Myspace Wasn’t a Simpler Time, We Were Just Teenagers

My Myspace page was so sick.

Everyone believes this about their own Myspace page. But I had coded custom cursor-animation effects, a rotating sparkly background, auto-playing music, everything—all carefully crafted in the Myspace custom HTML / CSS. I curated my Top 8 obsessively, getting home from school and logging on to shuffle my friends’ avatars around on the grid based on the day’s drama.

Today, a decade later, Myspace is trending on Twitter, a website that’s sucked the fun out of social media and turned it into something more like a job you’d have in hell.

Twitter doesn’t denote why something is trending, only that it is. When you click on a trending word or phrase, usually the first thing you see is people tweeting “I don’t know why this is trending but…,” further boosting the trending word to more popularity, at least in the Twitter trending algorithm’s view. So it’s hard to pinpoint why Myspace is trending on Twitter today, but it seems to have something to do with the idea that social media should be more like MySpace, and that MySpace’s Tom was a better leader than Jack Dorsey or Mark Zuckerberg.

The tweet with the most engagement about Myspace in the last 24 hours is this one, waxing nostalgic for a supposedly simpler time before evil tech overlords consumed the internet:

“Remember Tom? Remember how he just sold his $500m share in myspace and retired so he could have a nice life?” Twitter user @JackDMurphy wrote. “He never sold our data, never tried to influence elections, never lobbied against privacy legislations… what a man. Myspace was just too pure for this world.”

Remembering a tech mogul in the rosiest possible terms—even a comparatively benevolent one to what we have today in Silicon Valley—risks forgetting how influential the platforms of the past were for the ones that came after it.

The structure and design of the internet is undeniably more homogeneous today. In the Facebook versus Myspace transition around 2009 when Facebook’s users surpassed Myspace’s, teens—like me at the time—were growing up and looking for something more utilitarian and adult. At the time, MySpace was regarded as a hangout, not a communication platform—while Facebook was more like a tool.

Facebook was, and still is, basically a form you fill out that populates a clinical-looking profile, peppered with categories and interests you’ve chosen to add to your profile, like Grilled Cheese or Air Bud. Twitter’s only personalization options are the banner image, profile picture and bio (and the bad tweets you populate your feed with). Instagram is even less customizable: profile picture, bio. The rest is up to whatever images you put on your account grid, chronologically. On each of these, the content is the profile, and your online personality is what you post.

On Myspace the promise of personalization was undoubtedly the biggest draw for a lot of users—mostly teens like myself, always struggling to express ourselves adequately to the world. The people talking about Myspace now—old millennials, 30-somethings mostly—were in their middle and highschool years at the social platform’s early-2000’s peak. That’s prime time for crafting the self-image you’re hoping to take into adulthood. For me, that meant rotating my auto-playing profile song between Evanescence and whichever RHCP single I was feeling that day, and tinkering with the tiled Blingee background animations until I broke some piece of the CSS. Everyone’s different.

Coding a corner of the internet to be your personality shrine might have primed us to casually continue giving all of our personal data to a stranger (in this case, your first Myspace friend, Tom Anderson). But Myspace didn’t invent the art of internet persona-building. People had been doing that since the earliest days of online life, crafting elaborate alter egos to roleplay in Multi-User Dungeons. Myspace was less anonymous than Bulletin Board Systems or Blogspot pages, so maybe it felt more socially consequential if your profile sucked or you said something stupid in the journal section. It was, however, one of a handful of gateway platforms between total anonymity or pseudonymity online, and having your legal name tied to everything you post, as the move to Facebook required.

As today’s trending tweets about Myspace show, we like to paint the past in broad, optimistic strokes. The reality is, Myspace wasn’t what we would call “evil” today—it was no Facebook or Amazon, buying up huge plots of land and labor to monopolize their markets. But it wasn’t innocent, either. In 2006, just as the platform signed up its 100 millionth user, Myspace engineers were using powerful backend tools to breach user’s privacy and stalk women. We’ve since seen the same thing happen at Facebook. The platforms change but people don’t.

Tom’s not innocent when it comes to handling our data, either. He sold the site to Rupert Murdoch in 2005 for $520 million, and Murdoch in turn sold it to Viant, an advertising technology giant, in 2011—along with access to data from its more than one billion registered users and hundreds of email addresses. He can likely live his life guilt-free in that he’s not been under any supreme court scrutiny like Mark Zuckerberg or accused of harboring Nazi user base like Jack Dorsey, but that’s only because he’s been smart enough to take his millions and virtually disappear.