Tom Anderson has 66,527,187 friends. By the time you finish reading this sentence, he will have 1 million more. Anderson, once a UCLA film grad student, is the 30-year-old co-creator of the juggernaut social-networking Web site MySpace.com. “I have a few close friends I’ve known all my life,” he has said. “I’d like to make more.” This year, MySpace surpassed eBay, Google, AOL, Hotmail and MSN in number of unique visitors, becoming the No. 2 most visited site on the Web, second only to Yahoo in page views. In person, Anderson and business partner Chris DeWolfe are just down-to-earth Web nerds in jeans and T-shirts. Precisely the kind of low-brow but high-power geek mystique you’d expect from guys who just sold their company (to Rupert Murdoch) for $580 million. “It’s a little overwhelming,” says Anderson, when I ask how his life has changed since MySpace. “Just in terms of the speed at which users are signing on and us trying to add new features. We keep having to bring in new developers and programmers.”
In the physical world, the MySpace offices are located in a swank but secret building in Santa Monica — the guys are adamant about not disclosing the exact location. Why? “There are 60 million people on the site,” says Anderson, eyes widening. “If we told them where we were, they’d want to come by. They think there’s a big party going on here.”
In the early days of Internet self-profiling, when Friendster was king and tech-savvy kids were whipping up online curricula vitae declaring their favorite music, books, games, TV shows, et cetera, Anderson crossed paths with future partner DeWolfe. The year was 2003, and Anderson was still in school. Looking for some extra cash, he answered a flier calling for people to test out products made by Xdrive, an online storage company. Anderson’s comments during the focus group were so insightful that DeWolfe, then the company’s sales-and-marketing guy, hired him on the spot.
Working together at Xdrive, Anderson and DeWolfe imagined a one-stop Web portal, a kind of Friendster-plus. It would have the instant-messaging abilities of AOL and MSN, the romance and dating appeal of Match, the invitation services of Evite, and the classified ads of Craigslist. The critical difference, though, turned out to be music. Where Friendster turned bands away, Anderson and DeWolfe courted them, encouraging them to promote their music through the site. They went to concerts, parties and nightclubs to promote MySpace by word of mouth. “The early adopters of MySpace were all creative people from Los Angeles,” DeWolfe says. “The site was really built for them. Bands uploaded songs. Film-production people began using it to network and to find extras. MySpace’s evolution was very L.A.-centric.” Suddenly, it was cool to be on MySpace.
These days, everyone and his dog has a MySpace profile. Madonna has one. So do Neil Diamond, Depeche Mode, Hilary Duff and the Notorious B.I.G. Even “the Carver,” the surgical serial killer on TV’s Nip/Tuck, blogged on a MySpace page (his favorite book? The Confessions of St. Augustine). When 21-year-old college kid David Lehre uploaded his 11-minute short “MySpace: The Movie,” MTV quickly came calling with a development deal. Employers are even rumored to scope out prospective hires’ online profiles. For better or worse, MySpace has become a full-blown cultural phenomenon. As such, it is not without detractors. Inevitably, a dark side to this teeming online world has emerged. Of late, MySpace has been lambasted by parents, schools and the religious right. Teens posting personal information on the site, they argue, become virtual fish in a barrel for would-be predators. Several charges of sexual assault have been brought against men accused of using the site to trawl for underage girls.
Still, MySpace is the current mythic story of online success, the one fit to redeem the humiliating dot-com bomb disasters of the late 1990s. Since it started, MySpace has made millions in ad revenue alone. It is a reminder of the power of the masses, the strength of the vox populi to sway corporate industry from the ground up. Anderson and DeWolfe found a way to harness hype itself. Timing played its part: The bandwidth-heavy streaming music, video and images were simply too unwieldy for dot-com’s first era. The Web wasn’t ready yet. But with the advent of cable modems, DSL and WiFi, with gigabyte hard drives the norm rather than the exception, the time was ripe.
The guys laugh now about the early days of MySpace. “It crashed within a week,” Chris DeWolfe says, “when our chief engineer reported that we’d reached a hundred people.” Whatever the number above terabytes is, that’s where they’re at now in terms of hard-drive storage space. They use 800 servers, all housed in a building in downtown L.A. People think they’re partying, but nowadays, all the guys do is work. “I don’t do anything but MySpace,” says Anderson, whose profile reveals he’s into lifting weights. “I haven’t been to a gym since MySpace started.”