There’s an entire generation of Internet users that won’t have much trouble remembering what Myspace used to look like. If you close your eyes, you can probably conjure up an image of the standard profile page: the music player up top, the top friends box somewhere underneath, a simple text list of interests over on the left. Trying to remember Facebook’s first design isn’t quite as easy–it’s changed significantly since its early days as an exclusive club for those with .edu email addresses. The point is that, for all its troubles over the last half decade or so, one of the biggest problems Myspace has had to face is just how vividly people remember it as a relic of an older age. For most, Myspace is a contemporary of AIM away messages and the HTML blink tag–one of the most prominent inhabitants of a more primitive web that we’re not very eager to revisit. So when Tim and Chris Vanderhook, founders of Specific Media, took over the company in 2011, one thing was clear: to be relevant again, Myspace needed a new look, one that was distinctive enough to purge the image of Tom grinning goofily over his shoulder from the Internet’s collective memory.
Actually, it needed to be more than a redesign–it had to be an entirely new product. “You couldn’t just put a new coat of paint on this thing,” Tim Vanderhook, the CEO, told me. “You really had to build everything from scratch, you had to rethink what the brand was actually going to stand for, and then you had to give people a totally different experience.” Basically, Myspace had to do a little soul searching. The challenge for the new owners was figuring out what the site could offer at a juncture where new social networks come and go on what seems like a weekly basis. The way forward, the Vanderhooks quickly decided, was to develop a new experience based around something that’s always been an integral part of the Myspace fabric: music.
While the old school Myspace gave many their first taste of social media, at its heart, the site was a place where musicians could host their songs and cultivate a fan base. Before services like SoundCloud came along–and before independent tunes got slick, cheap DSLR videos to premiere along with them–Myspace was an easy, free way for artists to get their music out there. And though Facebook eventually won the greater social media war, nothing really emerged to take Myspace’s place in the music world. The Vanderhooks saw it as a “huge gap in the market place. None of the social platforms that were out there were really servicing the artists’ needs.” So, over the course of the last 14 months, that’s exactly what they built: a striking new site that gives artists a handsome place to host their music and fans a place to connect with the artists they love.
The Internet got its first look at the new Myspace–now styled with a lower-case S–a few weeks ago when Justin Timberlake, who co-owns the company with the Vanderhooks, tweeted a video teasing the new design. The two-minute clip shows a surprising amount of new thinking. For starters, the site, designed by Josephmark, is based on a horizontal stream, something that just makes more sense in an age of widescreen laptops and connected TVs, the brothers explained. It’s immediately apparent that the site was made for images, not text–one major way it distinguishes itself from Facebook and its status-dominated feed. As Tim Vanderhook explained, the vision was to create a “social network for the creative community”–not just musicians but filmmakers, photographers, and other artists as well. That meant building a site that was able to showcase that creative work.
But you have to watch the clip closely to catch some of the more interesting developments. There’s a smart, multivariable search function that pulls in all the results across artists, albums, and users. It’s evident that there’s a heavy emphasis on playlists and mixes–at one point, you can catch a glimpse of a nice drag-and-drop tool for creating them. But there’s one thing that’s present in every different section of the site you see in the clip: a music playback bar at the bottom of the screen. As much as anything else, the new Myspace is competing with iTunes, Spotify, and the rest to be the destination for simply listening to the music you like.
The new design also includes a host of tools for the artists themselves. One part of the teaser shows how artists will have access to some nice visual tools for assessing their fan bases, things like dynamic infographics that show demographic data and maps detailing where people are listening. There’s an immense amount of data that flows through social networks, Chris Vanderhook explained–“We’re really trying to take all that data we’ve collected and put it in the hands of our community.” These types of analytics tools have long been essential for online publishers trying to grow readership, and it’s hard to imagine that savvy artists won’t see their potential straight away. Musicians will also get tools for identifying their most active followers–the video clip shows how artists will be able to send out exclusive content directly to a designated inner-circle of fans.
That’s something we’ve already seen in places–how a little attention from an artist him or herself can help sustain a fervent online fanbase. On Twitter, the fiercely loyal followers of artists like Nicki Minaj and Justin Bieber have self-organized into semi-official fan clubs, sounding off on every minute development in the artists’ careers, promoting their music, and, when provoked, descending on detractors like Wild West posses. Sometimes, that commitment is repaid in the form of a Twitter mention from the artist themselves. But it makes you wonder: If those types of interactions have blossomed on Twitter, a service that doesn’t really go out of its way to facilitate groups or to help users separate signal from noise in general, what sort of engagement will we see on a platform designed expressly to connect artists and their fans. “That reciprocal relationship didn’t exist historically,” Tim told me, “and that’s something we’re trying to bring to the table.”
But if letting fans get closer to artists they already love is one part of the strategy, helping users find new artists to adore is another main goal. With Spotify’s arrival stateside last year, a huge swath of users got their first taste of streaming music and discovered how easy it was to find new stuff when you don’t have to commit to a download. And while Facebook’s integration with Spotify is clumsy at best, the partnership has given us glimpses of how a good social music experience could be genuinely useful–things like sharing songs with a click or just scoping out what your friends are listening to. In addition to straightforward sharing tools, the Vanderhooks told me that the new Myspace will have a variety of music discovery tools, from artist pages that list their own musical influences to an engine that gives users personalized recommendations. “Discovery was something we wanted to nail,” Tim told me.
And it might be something they’re uniquely suited to nail, too. In addition to having substantial licensing agreements with the big record companies, Myspace has the same advantage that Apple’s always enjoyed over PC and smartphone makers–control over every aspect of the experience. As Tim Vanderhook explained–everything in the new Myspace is new, from the interface to the way the social network operates to the streaming infrastructure it’s all built on. What that means for users, if the company can pull it off, is a platform where finding music, playing music, and sharing music are all seamless, coherent parts of the greater experience.
The Vanderhooks are aware that their opportunity here is a unique one. “Tim and I didn’t have to answer to 2003 to 2011 Myspace,” Chris told me. “We really got to reimagine what Myspace looks like going forward and build a platform completely from scratch. I think that most companies aren’t afforded that luxury.” He’s right. But the brothers also know that they’ve only got one shot to get it right. “We have a lot to prove as a company,” Tim added, “and we have to earn back the trust of our community.” But even on the unfamiliar new site, old users will find one comforting nod to the Myspace of yore: Amid the spiffy new search and fancy playlists, the top 8 friends box is back in action.