March 10, 2010 -- We had a chance to step into MySpace HQ for a chat with new Co-Presidents Jason Hirschhorn and Mike Jones, who preside over the News Corp.-owned social network from a shared desk in Beverly Hills.
The joint office speaks to how closely Hirschhorn and Jones are working together to create a unified vision of the future for the lately struggling MySpace, whose former CEO Owen Van Natta exited the company after only nine months in the hot seat.
Hirschhorn describes MySpace as a site that "lacked focus" as he and Jones were getting up to speed and learning about the business. He sees the pair's role as instilling that much-needed focus as well as driving a re-imagination of the site from both a user interface perspective and in the development of new products.
All of what we saw today on the near future of MySpace's roadmap — into approximately fall of this year — is in service of the networks' new overarching goal of promoting user discovery and self-expression.
As Hirschhorn describes it, MySpace's trajectory moving forward is about the "pillars of broadcasting, discovery, self-expression, and making content a part of all those experiences." He spoke to quality, usability and engineering as major focal points: "We want as many people here to be people who build, and who create, and who have top-notch engineering talent."
Jones relates that metrics have become a core mantra for the company as well: "If someone's inside the company, we want to give them complete transparency in regards to what they're working on it, why they're working on it, why it's important, and if what they did actually came to a good effect."
The company has effectively retooled the way the business works to make data a huge driver, including implementing very specific new product rollouts, user testing and full-circle evaluation of how changes affect user behavior.
But beyond instilling a level of discipline regarding the process of implementing user interface changes and building new products, at the end of the day Hirschhorn says MySpace is about "music that you love, the photos that you love, the video that you love, and the artistic stuff that goes on every day that says that you're you. Those are the pillars of how we're going to be building our product."
Social Network or Destination?
We asked Hirschhorn and Jones whether they envisioned MySpace as needing to cultivate its roots as a social network versus crafting the site as more of a destination around premium content, and the answer essentially is both.
"You need to be a platform where your audience has a voice," even as culture constantly shifts and changes, said Hirschhorn. "I think a lot of people say 'content portal' — it isn't just about putting up channels that broadcast this stuff one-to-many. It's about putting up a platform that's totally accessible to anyone that creates content, whether it's big media or not."
Jones agrees that "going back to the roots of what made MySpace MySpace early on is important. "I think at some point it lost its way, and we're basically just tying it back to that. I don't think it's a decision of content site or social network — people are doing things that are very social within MySpace, and they're doing things that are social in other environments too. There's a type of user, there's a type of relationship that MySpace is really, really good at, there's a type of environment around discovery that we're really good at, and it's about embellishing that."
Hirschhorn acknowledges that MySpace is "centered around pop culture topics" that resonate with the primarily 14-34- year-old demographic ("and a very sweet spot in the 18-24 demographic"), "So while you could share your thoughts about the elections in Iraq it might not be the place that you do that — but you'll certainly talk about what went on in The Hurt Locker and what dress Sandra Bullock wore, and that crazy lady who ran onto the stage during the Academy Awards. That is a part of the pop culture conversation that goes on every day, and also a place we feel we can win at."
Twitter and Facebook: Competitors or Coopetition?
Jones sees ample space for many social sites: "I think there's room for all the players. I think at the end of the day there's not going to be a direct overlap saying 'this is the exact behavior on MySpace or FB or Twitter' — there's always going to be some crossover. I don't think it's a winner take all because I don't think it's a singular behavior we're all trying to capture."
Hirschhorn agrees: "The reality is there are people on there with accounts on both. When you're as big as 100 million or 200 million users you seem to have a little bit of everybody." He says that after seeing commonalities with Twitter and doing a simple integration deal allowing MySpace users to sync the two accounts, "All of a sudden we started to see people back on MySpace we hadn't seen in a while."
He sees a certain level of platform agnosticity as being a necessary attitude when operating online: "I think that if you want to maintain a presence online, you have to think cross-carrier or cross-network. When you and I were coming up, SMS didn't take off until it was cross-carrier. To think that your audience is only going to be on one network is silly. It's very important for us to be cross-networked, and to make sure that if you're someone who is managing your presence on MySpace that you can also publish into Twitter, and you can go into Facebook, and if you're creating a playlist and you want to distribute it into Facebook, that's great."
Future Roadmap: Profile Changes
We were shown a number of elements from the upcoming re-imagination of the user interface, primary among them being changes to profile pages.
Users will still have control over customizing the look and feel of their profile ("They'll actually have better tools," says Jones), but there will be more unification to the underlying structure and framework behind profile organization in order to make a better, more cohesive experience for users in terms of site navigation.
Hirschhorn says that customization is obviously valuable but "has to work within a usable framework. And that is going to be a religion for us. It can't be homogenized, it still has to be 'let your flag fly,' but there has to be a certain kind of structure to it. And that's a very, very important point for us going forward."
He acknowledges the dual blessing and curse of the original wide open profile customization: "Giving them that control had a real impact on the usability of MySpace. So the real mission we laid out to the staff was how do we give them the visual control but still maintain a certain kind of architecture in how you browse through the site."
The new profiles will bring a unity to the overall experience while still allowing the "crazy and fun" level of self-expression users came to know and enjoy about the site.
Publishing and The Stream
In the past, you couldn't do things like publish videos or other types of content directly into the Stream, but the vision is to allow all types of content. Moreover, you'll be able to filter the contents of your stream by type, so you can view only videos or see just the links, for example.
The MySpace Share mechanism will handle incorporating content from all over the web directly into the Stream, both via buttons webmasters can incorporate within their sites and as a browser bookmarklet that allows sharing content just as easily even if the buttons aren't specifically included.
Currently in testing now is a change to the former status update tool into an explicit publishing tool, allowing users to simply add videos, photos, links, and other types of content. Within the next month we should expect to see a new feature that allows cross-posting to sites like Twitter, Facebook and Digg via a simple dropdown.
"Why not? Publish once, go everywhere. If you increase publishing, you increase engagement," said Hirschhorn of the upcoming feature.
Dashboard and Reputation
Back in October, MySpace launched an Artist Dashboard tool as part of the MySpace Music hub for musicians and bands. We'll be seeing that tool become available for users as well, with the goal of providing a visually-rich view into the "ripple effect" of a user's activity on MySpace.
Imagine being able to get statistics back on what your most popular shares are, who is reacting to what you're publishing and where they are, and all manner of metadata about what kind of user you are on the site and the effects of your activities there.
Closely related to that will be a system of achievements and badges that users can display on their profile to show off what type of users they are, whether it be someone with the most shared playlists or someone who spots trends early on and more.
This creates a cycle of feedback and recognition to the user, as well as providing an additional layer of self-expression and identity driven by the data surrounding how that user is actually interacting with MySpace.
We were shown bright, friendly icons for potential badges that anyone who has used Foursquare will recognize as familiar, and this particular part of the strategy certainly recalls mechanics like Xbox Live achievements or PS3 trophies as well.
The idea is to add game-like elements that not only are fun but also give recognition back to the user in a playful visual style: "That's what the future of MySpace is going to look like. It's not going to be bland and data-oriented; it's not going to look like chaos like it does today. It's going to be fun and tactile," said Hirschhorn.
Hand in hand with data visualizations in your Dashboard, another new featured area to look for in the near future is a way to identify trends. Here too we should expect to see bright and visually-engaging ways to find out where the hotbeds of activity are around MySpace, whether it be a hot conversation thread or new movie trailer or new album stream.
Trends will be tracked in real-time and be based on what's being most shared, most talked about, and generating the most activity around MySpace at any given time.
Those trends will also be able to be broken down very atomically by various indices like region and demographics, so you might be able to drill down very specifically into data points like "what is the most popular album among teenagers in New Jersey," for example.
This level of detail is another example of how data-driven some of the new features will be as well as how much of that internal data will be open and transparent to users, but ideally in a way that's more visually attractive and accessible as opposed to your typically dry charts and graphs: "I want something more visual. I want it to be visually cool," said Hirschhorn.
Liking and Interest Maps
In addition to friending (a bi-directional relationship) and following or subscribing, a new "Liking" mechanism will emerge in the future as one part of a system that will start to understand more about you.
This hints at a still nascent element that will likely play a much larger role in MySpace's strategy moving forward, which is about learning specifically what you like and changing your experience over time to be more customized.
Hirschhorn said of the Liking mechanism that it "starts to build preferences that ultimately are going to build up who you are in our database so we can deliver you better experiences. They don't change your user experience overtly in front of you but they're going to behind the scenes. That will be both passive and active. That's a discipline I don't think we've had here, but it breeds engagement and action on the site."
In the long-term, the goal is to build up "interest maps" based on what users have liked and gravitated towards in the past, although the eventual personalization engine will also have to be wide enough to allow for new things and new experiences.
"Discovery has to be wider than what you think you want," and won't be just about matching a stated set of preferences but also about allowing for serendipity and for new types of content to be exposed to you based on elements including what your social network is actively interested in.
More Features, and When Will We See Them?
Other new features we were shown included a big visual and thematic update to the Calendar application, which will gain the ability to sort and filter by type of event like concerts, movies, etc.
The calendar will be culture-based and have a strong local component, so users can drill down in a visually accessible way to pop culture and entertainment-oriented events nearby.
Apps and games will also see significant development in the coming months, with the goal of increasing audience usage from the current 20-30% participation to something more like 50%.
Mobile development will also be hugely important, with iPhone and Android (app pictured, right) being the biggest platforms, although currently mobile usage is "overwhelmingly" not smartphone users yet. "The iPhone is gaining very quickly," though, says Hirschhorn.
We should also expect to see a better introduction to MySpace for new users, who will get recommendations in terms of friend and content suggestions upon creating an account on the site. This will give new users a place to start from even if they don't yet have any friends.
Topic pages will be another new feature that will pull in content from around MySpace but also from Twitter, YouTube and all over the web where it's happening surrounding a particular topic, movie, celebrity, or other entity people are talking about online. This starts to organize existing content around user interest specifically as opposed to relegating content discovery to specific content hubs in music, movies, etc.
Lastly and perhaps more importantly: When will we be seeing all of these new plans come to fruition? The answer is incrementally, as features become ready — as opposed to saving everything up for one big launch.
"I don't think the world wants to wait for a redesign and also, those days are over. One hundred million people use this every day, and you can't just freak out and pull the tablecloth off," said Hirschhorn of the decision to roll out incremental updates, changes, and new MySpace features.
In other words, if you're curious about how all the above is actually going to be implemented, you likely won't have to wait too long. From what we saw today, there's a lot on the plate for MySpace in the coming months, and we should expect to see a lot of changes coming soon.
Will it be enough to restore the social network to its former glory, and put MySpace back on a path of growth and leadership in the social networking space?
Only time will tell, but if Co-Presidents Jason Hirschhorn and Mike Jones are able to successfully execute the vision they've laid out, it's perhaps reasonable once again to be optimistic about the future of MySpace.