The man who put teenagers' lives online
His website has revolutionised the music industry, shot the Arctic Monkeys to fame, hooked a generation of teens - and Rupert Murdoch. But so far MySpace has only scratched the surface, he tells Owen Gibson
Monday July 3, 2006
In three short years MySpace, the website he co-founded, has helped to revolutionise the music industry, become a byword for the "web 2.0" revolution and sucked up countless leisure hours. On the flip side, it has been castigated as a teen safety menace, blamed for sparking a second wave of boom-bust behaviour among venture capitalists and criticised for having no business model.
Yet DeWolfe, who co-founded the site in September 2003 after a rollercoaster career at various other dotcom concerns, projects an air of insouciant confidence that only a man hailed by Rupert Murdoch as helping to lead the reinvention of one the world's largest media groups could possess. Or maybe he has merely perfected that brand of casual, low-key assurance peculiar to America's west coast.
Either way he makes growing an internet phenomenon seem like a breeze. "We started the company around the time that a lot of other social networking companies were starting up. But we saw that a lot of those companies had a very niche focus. We set out to create this next generation portal where we looked at the best social features around. We had classified, events, blogs, music. It definitely has its own voice - it's a little bit edgy, it seems cool, it doesn't seem overly produced," he says.
In London for a whistlestop tour to gauge the progress of MySpace's first international office, he has just come back from seeing Martin Sorrell ("a smart guy") and matter of factly explains how he and co-founder Tom Anderson (the chap in the white T-shirt who becomes your first "friend" when you open a MySpace account) came up with the idea.
They pinched the best bits of everybody else's sites (Craigslist, Evite, MP3.com) and put them together in a manner that made sense. Unconcerned with technological bells and whistles and geeky one-upmanship, they instead set out to appeal to the people they knew and, beyond them, the youth tribes of middle America. DeWolfe repeatedly describes MySpace not as a networking site but a "next generation portal", a phrase pinched by Murdoch to describe the way in which the site can act as a kind of sticky glue for all kinds of other content.
He admits that the site was far from revolutionary technically but believes it had a spirit that made it immediately attractive to the millions who now colonise it. Stumbling onto MySpace for the first time can be a disconcerting experience - not a million miles away from wandering into a school playground with garish colour schemes, discordant music and its own language and customs.
"We get criticised by all the bloggers for the poor design of MySpace. But it's worked out well. We intentionally kept it very simple," he muses. "We didn't get bogged down in creating the next new technology podcasting RSS thingamajiggy, we looked at how people live their lives." It appeals, he says, to a generation rejecting the "segmented and narrow" choices of traditional media and used to selecting from thousands of songs on their iPod, hundreds of cable channels or millions of websites.
The profile of MySpace.com rocketed overnight last July when News Corp paid £332.85m for parent company Intermix Media. At the time the decision, combined with Murdoch's digital volte-face, provoked some head-scratching and no little derision. A year and several copycat deals later, it looks like a bargain.
DeWolfe admits to "some concern" internally about Murdoch's involvement but says once he came in to see them, they were sold. He is unsurprisingly positive about his ultimate boss: "Rupert is a very smart guy. He reinvented the newspaper industry. They said a fourth TV network would never work [in the US] and he did it. He's got a really good gut feeling when it comes to media."
Those who obsess over whether MySpace can be profitable on its own terms may be missing the point. By repositioning News Corp for the digital age and potentially providing a way to tap into an audience that he cannot reach any other way, it is already worth its weight in gold.
Others are more circumspect, believing that MySpace is simply the latest teen fad site. They point to Friendster, Geocities, Tripod and a dozen other "personal web space" or "community" sites that were flavour of the month before their users moved on. Critics also say that mind-boggling stats, which show MySpace to be the second most popular site in the US, are skewed because people spend all day on the site, boosting traffic figures.
"A lot of people feel that those sites were much bigger than they were. Friendster had 1.5 million users," counters DeWolfe. "Last month in the US we had 54 million unique users. A lot of people have put their lives online and are using MySpace to manage their social lives. There was definitely a concern in the beginning that that could happen but if you have 100 friends and 99 of them are on MySpace you can't just go over to another website and expect them all to follow."
Future plans include expanding globally on the localised offshoots already established in the UK and Australia, launching a mobile version around the world, creating new products and services and forging even closer ties with record labels, film studios and broadcasters to host exclusive album playbacks, trailers and promos.
"We're only beginning to scratch the surface of where we can go. We plan to move into another 10 or 11 territories in the next year. The mobile platform will be huge for us and I think everyone will be accessing MySpace through their mobile device. There's also some brand extensions that we're very excited about, along the lines of our record label."
The popularity of MySpace has resulted in the launch of dozens of similar sites. In the UK, Facebook (popular with university students) and Bebo (populated mainly by schoolkids) are particularly strong rivals, and the behemoths of the online world are trying to grab a slice of the action. In January, Yahoo! chief executive Terry Semel told MediaGuardian about his plans to reconfigure the company to link blogging, music, community features, photo-sharing and so on. DeWolfe is sceptical. "We're never arrogant, we're always looking at the competition. But they have not been successful for a couple of reasons. The intent to socialise on a site like Yahoo! isn't really there because the brand doesn't necessarily stand for anything and there's no real voice to it," he says.
The rise of Arctic Monkeys after fans used MySpace to spread the word put the site on the map in the UK and music plays a crucial role in setting the brand's tone - anyone attending a UK festival over the summer is liable to trip over a MySpace tent, promotion or unsigned bands competition. There are now more than 2m band profiles on the site and DeWolfe believes MySpace can have a similar democratising effect in the world of short film with amateur film-makers building up a MySpace fanbase before being snapped up by a big studio or broadcaster - 50,000 to 60,000 new videos are already being uploaded per day.
There are, however, signs of a backlash. Billy Bragg recently removed his music from the site, claiming the terms and conditions effectively signed over his tracks to News Corp. MySpace replied that he had misunderstood and promised to redraft its legalese. But the bard of Barking's move could signal a wider problem as users start to wonder about the implications of the dozens of web 2.0 ideas that effectively rely on content provided by them to attract advertising eyeballs.
While News Corp refuses to strip out MySpace ad revenues, DeWolfe insists there is a lucrative business model, listing the big brands that use the site to reach its prized constituency. Search advertising and more in-depth relationships with studios and labels will also bear fruit, he says.
Meanwhile, the relentless News International promotional machine that played such a key role in establishing Sky as the No 1 pay-TV outfit in the early 1990s has swung into action in the UK, but DeWolfe insists there will be only limited crossover with News Corp papers and TV channels.
"Where it makes sense we'll work with different News Corp organisations like the theatrical marketing group, FX and Fox," he says. In the US, for example, users can buy downloads of hit Fox shows. But don't expect to see a MySun or MyTimes type site. "We'll offer friendly advice but we won't port our technology anywhere," insists Jamie Kantrowitz, head of marketing and content for MySpace in Europe.
Perhaps the biggest threat to MySpace is the PR fallout over safety. The web's anonymity, combined with the age profile of most MySpace users, is fraught with dangers, from predatory men to cyber-bullying. "From activism to socialising to starting new bands, 99% of everything that happens on MySpace is fun and positive. But with that many people there's going to be a few bad apples, which presents challenges," says DeWolfe carefully. Those "challenges" are being met "head on", he says, including hiring extra staff to monitor the 4-5m photos uploaded every day.
But he is also careful to spread the responsibility, saying education is key. "When you were growing up, your mom and dad told you to look both ways before crossing the street or not to get into a car with a stranger. It's the same with the internet. We have a big responsibility and a huge role in bringing all the stakeholders to the table - users, parents, educators, law enforcement, government organisations."
If DeWolfe is concerned that MySpace is growing too fast, he doesn't show it. And as the MySpace generation grows up, he expects them to stick with the site and others like it, transforming the media landscape in as yet unforeseen ways. As long as the site can retain the spirit of LA, rather than the buttoned-down financial logic of Wall Street, he is sure it will have the lasting influence of an eBay rather than the passing attraction of a Friendster. Ultimately, though, he says, MySpace's future is in the hands of its growing army of users. "They're defining the experience, not us. We're just letting it rip. What I'm basically trying to say is that as long as we don't screw it up, we'll be fine."
Education BA Finance, University of Washington;
MBA Marketing, University of Southern California
1997 vice president of marketing, FBBH
1999 vice president of marketing, Xdrive Technologies
2001 chief executive, ResponseBase
2002 president, ResponseBase Marketing
2002 director, MySpace.com
2003 chief executive, MySpace.com