a 19, and I still don’t understand why people like MySpace. It’s just…horrible. Every time I end up at a profile page, I’m attacked by embedded videos, music, and flash games, all at the same time! Surely people get sick of the same video each time they go to their profile?
    Not only that, everyone on MySpace hotlinks any image they find, which in my case caused my bandwidth usage to go up by 2GB a month. Thankfully I was still under my limit and didn’t have to pay anything, but still…I look back fondly on the spinning “Under Construction” gifs of Geocities whenever I look at MySpace…

  12. People need social. It’s messy as hell, but whatever works, works.
    Mailing lists are pretty awful shared spaces too, but some of us still love ’em.
    I love the vision of Clay Shirky as a comforting shaman. Dalai Shirky. I picture him at the top of a tall mountain. “Come, my son, what is troubling you about social software.”
    Maybe he can also explain about NeoPets and FaceBook. 😉

  13. Right on! I’ve had the same reaction, asking my younger sisters how they can even manage to enjoy the service with the blinking colors and text, sound, music, flash plugins and whatnot. My solution to all of this is to use the firefox adblock extension to hide everything that offends me. This works pretty well once you get some serious wildcards in there.

  14. The thing about myspace is that its a status symbol. Its all about how many “friends” you can have. “You dont have myspace? OMG! WTF?!” Why in gods name people do those nasty things to their profiles is beyond me. I tried my best to spruce mine up. But the interface as a whole is just such poor quality to begin with.
    I am a freshman in college, and in terms of facebook, its slightly different. I can look up people in my classes, or keep in touch with that girl I met at that one party without actually having to ask her for her phone number. Granted it does have that same “how many friends do you have?” mentality, but I find its actually usefull.

  15. Matt,
    maybe you just haven’t spent the time necessary to become a myspace power user and get rid of all the annoyances.
    Kids these days…

  16. Matt, as Fiona gets older you will be able to observe her as she incorporates new age-related memes into her life. I watch my two girls and I can see how they might be attracted to a place like Myspace (although, as I live and breathe, this will NEVER happen –I won’t allow it!).
    Customizing (however limited we think it is) is highly attractive. Match that with a social network that youngsters buzz about and you’ve got Myspace.
    I wish, though, the leaders of Myspace would give a h00t about imparting some netiqette education to their minions. I’ve banned any “borrowing” of my images from anyone on Myspace. They have no scrupples about linking directly to my stuff. I’ve tried contacting the head honchos but I guess I am outside their demographic.

  17. I think the best explanation I’ve seen is danah boyd’s analysis:
    “Identity Production in a Networked Culture: Why Youth Heart MySpace”
    She talks about how kids spaces are constantly controlled, and how MySpace offers kids an alternative space to be with their peers. Part of making it their own space is the ability to manipulate their profile beyond the means of acceptable usability.

  18. I don’t understand it at all. Someone here mentioned a time period of 2-4 years as being a ‘generational gap’ on the Internet. I disagree, and kinda take offence at that, being a 20 year old myself. 😛 I don’t think it has anything to do with age, but rather, with personality and interests. For example, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to assume that many of the people that can be found on sites like MySpace are also the types of people that can be found in nightclubs, parties and other such events. These are the types of people who use the internet only for social networking aspects.
    Of course, that’s just an explanation for the older users of MySpace. The younger ones still have a chance to develop web site taste. Hehe.
    Really though, compare a place like MySpace with a site like this one. The site looks nice, simple, minimalist and streamlined. It will also have a very hard time to attract any average MySpace user. MySpace is a way to advertise yourself based on what you look like and what your page looks like. Sites like this are a way to promote your ideas, thoughts, opinions.
    Eh. I don’t know. It’s still confusing, no matter how hard I try to justify or explain it, because I had thought that the Geoshitties days were long gone. =\

  19. sorry for chiming in so late, but I feel compelled to point out that young folk have been wearing their baseball caps askew since at least the 1970s. I distinctly recall my dad complaining about it when I was a kid growing up in New York back in the day.
    A new thing I noticed recently (new to me at least) was a cap designed to be worn that way; e.g., the logo would sit above the forehead only if the bill were pointing at 10 o’clock.

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