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Myspace, Tumblr, and the Long-Lost Weirdness of the Social Internet
Creative Self-Expression and the Next Era of Social
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Myspace, Tumblr, and the Long-Lost Weirdness of the Social Internet
Meta is facing a number of headwinds. Apple’s privacy changes, for one, will cost Meta about $10 billion in advertising revenue this year, as it becomes harder to track iPhone users. Execs pointed to supply chain issues suppressing advertising demand. And Meta is also reaching a saturation point: for the first time, Facebook (the “Big Blue” app) reported a decline in total users—1.929 billion vs. 1.93 billion last quarter.
Mark Zuckerberg seems to be betting the house on his company’s metaverse ambitions (with $10 billion per year spent on Reality Labs to show for it), and investors are hoping he can pull off another stunning business move, just as he did a decade ago when masterminding acquisitions of Instagram and WhatsApp or reinventing Facebook as a mobile business. But this reinvention won’t be so quick.
There’s another reason that Meta is vulnerable, and one that I think is most serious: Meta has lost its way with young people. In the Q3 earnings call, Zuckerberg said:
Historically, young adults have been a strong base and that’s important because they are the future. But over the last decade, as the audience that uses our apps has expanded so much and we focused on serving everyone, our services have gotten dialed to be the best for most people who use them, rather than, specifically, for young adults.
Snap first exploited this vulnerability, which Meta parried by cloning Stories in Instagram. TikTok has more recently (and more successfully) challenged Meta, and Meta’s response has been less effective. In fact, Meta is being attacked from both sides; building for acquaintances and loose social ties no longer works.
As I spend time with Gen Zs (and a few Gen Alphas around the holidays!), I’m struck by how different their online behaviors and social preferences are to those of 2010s-era social media users. And I’m also struck by how, in many ways, their behaviors and preferences bring us full circle to the 2000s-era web.
One thought has been stuck in my head:
Myspace and Tumblr would work if they launched today.
Myspace and Tumblr were wild, chaotic bastions of creative self-expression. And young people yearn for that today. Yes, the metaverse social networks will be big—when they arrive. But they’re likely years away. In the meantime, there’s an opportunity to recapture the playful, kinetic weirdness of an earlier age of social.
Tumblr launched 15 years ago this month. While Facebook rose in Palo Alto, Tumblr rose in New York. In many ways, Tumblr was Facebook’s foil—a destination built not around your offline identity and social graph, but around the digital persona you crafted for yourself. As Kaitlyn Tiffany wrote in The Atlantic, “Whereas Facebook aimed to bring everyone and their mother online, Tumblr was the opposite: an online underground, a place where your mother, in particular, would never see you.”
In some ways, Reddit and Discord are descendants of Tumblr, both born of the same pseudonymous and chaotic and interest-based DNA. (It’s worth noting that while Facebook built a monetization machine, Tumblr eschewed ads and struggled to make money. While Facebook’s market cap soared to $1 trillion, Tumblr was sold to Yahoo in 2013 for $1.1 billion and then to Automattic in 2019 for just $3 million. Discord, in many ways, has now shown that a social platform can monetize through a non-advertising-based business model.)
Today’s digital natives embrace online expression and reject conformity. Tumblr paved the way. As Katherine Barna, one of Tumblr’s early employees, puts it: “Tumblr was like this wide-open blank canvas. That felt very different at the time than, like, Here’s where you plug in your information in a social platform where everybody shows up and looks the exact same and you have the same template and the same format.”
Myspace, like Tumblr, put customizability front and center. Then Facebook came along and stamped out individuality. In the words of Dmitry Shapiro, Myspace’s former CTO:
When you go out to a bar, you don’t put on a white and blue uniform, a Facebook uniform. You’d put on all sorts of amazing things to stand out. You’d want to be radically different from all others. And that was the real value of Myspace. When people talk about missing Myspace, they miss customizing their profile.
Void of self-expression, Meta’s products have become utilities: we use Facebook for Marketplace; we use WhatsApp for messaging; we use Instagram for remembering people’s birthdays (Insta Stories are the new Facebook Birthdays). We use Meta products because they’re ingrained in our lives, with powerful network effects. But Meta products don’t spark joy or provoke creativity.
This void leaves an opening for new entrants. Last summer, I made a version of this argument in Back to the Future: Myspace and Gen Z Digital Identity. But it’s an argument worth revisiting and building on, with Meta’s latest performance shining new light on the size of the opportunity.
New social platforms are ripe to be built, each emphasizing creativity and customizability. Three areas that interest me are:
3D creative expression
3D Creative Expression
Lines have been blurring between gaming and social for decades; Fortnite, Roblox, Minecraft, and Grand Theft Auto are all social networks. What does a 2020s version of Myspace and Tumblr look like? Maybe a three-dimensional place for customizable expression.
Imagine designing your digital bedroom, a 3D destination that friends and strangers could come visit. You could have your own wallpaper, your own music, your own decorations—all natural extensions of what lived on your Myspace page 15 years ago.
Check out the landing page of Scout for an idea of what this could look like:
Or explore towns and art galleries in Decentraland to get a feel for virtual expression:
Roblox and Minecraft are the closest analogs to a three-dimensional Myspace or Tumblr, but both were built initially for game-like experiences and with less-accessible creative tooling. There are opportunities to create 3D spaces that are purpose-built for social and that are more customizable for your everyday user.
Interesting developments are already happening: this week, news broke that Bytedance is testing a “metaverse social network” called Party Island, in which users hang out in avatar form and watch movies, chat, study, and so on.
In its simplest definition, a meme is a unit of culture transfer. Memes are how ideas move between people via culture and—as with all forms of communication—the internet dramatically accelerated the speed and scale with which those ideas move.
“Meme” was coined by the evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins in his 1976 book The Selfish Gene. Dawkins was looking for a word to convey “a unit of cultural transmission”—the cultural equivalent of a gene. He wrote:
We need a name for the new replicator, a noun that conveys the idea of a unit of cultural transmission, or a unit of imitation. “Mimeme” comes from a suitable Greek root, but I want a monosyllable that sounds a bit like “gene”. I hope my classicist friends will forgive me if I abbreviate mimeme to meme. If it is any consolation, it could alternatively be thought of as being related to “memory,” or to the French word même. It should be pronounced to rhyme with “cream”.
Dawkins went on to give examples of memes: songs, ideas, nursery rhymes, catchphrases, fashion trends. The first internet meme is considered the sideways smiley :-)
In the mid-2000s, YouTube enabled the earliest video memes—“Rickrolling” is often considered the first. Other video memes followed—Charlie Bit My Finger (the most-viewed video on YouTube from 2007 to 2010), Leave Britney Alone, Cash Me Ousside / How Bah Dah. Other memes were single words: bae, selfie, plank, fail.
Memes share a lot in common with the creative, customizable social networks of yesteryear: like Myspace and Tumblr, memes are silly and weird and chaotic and user-generated. They don’t fit neatly into boxes. And memes are only becoming more foundational to culture. Memes are the language of the digital natives: people who grew up online innately understand and communicate via memes, and new tools make memes easier to create and share.
At Index, I’m lucky to work with a company called Piñata Farms. Piñata makes it easy to create your own memes, using computer vision to let you overlay faces and logos and text on moving images.
TikTok, of course, traffics in memes. But TikTok’s creative tools are surprisingly hard to use, and content often positions your face front and center. Piñata is easier to use, crowding in more creators, and content often doesn’t need to include your face—this creates a more accessible and depressurized creation environment.
When he coined the term “meme”, Richard Dawkins identified several traits of successful memes. Among them was “fecundity”, the rate at which a meme can be copied and spread. In the past, making a meme meant using Adobe Photoshop or a clunky online meme generator. Fecundity was low. Piñata Farms, and other meme-based social platforms, accelerate fecundity, making creation as fast and easy as distribution.
Over the past 50 years, there’s been a massive shift toward individuality. One interesting datapoint to illustrate this is in how we name our kids.
We used to give our kids popular names so that they fit in. The goal was to conform. The name Mary was the most popular girls name for all but six years (!) from 1880 to 1961. That started to change in the 60s. In this GIF, you can see America move from Mary to Lisa, Lisa to Jennifer, Jennifer to Jessica, Jessica to Ashley, Ashley to Emily. Gradually over time, we’ve become less uniform.
In 1880, 32% of kids got a top-10 most-popular name; by 1950, it was down to 28%; and by 2020, it was 7%. The pendulum of culture has shifted from the collective to the individual. We now give kids distinctive and unique names so that they stand out.
You can see this same shift play out online. People no longer want to have the same online persona as everyone else—people want to stand out. Platforms that allow self-expression, often by allowing you to adopt a new online identity, will thrive in a world built for the individual. I wrote about this last month in Our Fluid, Multi-Faceted, Pseudonymous Digital Identities: “In many ways, we’re returning to the origins of the social internet—back when, before Facebook mandated use of your real name, you were soccergirl07 on AOL Instant Messenger or legolas32 on MySpace.” Now, we see this playing out in Discord servers and Twitch streams and in the entire web3 movement.
We’ll move away from the staid, cookie-cutter world of social popularized by Facebook and move toward new forms of identity and expression. Your identity becomes not a form you fill out on a profile, but something you choose.
Kaitlyn Tiffany writes, “When I found Tumblr, it felt like finding the whole world.”
This reminds me of a line from a 2016 New York Times Magazine piece on Minecraft. One teenage player says of the game, “It’s like the earth, the world, and you’re the creator of it.”
The best online spaces feel like this: entire new universes where anything is possible. I always found it interesting that we call our desktop and mobile backgrounds wallpaper—as though our devices are our new homes that we decorate. But that’s what they’ve become: the digital venues in which we find meaning and connection.
When you chart social platforms over time—some of the largest businesses in history—you see how volatile the history of social is. Platforms come in and out of favor. Consumer behaviors change. Demographics change.
The platforms that will have staying power this decade—or that will catch fire—will embrace creativity and customizability.
One interesting trend over the past few years has been the return of Y2K culture, as Gen Zs embrace 90s and naughts fashion and music and aesthetics.
The same story is playing out online. We’re coming full circle. Myspace and Tumblr paved the way 15 years ago, and the next era of platforms will draw inspiration from how they tapped into the chaotic, frenzied energy of the internet.
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