Justin Timberlake Revives Myspace and the Internet Reels

The legendary social-networking site is back after being trounced by Facebook and other upstarts. Winston Ross says it looks pretty slick—and could be a great way to find a mate.

Justin Timberlake’s sexy relaunch of Myspace this week was kinda special for me, and not just because of that classic Myspace montage that immediately flashed through my head of people taking pictures of themselves with lo-res camera phones in their bathroom mirrors.

I met three of my last four girlfriends on Myspace, including the one I’m seeing right now.

There, I said it. And I know you’re looking at me funny. That’s how everyone looks at me when people ask my girlfriend and I how we met. They’re like, “Seriously? How is that even possible?”

Back in 2003, before Facebook, before Twitter, way before Pinterest but after Friendster and Geocities, Myspace was set to become the biggest thing on the Internet. Don’t you remember? It was basically social networking’s first real explosion into the mainstream. People could set up these crazy things called online profiles, decorate their pages with repeating jpegs of pickup trucks and marijuana leaves, and meet each other for awkward dates. In 2006, Myspace was the top social-networking site in the country.

Then, it fizzled. It didn’t keep up with the upstarts. It was plagued by accusations of pornography. It was slow, with an aging interface and a “bloated staff.” Facebook felt cool and hip and modern in comparison. Millions jumped ship. So it’s no surprise that the site’s reemergence this week (now Myspace, not MySpace, for some reason) was met with virtual eye-rolling.

“You guys remember the last season of Myspace?” wrote @neo_rama. “I didn’t understand the ending. Did everybody die?”

And: “After the world heard about the rebranding of #myspace, Zune stock rose slightly + BetaMax announced a new breakthrough in video cassettes,” by @holdthemap.

And: “#IGotDrunkAnd Signed onto Myspace for the first time in 4 years,” from @beavisnbutthead.

Or my personal favorite, via @Luvvie: “Myspace is like an old boyfriend that gave you an STD. Like, you got meds for it, and you’re cool now, but you won’t go there again.”

OK, back off, people. First of all, don’t forget that Myspace never really died. It just got hijacked by musicians and trashy people (and ne’er the twain shall meet.) At least, that’s what Justin Kistner told me three years ago when I wrote this brilliantly omniscient piece about the future of social networking and then couldn’t find anyone willing to pay me for it.

“Nothing bad happened to Myspace; it’s still one of the most popular social networks on the web,” said Kistner, a Portland, Ore.-based social media strategist. “There’s a class division, a stereotype that Myspace is trashy. But most of America is trashy.”

I was two Myspace girlfriends in by that point, but I took no offense. Kistner was talking about other people, not me. Plus, he was right. Rising star Twitter had just hit 20 million monthly unique visitors that summer of 2009, but Myspace still had nearly three times that following, and its founders laughed all the way to the Cayman Islands after Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. bought the site in 2005 for $580 million.

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Did that turn out to be a lousy investment? Colossally bad, some would say. In just the last quarter of 2010, the site lost $156 million. Murdoch put it on the market last February, asking for a minimum bid of $100 million. No one bit.

The site once employed 1,600 people. By last year, the number had dropped to about 200. MySpace is now at the unfortunate 186th place, in worldwide web traffic, with less than 25 million monthly unique visitors; 119th in the U.S. and 86th in Pakistan, for some reason.

But then, in a social networking twist of fate few could have predicted, Justin Timberlake rode in on his white horse to save the day. He and partner Tim Vanderhook at Specific Media Group took the site off of Murdoch’s hands for $35 million. In a press release announcing the acquisition last summer, Timberlake hinted that the site would continue to tap into an artist focus. “There’s a need for a place where fans can go to interact with their favorite entertainers, listen to music, watch videos, share and discover cool stuff and just connect. Myspace has the potential to be that place,” he said. Still, the hipsters on Twitter had a field day. “If Myspace can relaunch, maybe I should try my rocket again,” quipped @KimJongNumberUn.

Okay, @KimJongNumberUn, fine. Point taken. But have you seen how glam this thing is? It looks better than Pinterest, which is quite a feat given the distinct shortage of puppies and pictures of food. It’s pimped out with what appears to be way more features than Facebook, which of course isn’t saying much. And speaking of pimping, it also appears Myspace’s saviors actually understand web monetization, because they’ve devoted huge chunks of real estate to spaces they can control—and sell ads in.

Timberlake didn’t return my phone calls, and Specific Media declined to comment. So I can’t say exactly what he thinks will bring Myspace back into the social networking mainstream, or whether he’s convinced any of his famous buddies to help promote the thing. Specific Media’s site says it plans to “leverage the Myspace social networking infrastructure to deploy socially-activated advertising campaigns”—sell its own ads on the site, in other words. But the introductory video describes a place that seems to remain band-oriented, and you’ll be able to log into the site using your Facebook or Twitter accounts, so they’re not necessarily trying to beat the giants here.

But hey, maybe I’m just being nostalgic. I didn’t even know what Myspace was until I went to a party in 2007 and this girl I’d barely talked to the whole night whispered in her friend’s ear as I walked out the door “Ask him if he has a Myspace.” I didn’t have one, but I pretended I did, and before she could get home to find out I was lying, I’d rushed to Yahoo’s search engine (remember that?) and found this Myspace thing and signed up for it. The girl—we’ll call her Sally Parks—found me, added me as a friend, and we fell madly in love.

For a while. Until Sally and I were screaming at each other all the time, and she started talking to her old boyfriend on Myspace, and I started talking to other girls on Myspace, and we broke up. (Then got back together. Then broke up.)

I loved Myspace, because I lived in Florence, Ore., a town of 8,000 people with a median age of 55. The year after I moved there, Florence was named the No. 1 place to retire in America by Retirement Places Rated. The town mayor was a mortician.

But I had Myspace, which before OKCupid was really just a fantastic way to meet women, especially if you didn’t want to shell out hard-earned cash for a real dating web site, like I fast became an expert at online dating, and learned my competition was atrocious. They may have had better pectoral muscles than I did but 90 percent of their messages consisted of some variation of “Heyyyyy sexy thang. Wassup?!??!”

The other wonderful thing was that Myspace gave me teleportation powers. Florence was an hour from anyone between the ages of 21 and 40 (in nearby Eugene) but with Myspace, all I had to do to meet women in Eugene was to say I lived in Eugene, too. It’s like how people say they’re from New York when really they live in Jersey City, right? It’s just to keep things simpler.

And that’s how I met my second Myspace girlfriend. We’ll call her Delilah Franthelbaum. She was moving to Eugene from Seattle for a new job, and “a friend” convinced her to hop on Myspace and check out her prospects there. (It was always like that, too. “Oh, my friend made me set up a Myspace.” Because back then, it was not OK to admit that you used Myspace as a dating web site.)

And there I was, posing on the beach trying to look sensitive. I had made my mom take that profile photo, along with the other one of me and my adorable border collie, sitting on a bench in a state park. I was clearly a sensitive, outdoorsy guy who loved animals. Delilah was hooked.

By the time she abandoned me for New York City, Myspace was dying, or at least becoming zombified by the pickup-truck-marijuana-leaf-shirtless-bathroom-picture crowd. I moved on and over to OKCupid, but my next serious relationship actually wound up being someone I met in the real world—at a bar, if you can believe it—before that fizzled, and I reached back into the past. I went home again, to Myspace.