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In Teens' Web World, MySpace Is So Last Year
Social Sites Find Fickle Audience

By Yuki Noguchi
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 29, 2006

Teen Web sensation MySpace became so big so fast, News Corp. spent $580 million last year to buy it. Then Google Inc. struck a $900 million deal, primarily to advertise with it. But now Jackie Birnbaum and her fellow English classmates at Falls Church High School say they're over MySpace.

"I think it's definitely going down -- a lot of my friends have deleted their MySpaces and are more into Facebook now," said Birnbaum, a junior who spends more time on her Facebook profile, where she messages and shares photos with other students in her network.

From the other side of the classroom, E.J. Kim chimes in that in the past three months, she's gone from slaving over her MySpace profile up to four hours a day -- decorating it, posting notes and pictures to her friends' pages -- to deleting the whole thing.

"I've grown out of it," Kim said. "I thought it was kind of pointless."

Such is the social life of teens on the Internet: Powerful but fickle. Within several months' time, a site can garner tens of millions of users who, just as quickly, might flock to the next place, making it hard for corporate America to make lasting investments in whatever's hot now.

MySpace is one of the most wildly successful sites in recent years, amassing 124 million profiles and transforming teen life online during its 2 1/2 years of existence. The site functions like a cross between a diary, e-mail program and photo album where content can be shared with friends, whose pictures appear on a member's profile.

One key measure of a site's popularity is the amount of time a user stays on the site. Tracked over time, such usage data for older networking sites frequented by young people show how popularity gradually rises then falls, like an inchworm's back.

Take Xanga, the hot social networking site before MySpace: In October 2002, the typical Xanga user spent an average of 1 hour and 39 minutes a month on the site, a figure that declined steadily, reaching only 11 minutes last month, according to Nielsen-NetRatings. Friendster, another older site, hit its first usage peak of 1 hour and 51 minutes in October 2003, and then hit another peak of 3 hours and 3 minutes in February 2006. But last month, the average user was on Friendster for a mere 7 minutes.

MySpace usage ramped up heavily during its first year and a half, hitting 2 hours and 25 minutes in October last year. Then it dropped to about 2 hours and held relatively steady there for the past year. Facebook, a younger networking site, is still on a gradual incline, reaching 1 hour and 9 minutes last month .

It's hard to make an online audience stick. Most Internet services are free and compete for a viewer's time, which most sites then try to parlay into advertising dollars. The more time someone spends on a site, the more ads they see. The successful sites engender habits among their users, but users can -- and historically have -- defected to other services for any number of reasons.

The high school English class cites several reasons for backing off of MySpace: Creepy people proposition them. Teachers and parents monitor them. New, more alluring free services comes along, so they collectively jump ship.

The relatively short lifecycle of a popular site is a terrifying prospect for companies like Google Inc., which this month spent $1.65 billion in stock to acquire the Internet's latest grass-roots favorite, year-old YouTube, whose popularity Google hopes to harness as a loyal video audience.

To a youth market composed of teens like Kim and Birnbaum, MySpace is just the latest online fad. Before MySpace, the place to be was Xanga, and before that, Friendster, MiGente and Black Planet.

"They're not loyal," Ben Bajarin, a market analyst for Creative Strategies Inc., said of the youth demographic. Young audiences search for innovative and new features. They're constantly looking for new ways to communicate and share content they find or create, and because of that group mentality, friends shift from service to service in blocs.

Consider the most popular teen sites tracked by Nielsen-NetRatings. Topping the list last month were Snapvine.com, PLyrics.com, Picgames.com -- none of which appeared among the top 10 for April, or the list a year ago.

Madeline Dell'Aria, another high school junior, has fallen in and out of love with a number of sites. In middle school she started avidly blogging on Xanga. Last year, after most of her friends abandoned Xanga and migrated to MySpace, she followed. "No one was using Xanga anymore," she said.

Initially, MySpace drew her in, and she spent lots of time looking at her friend's photos or leaving comments on their pages, she said. Now, only a year or so later, ennui is setting in. She spends a lot less time on the site, instead listening to music or talking on the phone, she said.

MySpace said it hopes to earn a permanent place in its users' lives, becoming as essential as e-mail and cellphones.

"There will always be anecdotes of people that love MySpace and people that don't," a spokeswoman for the site said, but the site is adding an average of 320,000 new profiles every day and continuing to go mainstream. In the past year it launched new services such as mobile and video channels, and expanded internationally.

Some teens, however, say security and privacy -- already a common concern among parents and teachers -- are dampening their enthusiasm for MySpace.

Over the summer, Birnbaum's friend Chrissy Quantrille discovered an impostor had taken her photos off her MySpace profile, set up a fake page and even used it to establish a romantic virtual relationship with a boy in California.

"It was creepy," said Quantrille, who tried to contact the offender -- "What are you doing?" -- and sent a message to the duped boyfriend. She and her friends filed a form asking MySpace to take down the fake page, which it did within two days.

New fake sites of Quantrille and her friends reappeared three weeks ago, prompting some to move to Facebook, where users have to register using a school or business e-mail, making it feel safer.

MySpace going mainstream also attracts unwanted attention.

Dell'Aria said teachers at her previous high school started logging onto MySpace and reading students' profiles, apparently monitoring the pages for signs of alcohol or drug abuse.

"I was shocked and kind of annoyed, and it was kind of an invasion of privacy," she said. Although no one got in trouble, word spread like wildfire, and many of her classmates reset their privacy settings to block unapproved users from accessing their pages, she said.

Liana Castro, a junior in the literary media department of Duke Ellington School of the Arts in Washington, said having an online social life intesified the drama in her real life.

She routinely heard from people who complained they weren't designated as one of her top eight friends. "People would be like, 'why am I not in your top eight?' " With 279 online friends, Castro caught so much grief she changed the site so it only listed four family members.

Her profile also landed her in hot water when a boy she didn't like kept asking to be her online friend. "I kept deleting the message," she said. "He got mad."

Watching as their peers deal with such fallout, some vow not to engage in the phenomenon at all.

Evan Hansen, a sophomore at Falls Church High School, said he didn't buy into the MySpace hype and is waiting for the craze to die.

"Over time, people are going to get sick of talking to people on the computer," he said. "I just think people will want to spend more time with each other -- without the wall of technology."

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