MySpace

MySpace

Hypocrisy?

I wrote a post a while back on how much I disliked MySpace, much for the reasons as outlined in the Slashdot news stories below. However an anonymous commenter replied with something interesting:

Social networking websites are a kludge. People are trying out because it’s new and prevalence of computer and internet makes it possible for an average, unrespected, socially adept Joe to find some of his basic needs via this medium. Psychological.

I myself am not a proponent of social networking. But sometimes I do sign up and check how the system works. I don’t care about the users, it’s the ideas that I am looking at. These kinda websites are created by smart people, really smart. There are very good ideas that you can learn from something that you hate. Your perspective should be diverse for problem solving, which is important if you are into computer science or otherwise.

This comment must have been brewing in the back of my mind as a few months later I signed up to the MySpace network. I did it mainly because I wanted to see what all the fuss was about, I also wanted to examine the a system that so many of my non-technical friends seemed so enthralled in – how did their user interface cope with such a wide range of ability?

The Attraction

A large attraction of MySpace would be down to its snowballing ubiquity, the more people who sign up, the more attractive it is. This is for obvious reasons:

  • There’s no apprehension about MySpace as “everyone else” uses it, “MySpace” is an acceptable name to drop in normal teenage conversation, as opposed to say “blog feed aggregator”. Those terms aren’t engrained into current popular teenage culture, so would be shunned.
  • As it’s the widest used network, chances are there’s already someone you know on there, so you can get started straight away. A kind of “everyone uses it, so everyone uses it” affect.

An interesting side-effect of the first point is that some technical words have entered normal conversation. At college in our Skills Centre (where a lot of computers are) I regularly hear the mention of “HTML” by people who would sneer their noses up at it in any other context than MySpace. Currently people would say there’s a worrying Western teenage culture that deems intellect or an interest in learning as unsavoury. I’d add that more specifically it’s education that is deemed unsavoury. From that HTML example it would seem interest in learning about things is alive and well, which considering our innate curiousness as humans is not entirely surprising.

Education however has the ability to poison a lot of routes which people may have wanted to know more about. Education is largely seen as “the man” in Western teenage society, so it goes without saying that going “against the man” is the preferred option, as opposed to giving things that “the man” says a try. Is this really surprising considering the perceived view of what establishment–”the man”–has given us? Tax, war, student debts, eroding liberties to prevent terrorism, all without any escape due to an apathetical political climate.

Accidents

Searching for a unique identity is one of the problems that adolescents often face. Some, but not all, teenagers often challenge the authority or the rules as a way to establish their individuality. They may crave adulthood and to find their place in the society.

Wikipedia article on Adolescence

I’m a teenager, I find that quite true. Being young is all about throwing personality-mud against the wall and seeing what sticks. Heck–a lot of adults don’t even know who they are.

The search for a unique–or at least some–identity is also an innate human condition. Whether the identity be created by clothes, or writing, or the way you act. MySpace has profile “styles” to bring about a representation of your taste, much like wearing clothes can. This is where MySpace comes under a lot of criticism from a technical audience: web design as a career means creating an identity and taking into consideration the ease of use from a user’s perspective. MySpace users largely only care about the first part: creating their identity. This is one way in which MySpace should be as detailed in my post Yourspace.

My point resides in how the styling of profiles seems like an accidental afterthought on behalf of the makers of MySpace. Yourspace highlights how standards like HTML allow everyone to interact without the need of special software. The way MySpace has been implemented spits in this:

  1. To style their profile, at all, users are forced into either copying from a different site, or painfully learning “their” esoteric incredibly unfriendly “system” of hooks in the original MySpace design.
  2. They don’t put the user stylesheet into the <head> block, resulting in that little flash of the underbelly of your profile before the style kicks in.

It’s things like that that make me think adding styles to MySpace was an afterthought, or at least very poorly implemented in the original scheme of things. They’ve basically deprived 50 million people of the ability to appreciate the beauty and simplicity of CSS coupled with HTML. The only option available for most teenagers when styling their profiles are those awful advertising-laden MySpace layout sites. If there was proper CSS support then they could use any of the innumerable CSS resources on the web. The point is that these technologies are designed for average people to use, so should be. The following quote sums it up:

…imagine what a service like this could be with a professional makeover. Get a company like Adaptive Path or a few Bryan Velosos in there and you could open up a whole new world of user enjoyment and customization.

–Mike Industries “Hacking MySpace Layouts“

Natural Interaction

Social software has to do what it says on the tin: it has to interact with your social life seamlessly, otherwise nobody would use it. This is one reason why MySpace is so popular, it does that quite well: you can comment on other people’s profiles, you can send out bulletins, you can view other people’s blogs to see what they’ve been doing with their lives, or look at their images / videos. Also, amazingly for once, record labels have embraced technology to make streaming songs available for inclusion on user profiles.

A while ago I would have considered these activities as “noise”. This is from signals-to-noise ratio terminology borrowed from electrical engineering by trendy web people to describe the web. Presumably things like Wikipedia are the “signals” while things like MySpace are the “noise”. However on giving a little more thought on the subject, the whole deciding on whether something is a signal or just noise is entirely subjective. For instance within MySpace there are microcosms where messages for organising parties etc. would be considered very much signals, but if taken on a macrocosmic level they would be considered as noise.

Unnatural Interaction

However, some parts of MySpace have more in-common with the points as outlined in an article called “Autistic Social Software“–the simplistic representation of social situations within a technical field.

Instead of letting comments between people naturally decide who your friends are, there is the concept of “rating” your friends in rank order. I couldn’t rank my friends in real life, because people aren’t discrete values. Why do I have to do so online?

Rather ominous is the positioning of a “Delete” button underneath a bulletin. I’ve pressed it a couple of times, instinctively thinking that I was deleting the bulletin–not so–it was the friend who sent it they decided you wanted to delete. One strike–bad bulletin–and a friend’s out?

The whole concept of a friend-counter is bizarre; again, in real life I wouldn’t feel too comfortable with tokenizing my friends in that way. What kind of sad person counts all the friends they have? I don’t see how the friend counter has any bearing on anything whatsoever:

  • Most of your friends may not have MySpace accounts.
  • The “friends” may just be acquaintances, with no real bearing on your real life.
  • What does a higher friend count really mean? That you’re happier? Or more popular?

With Webhostingbiz Blog I am used to, and enjoy, the ability to have a repartee in the comments section. Curiously MySpace have made your profile comments read-only to you, and to engage in a conversation you have to reply on the other person’s profile. Any other friend looking in on your profiles would have a really hard time trying to piece together any conversation you might be having with someone else. In real life this would be like writing on pieces of paper, then secretly passing them between people, piling them up in any order as you go along.

Longevity

I’d hate to look at the code behind MySpace, because it seems every other request I make ends in an “Unexpected Error” (as opposed to an expected one?) For this reason alone I’d suggest MySpace might just collapse into itself.

Far more likely though is that today’s teenagers will simply grow out of it. The next generation will then, no doubt, sign up to something else that has better features, as the market is notoriously fickle. Things like MySpace already seem quaint with fully-blown Second Life experiences, but really so long as teenagers feel the need to express and share ideas to confirm or alter their identities, they’ll be a market for a business to tap into. Or possibly teenagers will eventually find out how to make the web work for themselves.