Poor Design, thy Name is MySpace

Hold your tears – MySpace is dying. Commentators are finding a bit of entertainment out of the obituary, colorfully describing MySpace’s famously bad layout as akin to “Times Square tawdriness” and just plain “boorish”.  Lest we forget that, in the words of our own Ivey Inman, “Myspace was super hot until just a couple years ago,” our present perch can reflect on Rupert Murdoch’s Big Mistake and underscore the evolving trends in design and usability.

When News Corp. bought MySpace for over half a billion dollars in 2005, the Internet was – ahem – a much different place. Web 2.0 technology was just integrating itself into the mainstream, imparting vibrancy and sleekness to our otherwise bland HTML foundation – how quaint these formative years! MySpace took full advantage of the new technologies, haphazardly cluttering their sites with music players, photo albums, videos, etc. It sure looked amazing – the new applications wowed earnest tweens and baby-boomers alike – but the user-experience turned into a Frankenstein of dynamic applications and pop-up ads with no coherence or control. Their “design” had turned against them.

Enter the Zuckerberg. Facebook’s clean (almost chic) appearance stood apart from its cluttered rival and, well, became the new standard. And while Facebook’s problems are legion, MySpace’s blunder is attributed to their emphasis of profits over design. Contrast this with Facebook’s refusal to be sold or go public – a strategy that allows for greater control over updates and content while strictly adhering to smart design. And now, as if to punctuate the diverging fortunes of these companies, Facebook is nearing the 70 trillion user mark. I kid, but only just.

Designers might note the widespread acceptance of CSS 2, 2.1 and 3 has led to the leaner stylings of sites by industry leaders (note how often your favorite sites update in the unceasing quest for ease of use). Also, take WordPress: we might note that it and similar content management systems have encouraged users to personalize their sites in a wider range of styles than MySpace ever could. By comparison, Tumblr and Twitter’s clutter-free publishing is just oh-so-quick-and-easy, allowing their users to thrive and interact.

If there’s one overriding lesson to be learned, it’s that successful websites and applications toe the line between innovative design and usability. MySpace never lacked innovative design – there’s no denying that MySpace was an early pioneer of social media. If anything, MySpace contained too many design elements – elements that were later stripped down and streamlined on Flickr (photo-sharing), Twitter (microblogging), Hulu (streaming video), and, of course, Facebook (the White Whale). By integrating all of these technologies at once, MySpace overwhelmed their audience and destroyed the last remaining shreds of usability. A last ditch redesign last fall highlighted MySpace’s vacant stare; we now have the rare treat of observing the creation of an online ghost town, where millions of “users” are left unused, and Tila Tequila’s long-abandoned page still has 3.7 million fans.

MySpace is not, however, a victim of its own success; it was never successful because its users never came close to achieving a fitful experience. Thus it shall remain a tidy lesson of Internet hubris.