Will Sex and Stupidity Sink the Social Networking Sites?

As the hula hoop, Pee Wee Herman and the dot-com bust all conclusively proved, common sense, clear thinking and knowledge of history are wholly incapable of countering a new craze once it has caught the public’s fancy. And social networking sites are about the biggest things on the Internet right now, whether or not they are really becoming “the hub of a new virtual culture.”

MySpace, the leader of the pack, was launched in 2002, by Tom Anderson and Chris DeWolfe, as a Southern California band promotion site. From a market value of zero it grew sufficiently big for Rupert Murdoch to pay them $580 million for it in July of this year. Anderson and DeWolfe determined from the start to allow User Generated Content (UGC) because they sensed that the big boy on the social networking block, Friendster, was stumbling because of its decision to censor user pages. Whether or not Murdoch’s News Corp. execs would leave MySpace alone was an unknown at the time, but they have managed to keep the cachet and the site is still growing.

As of late 2005, MySpace was home to over 2 million different bands; tens of thousands of comedians, actors and filmmakers; and, as a recent CNNreport put it, “millions of striving, attention-starved wannabes.” MySpace welcomed its 100,000,000th registered user in early August 2006, and even now signs up almost a quarter of a million people daily.

MySpace, Google and Yahoo have been fighting to be leader in the number of daily page views, right near the nice round billion mark, according to Web watcher Media Metrix. There are hundreds of other social networking destinations on the Internet-Facebook, Cyworld and Bebo, to name a few-but MySpace, according to Web site tracker Hitwise, accounted for 82% of the traffic in its category in 2007 and still has some 70% now. It’s because, as CNN says, it is by far “the most risqué and chaotic” of them all, and the users still rule. And the users, of course, want sex (music is a close second).

Since it is free, helps get the message out and has so far been an unrestricted site where anything goes, MySpace has been adopted by many adult content producers and performers. Yet, while plenty of the boom-time happy-talk is still being heard about MySpace, the voices of caution and concern are growing into a chorus.

Don Dodge works for what is called the Microsoft Emerging Business Team (MEBT), and has a blog called (along with a few hundred others) “The Next Big Thing.” The boilerplate business blurb at MEBT’s site says that it “work[s] with the Venture Capitalists (VC) and VC backed start-up software companies,” but what Dodge does on his blog is provide spot-on analysis and insight about Internet “trends and troubles.”

“YouTube and MySpace,” he says, “are the multi-media Napsters of [today]. They are experiencing the same explosive growth, the same scalability issues, and will face the same legal problems, and some new ones.” He attributes the reason for the looming “unpleasantness” to the fact that social sites are started by “young, inexperienced, technical people who are ill equipped to deal with legal, PR, and customer satisfaction issues.”

Jeff Mullen, a leading publicist as well as a top producer of adult content, is satisfied with MySpace now, but is smart enough to know there are some question marks hovering around it. “Any tool that helps to spread the seeds of discussion regarding a movie project or a star,” says Mullen, “is useful, and MySpace is a valuable marketing tool to reach a specific audience.” That audience, say the Media Metrix folks, is concentrated in the 12-to-28 age cohort, with roughly equal numbers of males and females.

It’s the low end of that range that spells trouble for MySpace, since the site is overflowing with adult material of every kind. Microsoft’s Dodge realizes that such material “is everywhere on the Internet [and] is not illegal, but web sites must comply with COPA (Child Online Protection Act)” and keep minors away from it. That’s a real challenge, considering the high level of computer literacy among today’s adolescents.

Dodge doesn’t mince words. “Congress, concerned parents and law enforcement are pushing for new and tougher controls,” he says, and “MySpace need[s] to deal with the porn issue quickly.” He knows whereof he speaks, having worked at a number of “Big Net” name brands. “I can tell you from personal experience at AltaVista and Napster,” he continues, “that porn and copyrighted material (music) are two of the biggest issues to manage, but also the most popular.” It remains to be seen how the social networking gurus deal with this roiling, boiling and explosive nexus of sex, kids, rock ‘n’ roll and the drug-like effect of the Internet. Stay tuned!

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