MySpace’s growing pains

Fascinating article on the difficulties MySpace engineers have had in coping with exponential growth. A long piece, but worth reading…

The “network effect,” in which the mass of users inviting other users to join MySpace led to exponential growth, began about eight months after the launch “and never really stopped,” Chau says.

News Corp., the media empire that includes the Fox television networks and 20th Century Fox movie studio, saw this rapid growth as a way to multiply its share of the audience of Internet users, and bought MySpace in 2005 for $580 million. Now, News Corp. chairman Rupert Murdoch apparently thinks MySpace should be valued like a major Web portal, recently telling a group of investors he could get $6 billion—more than 10 times the price he paid in 2005—if he turned around and sold it today. That’s a bold claim, considering the Web site’s total revenue was an estimated $200 million in the fiscal year ended June 2006. News Corp. says it expects Fox Interactive as a whole to have revenue of $500 million in 2007, with about $400 million coming from MySpace.

But MySpace continues to grow. In December, it had 140 million member accounts, compared with 40 million in November 2005. Granted, that doesn’t quite equate to the number of individual users, since one person can have multiple accounts, and a profile can also represent a band, a fictional character like Borat, or a brand icon like the Burger King.

Still, MySpace has tens of millions of people posting messages and comments or tweaking their profiles on a regular basis—some of them visiting repeatedly throughout the day. That makes the technical requirements for supporting MySpace much different than, say, for a news Web site, where most content is created by a relatively small team of editors and passively consumed by Web site visitors. In that case, the content management database can be optimized for read-only requests, since additions and updates to the database content are relatively rare. A news site might allow reader comments, but on MySpace user-contributed content is the primary content. As a result, it has a higher percentage of database interactions that are recording or updating information rather than just retrieving it.

Every profile page view on MySpace has to be created dynamically—that is, stitched together from database lookups. In fact, because each profile page includes links to those of the user’s friends, the Web site software has to pull together information from multiple tables in multiple databases on multiple servers. The database workload can be mitigated somewhat by caching data in memory, but this scheme has to account for constant changes to the underlying data.

The Web site architecture went through five major revisions—each coming after MySpace had reached certain user account milestones—and dozens of smaller tweaks, Benedetto says. “We didn’t just come up with it; we redesigned, and redesigned, and redesigned until we got where we are today,” he points out…

Teenagers and social networking

Latest survey report from Pew Research Center:
Among the key findings:

* 55% of online teens have created a personal profile online, and 55% have used social networking sites like MySpace or Facebook.

* 66% of teens who have created a profile say that their profile is not visible to all internet users. They limit access to their profiles.

* 48% of teens visit social networking websites daily or more often; 26% visit once a day, 22% visit several times a day.

* Older girls ages 15-17 are more likely to have used social networking sites and created online profiles; 70% of older girls have used an online social network compared with 54% of older boys, and 70% of older girls have created an online profile, while only 57% of older boys have done so.

Teens say social networking sites help them manage their friendships

* 91% of all social networking teens say they use the sites to stay in touch with friends they see frequently, while 82% use the sites to stay in touch with friends they rarely see in person.

* 72% of all social networking teens use the sites to make plans with friends; 49% use the sites to make new friends.

* Older boys who use social networking sites (ages 15-17) are more likely than girls of the same age to say that they use social networking sites to make new friends (60% vs. 46%).

* Just 17% of all social networking teens say they use the sites to flirt.

* Older boys who use social networking sites are more than twice as likely as older girls to say they use the sites to flirt; 29% report this compared with just 13% of older girls.

MySpace and the sharecropping economy

Interesting post by Nick Carr about the economic implications of user-generated content.

What’s being concentrated, in other words, is not content but the economic value of content. MySpace, Facebook, and many other businesses have realized that they can give away the tools of production but maintain ownership over the resulting products. One of the fundamental economic characteristics of Web 2.0 is the distribution of production into the hands of the many and the concentration of the economic rewards into the hands of the few. It’s a sharecropping system, but the sharecroppers are generally happy because their interest lies in self-expression or socializing, not in making money, and, besides, the economic value of each of their individual contributions is trivial. It’s only by aggregating those contributions on a massive scale – on a web scale – that the business becomes lucrative. To put it a different way, the sharecroppers operate happily in an attention economy while their overseers operate happily in a cash economy. In this view, the attention economy does not operate separately from the cash economy; it’s simply a means of creating cheap inputs for the cash economy.

It strikes me that this dynamic, which I don’t think we’ve ever seen before, at least not on this scale, is the most interesting, and unsettling, economic phenomenon the Internet has produced.

Carr has written about this before. For example:

Web 2.0, by putting the means of production into the hands of the masses but withholding from those same masses any ownership over the product of their work, provides an incredibly efficient mechanism to harvest the economic value of the free labor provided by the very many and concentrate it into the hands of the very few.

Ed Felten disagrees with this analysis:

It’s a mistake, too, to think that MySpace provides nothing of real value to its users. I think of MySpace as a low-end Web hosting service. Most sites, including this blog, pay a hosting company to manage servers, store content, serve out pages, and so on. If all you want is to put up a few pages, full-on hosting service is overkill. What you want instead is a simple system optimized for ease of use, and that’s basically what MySpace provides. Because it provides less than a real hosting service, MySpace can offer a more attractive price point — zero — which has the additional advantage of lowering transaction costs.

The most interesting assumption Carr makes is that MySpace is capturing most of the value created by its users’ contributions. Isn’t it possible that MySpace’s profit is small, compared to the value that its users get from using the site?

Underlying all of this, perhaps, is a common but irrational discomfort with transactions where no cash changes hands. It’s the same discomfort we see in some weak critiques of open-source, which look at a free-market transaction involving copyright licenses and somehow see a telltale tinge of socialism, just because no cash changes hands in the transaction. MySpace makes a deal with its users. Based on the users’ behavior, they seem to like the deal.