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Debate: What’s the Reason For MySpace’s Decline?

by Abel Avram on Mar 30, 2011 |

Some argue that MySpace has lost ground to Facebook because of their technology – Microsoft stack – and due to lack of enough talent in Los Angeles, while others opine that it is management’s fault and the departure of many people when the company was acquired by News Corp. in 2006.

MySpace once had 150M users, and in December 2010 it had 130M, according to CEO Mike Jones who was interviewed by Robert Scoble, a Rackspace employee, during LeWeb2010. In the meantime, MySpace’s number of visitors declined with 14.4% from 73M to 63M in January and February. This came after another decline of the number of visitors by 27% last year, and 50% less time spent on the site, according to Comscore’s The 2010 U.S. Digital Year in Review. If the trend continues, MySpace will become a small player in the social space. Scoble came up with two main reasons to explain MySpace’s decline: one is the technology used - Microsoft stack-, and two is the location of the business - Los Angeles.

The main problem Scoble noted with Microsoft’s stack was that “it isn’t set up to do the scale of 100 million users it needed to”. Regarding Stack Exchange and PlentyOfFish, two successful sites built on Microsoft technology, Scoble said that these “are two notable exceptions” but they “hardly are companies with the scale of MySpace used to have (more than 50 million users).” He also said that MySpace’s infrastructure sucks:

Workers inside MySpace tell me that this infrastructure, which they say has “hundreds of hacks to make it scale that no one wants to touch” is hamstringing their ability to really compete.

According to Scoble, MySpace’s CEO, Mike Jones, presumably said off the record during the LeWeb2010 interview that the technology used is resistant to change:

They answered with the cameras off: they can’t change their technology to really make new features work or make dramatically new experiences.

The second reason mentioned by Scoble was location, lacking the talent needed for building a large website:

There just aren’t “web scale” companies down in Los Angeles, and because Los Angeles is such a large place — it can take hours to drive across the city — there isn’t a single neighborhood that has built up a good talent base, the way Palo Alto or South of Market in San Francisco has.

This bet on Los Angeles doomed MySpace when Facebook came along. Facebook has hired tons of talent from Google and other companies. This expertise helped Facebook not only keep up with scale, but add new features.

As expected, Scoble’s post attracted a large number of commenters. Todd Hoff, creator of HighScalability.com, considers that MySpace’s problem is not with the technology used:

The stack isn't the real problem. That's almost silly. Look at Windows, .Net, etc and they are all quite capable of scaling if used correctly. Facebook started with LAMP, but along the way they changed everything about it such that it would be hard to say they were still using LAMP in the end. Twitter went through a similar phase with RoR. You can't exist at this scale without transforming everything you touch to meet your specific needs.

Hoff sees the problem more likely to be related to people, especially managers:

Were they bought by a management team that didn't value technology? That seems likely if some of the development, release, and design decisions are to be believed. Core competencies seemed to be farmed out to third parties. Technologies like SANs were brought into to solve problems instead of dealing with the problems directly. Both are deadly. Whatever makes you a success you must own completely. Maybe being an "entertainment" company rather than a technology company fosters that sort of approach. But that again would get back to ownership and management. People seem to forget that talent can't work in a straight jacket, unless they are magicians.

Gregg Le Blanc commented on Scoble’s post:

When MySpace gave their keynote as to why they switched to Microsoft at MIX06, the cited the fact that they could handle the same user load on basically 2/3 the servers (246 -> 150) with a decrease of average CPU load from 85% to 27% to serve pages at their 65 million user load. …

So, I think it's more about people, architecture, and business plan.

S Jain said:

I think putting the blame on Microsoft is totally wrong (I do not work on .Net at present so i have no biases). I think it was a culture at MySpace. I work at a start-up in LA and have many friends at MySpace. It was so often I'd be working late and they'd say apply to a bigger company why work so late. Nothing against those guys but the culture there was go to work at 10-11 and home by 7.

Scott Seely added:

I was at MySpace for a while. The reasons for the decline MySpace has nothing to do with technology. It has everything to do with human issues. Once Chris DeWolfe and Tom Anderson left, a lot of the key leadership followed. Also, a lot of the creatives (product managers, devs, artists, etc.) saw executives leaving and decided it was a good time to try something else. Too much institutional knowledge left too quickly, and that sabotaged MySpace. Basically, when Owen Van Netta was announced, people worked their networks and started moving. And yes, a complicated system is hard to change when the architects have moved on to new challenges, lead devs are busy at new companies, and product managers are pushing ideas elsewhere. Facebook, Twitter, and others would have the same issues if the top 20% of their talent vacated the business as fast as what happened with MySpace.

What is your take on MySpace’s decline? Is Microsoft’s technology not scalable for 100M users? Is there not enough talent in LA to create a large website? Is it the management or the departure of talented people responsible for the initial design? Or something else?

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what able user interface and ease of use by Thomas Anderson

Is it possible that the reason is user interface sucks!!

Most myspace users page, looks like cut and paste web pages..

Compare them to the competition by Jens Meydam

The points mentioned are probably all valid: technology platform, location, leadership, culture.

It is interesting to compare them to the competition. Recently I've tried to answer a related question: Why is Facebook successful?

www.limitedwipsociety.ch/en/case-study.html

Facebook really is superior in every respect.

Something that doesn't get mentioned much is that the release process and operations at MySpace slowed everything down.

Facebook is obsessed with moving fast. As far as I know, they release back-end changes weekly, UI changes up to several times a day. As Jeff Sutherland once said, if you can move this fast and the competition can't, it's basically "game over."

Excuses, excuses by Robert Sullivan

Sorry, the technology stack excuse simply doesn't cut it.

The technology got them to 150 million users. The most obvious point here is they don't need to scale/innovate more than that, because fb is trouncing them ;)
Seriously, as pointed out in the article, did twitter fail with RoR? Did facebook fail with, what, perl!? And e-bay used to be perl/C++ before they switched to Java.

But I can see the $$$$ consultant sitting there saying, just switch to technology stack x (Java, LAMP, Haskell, Erlang) and everything will be great. Because that's what consultants do. This seems to be the Nokia solution, by the way. In other words - punt. And what usually happens is the same people write the same architecture, and make the same mistakes, or even worse mistakes, in the new architecture/stack, because they don't understand it as well.

It's a lot harder to figure out the real issue, and that is primarily that myspace does not have a Mark Zuckerberg. He's the driving force. Look at Microsoft now that Gates left, the wind kind of left their sails. The same would happen to facebook.
Now where companies do trip over themselves is poor architectural decisions, look at Digg's troubles, Twitter's, and then some unnamed company mentioned by one of the architects at Skype on a talk on InfoQ, where one of the leaders of this company made some poor decisions, causing many of the best minds to leave in droves.
So sure, there are probably some limitations in the architecture (note I didn't see technology stack) -- so fix it. From the article, it sounds very hacked together, very typical. Again, your $$$ consultant, knowing enough Java or whatever to be dangerous, says this is garbage, let's switch to EJBs, Spring, NoSQL, Javascript - and then their troubles really begin.

Now the idea Scoble mentions about LA being spread out is very interesting, and perhaps has some merit. Everybody is trying to figure out the secret sauce of silicon valley. It's still spread out, still has a transportation problems, but certainly less so than LA. But then why does LA create great movies? Wouldn't the same argument apply? Therefore, while Scoble has an interesting point about LA, he's wrong about the technology stack. I tend to agree with the others mentioned in the article, especially Seely, an insider who saw the implosion himself.

Funny... by Dan Tines

So Facebook is winning because they use PHP?

Re: Funny... by Carlo Pires

Because they DON'T USE PHP at backend.

Re: Funny... by Jens Meydam

Yes, at least once you reach a certain scale, having built your application on an open source stack is a competitive advantage.

There is the obvious advantage that open source software is easier to adapt and tweek (www.quora.com/Facebook-Engineering/What-have-be...).

A less obvious advantage is that for the kind of people who are capable of building Facebook and Google, working with an open source stack tends to be far more attractive.

Adam D'Angelo: "... most of the best engineers these days are used to open source stuff." (www.quora.com/Why-did-Quora-choose-Python-for-i...)

This is a variant of the "Python Paradox" (www.paulgraham.com/pypar.html).

WTF? by Stefan Wenig

scoble discusses some staffing problems related to that area and .NET skills, but merely mentions his opinion that the infrastructure was not set up to scale. whatever that's supposed to mean.

are we seriously having a ".NET does not scale" discussion based on that unclear statement here?

Facebook - is the simple answer by Faisal Waris

Without Facebook, MySpace would probably have been the dominant player in this space.

Facebook simply outsmarted MySpace.

Architecturally, Facebook came up with the idea of a social site with applications.

Re: Funny... by Dan Tines

Because they DON'T USE PHP at backend.


Oh really? You mean they really use C++ because the Hip Hop compiler compiles PHP to C++?

Re: Funny... by Dan Tines

Yes, at least once you reach a certain scale, having built your application on an open source stack is a competitive advantage.

There is the obvious advantage that open source software is easier to adapt and tweek (www.quora.com/Facebook-Engineering/What-have-be...).

A less obvious advantage is that for the kind of people who are capable of building Facebook and Google, working with an open source stack tends to be far more attractive.

Adam D'Angelo: "... most of the best engineers these days are used to open source stuff." (www.quora.com/Why-did-Quora-choose-Python-for-i...)

This is a variant of the "Python Paradox" (www.paulgraham.com/pypar.html).


I'm not buying any of that. Those lines of reasoning seem to come from people stuck in some decade ago time warp.

Re: Funny... by Jens Meydam

You couldn't be more specific, could you?

Re: Funny... by Jens Meydam

As far as I know, most of the back-end services really are written in C++ (and a few in Java). There is also a lot of infrastructure code where languages like Python are suitable.

PHP is used for the user interface. A nice side effect of using PHP for the user interface is that the code is accessible to designers, who are not likely to be hardcore C++ fans.

PHP is of course not the language top CS graduates dream of, but working on a compiler for PHP is a different story.

At any rate, it's not just the language, it's the entire stack. From the OS via the database and the web server up to the GUI, it's all open source, with the advantages and the appeal that come with that.

Re: Funny... by Dan Tines

From the OS via the database and the web server up to the GUI, it's all open source, with the advantages and the appeal that come with that.


Facebook has a hodpodge of C++, Java, PHP, and supposedly Erlang even. The idea that this open source gobblygook stack was why Facebook beat MySpace is ridiculous. Seriously, if you would talk to real engineers there at Facebook they would admit that various open source bits had nothing to do with it. It was the execution of a plan.

Oh yeah, and nice one on the big time handwave of "....with the advantages and the appeal that come with that".

Come one folks. Don't let your ideology corrupt your rational thought.

Re: Funny... by Dan Tines

I don't buy into any of it from random bloggers/architects and especially Paul Grahams nonsense little essays that always theme around "all the cool, smart kids love Python and you better grab em up while they're hot".

Re: Funny... by Jens Meydam

It's one of several factors. Not everything has a simple explanation.

>> It was the execution of a plan.

What was the plan?

Re: Funny... by Jens Meydam

And by the way, Lisp (Clojure) is hot again ... :-)

Re: Funny... by Dan Tines

And by the way, Lisp (Clojure) is hot again ... :-)


Tell Graham when Arc gets hot ;)

Re: Funny... by Dan Tines

It's one of several factors. Not everything has a simple explanation.

>> It was the execution of a plan.

What was the plan?


So it was just random hacking and some blind luck propelled by the "good karma" of open source tools like PHP and MySQL?

Re: Funny... by Jens Meydam

The original plan was to build a directory for Ivy League college students. Some of the investors (and even Zuckerberg himself initially) were opposed to the idea to open Facebook to high school students and the general public. Many people feared that once Facebook was no longer exclusive it would not be cool any more and students would leave.

The vision for Facebook has substantially evolved, as has the product. The same cannot be said for MySpace.

I do humbly suggest that you have a look at the case study:

www.limitedwipsociety.ch/en/case-study.html

Among other things, you may recognize that the guy I quoted on Python is not a "random blogger/architect." He was involved with Facebook since its inception and later served as Facebook's VP of Engineering and CTO in a crucial phase of its development.

Here is another quote by one of Facebook's former Directors of Engineering:

www.quora.com/Why-specifically-did-MySpace-fall...


Reliance on closed-source technology stack. This is not normally a problem in most companies, but in companies where the technical operations are world-class in size and scale, it becomes necessary to be able to directly develop and extend the technologies being used since the scale of the operation means that new technological ground is constantly being broken. Closed-source OTS technology (even with direct on-site assistance from the vendor) places the company at the mercy of the vendor, who implicitly lacks as strong a motivation to solve key scalability challenges because it is not their core business (it's just another vendor, albeit an important one). The vendor may also lack the ability to extend their technology to the scale at which it is being used, and will resist attempts to evaluate whether their technology should be replaced or re-written.


(And this is just one of three points of the answer.)

Retrrospective Coherence by Paul Beckford

Hi Jens,

I've briefly read your case study and it is interesting, but you have to accept the cynicism :) The simple truth is we don't know. Just like the stock market we cannot predict the future. We can only try and make sense of events in retrospect, and as the saying goes everyone loves a winner :)

Consultants do this all the time. Find a success story and atribute the success to whatever it is they are disposed to that particular month. The truth is a little more complex. Market success is an outcome which emerges from a complex adaptive system (the market). Such systems are non linear with a large number of independent agents and are extremely sensitive to small changes (the butterfly effect). So no one can predict in advance which companies will succeed in the market and which will fail. This is why VC's make several bets.

For me the most interesting thing is that myspace were extremely successful at one stage, so they must have done something right once upon a time, or perhaps they just got lucky :) If Facebook were to flop 5 years from now would that be an argument against Scrum/Agile/Python/etc? Of course not!

Re: Retrrospective Coherence by Jens Meydam

Hi Paul,

Retrospective coherence is an interesting concept and I had actually thought about including it in the case study.

Simplistic explanations in retrospect should be avoided. I do, however, think that there are more random factors affecting the stock market than the success of Facebook! :-)

I should think that you in particular appreciate the main points of the case study, the importance of the human element (in particular Mark Zuckerberg) and the role of fast learning, which, to some extent, means building on retrospective coherence.

Mark Zuckerberg had a track record of building applications with a viral appeal, even though only Facebook made it big. Both Facebook and MySpace became popular very fast, based on their initial concept, but Facebook kept evolving and MySpace didn't.

Re: Retrrospective Coherence by Paul Beckford

Hi Jens,

yes. I'm not talking about randomness. I am not saying that your conjecture is unreasonable. I am saying we don't know (for sure). If Facebook is replaced by something else in the next 5 years (exactly what happened to Myspace) what then?

There are a lot of factors involved, and singling out our pet factors and suggesting that they are the key contributing success factors says more about our particular bias then it does about objective truth. We have no evidence upon wich to make such a claim, irrespective of how attractive it may be. Correlation is not proof. We are making sense of events in retrospect.

Regards,

Paul.

Re: Funny... by Dan Tines

The original plan was to build a directory for Ivy League college students. Some of the investors (and even Zuckerberg himself initially) were opposed to the idea to open Facebook to high school students and the general public. Many people feared that once Facebook was no longer exclusive it would not be cool any more and students would leave.

The vision for Facebook has substantially evolved, as has the product. The same cannot be said for MySpace.

I do humbly suggest that you have a look at the case study:

www.limitedwipsociety.ch/en/case-study.html


Pages and pages of Facebook history that is completely irrelevant to what we're discussing.




Among other things, you may recognize that the guy I quoted on Python is not a "random blogger/architect." He was involved with Facebook since its inception and later served as Facebook's VP of Engineering and CTO in a crucial phase of its development.

Here is another quote by one of Facebook's former Directors of Engineering:

www.quora.com/Why-specifically-did-MySpace-fall...


Ok, now the quote gets to something a bit more interesting, but barely. I'll assume that a big part of what he's referring to his HipHop (Facebook's PHP to C++ compiler). So they had to invest a bunch of engineering resources into a crippled open source technology that they depended on. Hmmm..not only does it not strengthen some kind of open source stack advantage argument, but goes against it.

Jens, I'm not buying it at all. There's just too many other factors to consider to think that choosing an open source stack was a significant factor in Facebook's success.

Re: Funny... by Robert Sullivan

Interesting article, thanks for posting.
November 14, 2007 - The feature is temporarily exposed to users due to a bug.

I liked that line, about their development process when adding the "like" button. And I would hesitate to say - that's not a bug, it's their development process! In other words, these large, but very nimble companies, like Google and Facebook, kick out certain software that is not quite ready for prime time. But that does give you insight into their lightening speed development process.
It would be interesting to take a sample set of a few dozen features or so, and then compare them with similar set at MySpace, and see what conclusions you can draw.
If we are looking at, say, how facebook gets features out the door faster than myspace, and evolves faster, my hypothesis would be that the "root cause" for fb beating MySpace, open source would be far down the line in importance. And I think Paul Beckford has touched on this and probably said it better than I have, but I will close with an analogy:
In skiing, right before the big races, a panic flies around the contestants revolving around what type of wax to use, and how to prepare their skis. These discussions can be endlessly complex, but the more calm minds will say that there are many other factors, such as conditioning, training, skill, ski camber, base grind, fueling (food), hydration, race strategy that are all more important.
Now if you can package this up, and figure out the secret sauce (we are already trying to figure out the secret of Silicon Valley, and how to replicate that in Hyderabad, and grow Tokay wines in California, etc), then next step is to package it all up, write a book, and teach it some Stanford MBAs. And no doubt, there will be a David H. Hansson telling everybody to unlearn their mba.

Re: Funny... by Jens Meydam

Dan,


Ok, now the quote gets to something a bit more interesting, but barely. I'll assume that a big part of what he's referring to his HipHop (Facebook's PHP to C++ compiler).


You tend to assume too much.

Check out Quora, there is so much firsthand information that you won't need to make any assumptions for the next 3 years. :-)

Re: Funny... by Jens Meydam

Hi Robert,


I liked that line, about their development process when adding the "like" button. And I would hesitate to say - that's not a bug, it's their development process! In other words, these large, but very nimble companies, like Google and Facebook, kick out certain software that is not quite ready for prime time.


I think that's an important point.

Here on InfoQ there are two great presentations more or less about this topic:

www.infoq.com/presentations/Facebook-Moving-Fas...
www.infoq.com/presentations/QCon-Keynote-Innova...


my hypothesis would be that the "root cause" for fb beating MySpace, open source would be far down the line in importance


Please note that I didn't include any discussion of technology in the case study (apart from LAMP lowering barriers to entry). However, at the scale of Facebook (or Google), these things seem to matter as well.

If a former VP of Engineering and CTO at Facebook and a former Director of Engineering at Facebook (both with impressive achievements besides their work there) point to open source as a competitive advantage - for scaling and for attracting talent - this should not be dismissed lightly. Let's just assume for a second they know what they are talking about. :-)

Re: Retrrospective Coherence by Jens Meydam

Hi Paul,


There are a lot of factors involved, and singling out our pet factors and suggesting that they are the key contributing success factors says more about our particular bias then it does about objective truth.


I don't think I'm guilty of claiming that there is a simple explanation. I have deliberately limited the scope of the case study to two factors for practical reasons. Even so, the case study has been described as accurate and in-depth by a person well qualified to judge, so perhaps I got the focus right. (If I did, this is largely due to the incredible amount of firsthand evidence available, in particular on Quora.)

Whatever will happen over the course of the next 5 years, in retrospect it will be possible to analyze what happened, just as historians are able to have useful debates about what led to World War II or to the collapse of the Soviet Union.

The question is whether we can learn useful lessons from history. Your milage may vary. :-)

Re: Retrrospective Coherence by Paul Beckford

Hi Jens,

Agreed. Thanks for the study. My point is that a good dose of humility is always a good thing. Cheers Paul.

Re: Funny... by Robert Sullivan

Jens,

First, thanks for pointing me to the presentations. They were very interesting of course. And I will concede one point - I will concede that I think you are right about the point about open source as being important.

Although I wasn't really saying it wasn't important, just not as important as some other things (as I will discuss in the last paragraph). And trust me, I am the one running around in a panic, trying to determine which wax to use before race day, like everyone else. Because faster skiers will still blow by me, but every little bit will make a difference.

I think an even more recent presentation (Sobel) also reinforces the idea of the importance of open source. But just to throw a wrench in the works, I see MySpace is using IBATIS.NET.

I think I was originally thinking this was Microsoft vs. PHP, but now I see it more as a open source vs. closed source, so that helps me understand your point more. I'm not a Microsoft guy by the way, I'm actually an open source proponent for many years, i.e. CVS, Ant, and now Rails, etc.

I think Sobel points out that most people at Facebook probably would not chose PHP if they had to start over, probably python, but because it is open source, and they can write their PHP compiler (again bolstering your point) that made it possible for them to work around the problems with PHP.

But another good example helps me see what you are pointing out. A friend of mine, way back, once ran into a problem with Informix. He argued back and forth, telling these Informix folks their code was broken. Finally, he went into the assembly code, debugged the issue, and proved them wrong. Now, obviously, not everybody can do that these days, who learns machine language, even your facebook engineers might not have the background, skills or time for that. They could learn it, but if it's in open source, it's all the more accessible, just dive into the code.

Now, one other point on a related subject. In your article, you have a section on facebook's "small batch" process. I noticed in one of the links from MySpace, that they said that they would have to make a huge organizational change, in order to fix their problems. Right there, that shows you their thinking conflicts with what facebook is doing. Don't try to make a massive change, make a small change.

So swapping out Microsoft is certainly possible, but first they have to have the culture change. They've got IBatis, how about Mono? Or maybe take advantage of the .NET environment, use some other language (Python) as stepping stone (assuming they are using VB). And as for ASP, this is where the MVC comes in to play, they could keep all their server side code in VB or whatever, but use PHP :)

So - great challenge - probably more challenging than running facebook perhaps. But it has been done - look at the IBM turnaround by Gerstner, carried along by Palmisano, and of course Jobs at Apple, Starbucks (maybe)?


-RS

Re: Facebook - is the simple answer by Mark Nuttall

Agreed.
1. Applications.
2. Photo sharing.
3. Demographics. MySpace may be where the cool kids hung out and talked about music, whereas 2/3 of my entire extended family, half my colleagues, and many, many friends are on FB.
Result is that network effects have voted FB the winner.

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