A grand unified theory of YouTube and MySpace.

Innovation, the Internet, gadgets, and more.
April 28 2006 12:05 PM

A Grand Unified Theory of YouTube and MySpace

Point-and-click sites that don't tell you what to do.

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When trying to rope in the movie and TV studios, YouTube should point to MySpace, where A-listers like Eminem peddle their wares alongside unsigned bands and lip syncers. MySpace makes it easy for musicians, kids, and grandparents to post their own pages by removing the technical hurdles. I created a profile page in three minutes, complete with an auto-play jingle. I'd planned to upload an MP3 of a band I used to play in, until I found they already have their own MySpace page. Clicking "Add" instantly copied the song from their page onto mine. Another one-click tool imported my Gmail and Hotmail address books so I could mass-invite everyone to join me.

MySpace isn't that much easier to use than Friendster, or than other shared-user-content sites like Flickr (photo sharing), del.icio.us (bookmarks), or Digg (tech news). But it mixes multiple publishing models—blogs, photos, music, videos, friend networks—into one personal space. Most important, it doesn't presume to know what your goals are. The site's management ditched their early focus as a home for musicians when they realized Margaret Cho and my crazy friend Kenny wanted spaces of their own. Next, MySpace may let marketers set up profiles for brands. That's a great idea—the same people who'll bitch about Snickers having a page will add Wikipedia as their friend.

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I think MySpace's popularity has to do with its puppylike accessibility. A typical page looks like something a Web-enthralled high schooler might have put up in 1996, but with more pics and a soundtrack. I agree with design guru Jesse James Garrett, who says the site's untrained layout sends a "we're just like you" message to newcomers. That encourages them to experiment with content genres the site's designers didn't build into templates. If tech builders want to hand the controls over to their users, shouldn't they presume they haven't thought of everything? Apple's iWeb publishing system is easy to use and way more attractive than MySpace, but we'd have gotten old waiting for Apple to invent a Lip Sync Video template.

The secret to success is to make everything one-button easy, then get out of the way. If you think collaborative architecture matters more, click the charts: The same Alexa plots that show MySpace and YouTube obliterating top sites reveal that Flickr, Digg  and del.icio.us  have plateaued with audiences barely bigger than Slate's. Photos, news, and other people's bookmarks just aren't as interesting as bootleg TV and checking out the hotties. The easier it gets to use, the less geeky the Net becomes, and the more it starts to look like real life.

Paul Boutin is a writer living in San Francisco.

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