We've seen this all before.
A young, brash Internet company with an edgy business plan pushes the edges of taste, laws and social standards, becomes the next big thing, gets a lot of attention and funding, begins to mature into a real business, and then finds it can't be young and edgy anymore. Next come a few desperate attempts to rein in the very atmosphere that made the site big. And finally, the last step is a sad end to an Internet phenomenon.
This is what we're seeing now with MySpace.com. The Web site was once synonymous with young people and goofy home pages. Everyone had one. It became a craze as big as Napster in its day. If you are under 25, you no longer exchange phone numbers in a bar, you exchange MySpace pages.
But for the rest of America, MySpace is now synonymous with something else: danger. The name now evokes the thought of online predators. Schools around the country are holding MySpace seminars for frightened parents. Children are flying overseas to see adults they've met romantically through the site. The MySpace craze turned very dark very fast. And all this as the site was acquired by News Corp. for a lot of money.
A tin ear
During much of this time, MySpace has turned a tin ear toward its troubles. Last year, when I first talked to the company, its spokesman insisted the firm removed any blogs that broke the company's terms of service, including blogs where kids reveal too much information about themselves. Empirically speaking, it's obvious MySpace wasn't aggressive enough. Anyone who has even casually browsed the site could see that. Most important, parents around the country who discovered their kids' MySpace sites were continually horrified by what they saw. Your idea of "too revealing" might be very different from mine or anyone else's, but when you're talking about kids, it's parents' standards that matter. And by those standards, MySpace was way over the edge.
As the heat was turned up on the site – when Dateline NBC came calling a few months ago – MySpace went into a shell. The company refused to go on camera and discuss its product. It was still hoping the problems would go away.
But anyone could see that wasn't going to happen. MySpace has a fundamental flaw: People can lie. It's nearly impossible to keep kids under 13 off the site, no matter what the terms of service say. And despite some respectable efforts by the company to allow kids to keep adults off their sites – kids can choose to limit visitors to a permitted group of friends, an option parents should insist on -- adults were finding and contacting kids anyway.
So on Wednesday, MySpace announced its latest initiative to keep kids safe. Those bloggers registered as adults won't be able to contact those bloggers registered as young children unless the adult knows the child's entire name. It's a nice thought. But one has to ask: Has MySpace dealt with its fundamental problem, that people can lie? The answer is no. An adult who wants to talk to a kid can simply create a fake profile as a kid. And kids can easily create profiles as adults. This new safety measure is a farce.
To prove this, I just tried an experiment. I tried to register at MySpace as a 12-year-old. I was refused; good enough. So I took the error message, "Based on the information you have submitted to us, you are ineligible," and searched for that in Google. Up came hundreds of Web pages with kids telling other kids how to circumvent this inconvenience. "I lied about my age," writes one. "I always do that," says another. If you have trouble, advises a third, "Close your browser and open it again." Works like a charm. I went from 12 years old to 19 years old in three clicks and 30 seconds.
The business model: Selling kids' need for attention
Fundamentally, MySpace is popular for one reason: Young people publish hundreds of thousands of risqué photos of themselves, and others like to look. It is a voyeur's heaven. Child advocate Parry Aftab of WiredSafety.org once described the site to me as an "attention competition." MySpace's product is simply kids' need for attention. It trades in a dangerous commodity.
It's not such a far cry from Napster, which traded in free music. Napster could offer to remove songs when copyright holders complained, and it could scream about the First Amendment, but fundamentally, Napster was trying to make a business off of ill-gotten goods. So is MySpace. To fix itself, the company needs to stop making cosmetic rules and fundamentally change its business. It may not survive such a change; but I believe there isn't much choice now.
Here's a hopeful alternative to the current story line. Nearly a decade ago, Internet wunderkind eBay faced ruination from thieves who had seized on it as a tool for vast international crimes. At one point, most of the auctions for items like plasma televisions were fraudulent, for example. Any outside observer could see this; auction sellers insisted on Western Union payments and offered goods at half their normal prices. But eBay kept up a public posture that it didn't want to interfere with its marketplace.
As eBay grew up, it saw the hogwash of its defense, and began to hire hundreds of employees to patrol the site. Now, the firm tells me it has nearly 1,000 eBay cops who take down suspicious auctions all the time. It's not perfect, but it is working. eBay's reputation has improved.
MySpace has said it has such patrols, but they are obviously a fraction of what's required. Parent News Corp. must aggressively – not passively – find a way to monitor kids' sites and remove material that's questionable before waiting for something terrible to happen. That won't keep every kid safe. But it will change the atmosphere of the site. Perhaps the end of the free-for-all will mean the end of the MySpace phenomenon. That's what happened to Napster.
But if the site wants to grow up and if it wants to shake its reputation, it will have to stop trading in the unholy currency of kids who need attention.