Why MySpace Is Really GeoCities 2.0

myspace-logo1It was unkind irony that just as MySpace was reshuffling its leadership with the hope of reviving its fortunes, Yahoo (s yhoo) quietly announced the end of GeoCities. It was as if the hand of fate overseeing Internet startups was offering MySpace an uncomfortable peek into its own future.

Like GeoCities, MySpace won quick success by making it easy for people to build a customized online presence. Like GeoCities, MySpace sold out to a bigger media company (s nws) that ended up a caretaker for its long years of decay. And now MySpace is slowly becoming, like GeoCities, an abandoned amusement park on the web.

Is fixing MySpace, as Om said recently, a “mission impossible“? Or can Owen Van Natta keep it from becoming GeoCities 2.0? The latter seems unlikely, since it would require undoing fateful decisions that MySpace made several years ago, decisions that made good sense at the time but have since been draining vitality from the company.

Back in early 2005, MySpace was thriving while Friendster was struggling. MySpace founders Chris DeWolfe and Tom Anderson had watched Friendster users create profiles, contact friends and then discover there was little else to do there. So they took a different route, filling MySpace with features — blogs, mp3 feeds, videos — and letting people go wild with them.

Such an approach was crucial to MySpace’s success, but it also created a longer-term problem in that site is now littered with garish profiles. By comparison, tech companies with longer runs of success — among them Google (s goog), Amazon (s amzn) and Apple (s aapl) — have always insisted on simplicity and elegance. Facebook seems to understand this better than MySpace.

A bigger misstep was selling out to News Corp. Again, the deal made good sense at the time: MySpace’s parent, Intermix, had seen its stock price collapse because of an investigation by Eliot Spitzer’s office. News Corp., meanwhile, needed a fast way to gain a big presence in online media — and access to younger consumers who were shunning television and print.

Under News Corp., MySpace changed from a company that sought out new ideas from its users to one that was deaf to their interests, preferring to corral them into seeing as many ads as possible. Many early users saw MySpace as a community built around music. Rather than cultivating such a focus, MySpace chose to be social-networking portal — all things to all people. But there is really only room for one such portal at a time, and right now it’s Facebook.

MySpace has squandered whatever early potential it had as a countercultural force. Four years ago, many bands that used the site to connect with and find fans saw MySpace as playing the role that Rolling Stone magazine did in the 1970s: an alternative to the big record labels that could launch unknown talent to fame. MySpace did explore this potential with its MySpace Records label, but it was a halfhearted attempt. It chose instead to work in harmony with record labels, missing a chance to disrupt an industry that badly needed change.

Fixing MySpace would mean reversing many decisions that time has shown to be ill-advised, returning to a spirit of risk and opportunity that has been missing for years. Much easier and safer is maintaining the status quo and trying to hang onto the users who, for whatever reason, are still updating their profiles. But that isn’t innovation, it’s hospice care.