Few things conjure as much nostalgia for 20- and 30-somethings as MySpace. For many younger Gen X-ers and older Gen Y-ers, it was their first social network, and they decorated their profiles with garish fonts, neon colors and ear-piercing music. Everyone's first friend, of course, was MySpace co-founder Tom, with his grinning mug, white T-shirt and Beverly Hills, 90210 sideburns.
In 2005, the L.A.-based company was acquired by News Corp. for $580 million, and in October 2008 it peaked with 76 million U.S. unique users. But users fled the site, annoyed by a clunky experience (which only felt slower and more annoying as other sites innovated), spambots and the rise of Facebook. By the end of 2010, MySpace was a laughingstock.
In 2011, online ad company Specific Media — founded by three brothers from Orange County — partnered with Justin Timberlake and others to buy MySpace for a paltry $35 million. They made the "s" lowercase and completely revamped the site. With a focus on music (an area where Facebook had failed) and a sleek, horizontal-scrolling interface, they bet on Myspace's name recognition, large remaining user database, and Timberlake's ability to bring sexy back.
Their task upon their debut early last year? To somehow convince everyone that the uncoolest website on the planet was now cool again.
It wasn't enough to have an awesome site, company strategists decided; they needed to win hearts and minds. That meant venturing into the real world. So they hosted a giant launch party in June — but the idea proved fraught from the get-go. With only a short time to organize it, they approached the ornate El Rey Theatre in Miracle Mile. The venue had already been booked, according to an El Rey representative, but money tends to make these types of problems disappear.
The party featured an open bar and performers including rapper Tyler, the Creator, who jumped on the soundboard and messed it up. Pharrell Williams and Robin Thicke were joined onstage by Miley Cyrus for "Blurred Lines" — months before her scandalous performance at the MTV Video Music Awards.
But too many people had been invited, leading to lines around the block. Before long, the fire marshal interceded, and no one else was allowed in.
The party was close to being a failure, and it did nothing to boost the site's web traffic, but it did draw media coverage. The U.K.'s Daily Mail breathlessly reported on the event, focusing on Timberlake's departure from the festivities with a "mystery brunette" in tow.
Myspace had buzz again, and its new ownership, fronted by the Vanderhooks, the brotherly trio of uber-successful Internet ad wizards, seemingly was willing to spend as much cash as necessary. But they had a lot of work to do.
"When we bought the company, it was not socially acceptable to say you visited Myspace," CEO Tim Vanderhook told Fast Company magazine. "That's shocking, from a brand perspective."
Enter a $20 million television ad campaign, which featured a bevy of trendy musicians, well paid for their time. Airing all over cable, including during the NBA Finals, and filmed by It-boy photographer Ryan McGinley, the ads featured musicians, models and other beautiful people performing BMX and skateboard tricks, tossing vinyl records, making out, shooting Silly String and smashing a guitar.
Though Timberlake's exact involvement remained vague, the creative team kept pushing bold ideas, and the money kept flowing, thanks to the Vanderhooks' successful ad network, Specific Media. (Tim Vanderhook is credited with creating those "pop under" ads you find waiting for you when you close down your browser.) Myspace brass were treated to box seats for NBA games at Staples Center and rooms at top hotels. Over the summer, Myspace sponsored a series of free twilight concerts on the Santa Monica Pier, featuring backstage beer gardens, free food for press and a vendor giving away high-end sunglasses.
But in an era of hyper-targeted digital marketing, analysts weren't sure how these tactics would generate web traffic. And if it seemed that the site's owners were flying by the seat of their pants, well, that wasn't far off. While interviewing a job applicant last year, a Myspace staffer compared the company to an unfinished house: "We don't really know what it's going to be, and right now we only have our rafters up, but eventually it's gonna be a place with really cool parties."
Yet more than a year after the relaunch, no one's showing up. Traffic to the site is abysmal, falling to 5.4 million unique U.S. desktop visitors in March, according to ComScore. (That's more than 125 million less than Facebook, and fewer visitors than the site had before its relaunch. Myspace.com's traffic chart over the last decade looks like an upside-down soup bowl.) In November, the company laid off some 5 percent of its staff. Another round of layoffs followed in late March.