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24 February 2021updated 01 Jul 2021 12:14pm

Inside the internet’s social media graveyard

Myspace and Bebo defined millennial adolescence. Are they about to make a comeback?

By Eleanor Peake

In 2008 there was a mass exodus. Millions of people began leaving the world’s largest social network. It began slowly at first, and then gathered speed.

Only three years previously, Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp had bought MySpace for $580m. By 2011, it would be sold for a rumoured $35m.

For a generation, the fall of Myspace was a cultural loss. It was the first online space for users to share and discover music. Artists that came to define the late Noughties found their fame on the site, from Lily Allen to Kate Nash. Upcoming musicians of the time uploaded tracks straight to the platform, pioneering music streaming before Spotify or Soundcloud.

Today, the network is a ghost town. You can still connect with musicians: click on Lily Allen’s profile and her posts are available to browse, the most recent from 2015. Click on the homepage and newsreels change sporadically on the screen. At the time of writing, the reels are a few days old, only adding to the suspicion that myspace.com is simply a memorial to years gone by. 

Joe, originally from Jersey, started using MySpace religiously when he was 18, while in his first year of university. “I remember it being quite cool that you can kind of express the layout of it in your own way. I used to think of it like American high schools where they have their own individual lockers. MySpace to me kind of felt like that, it was a space to kind of be individual,” he said.

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For Joe, now 33, the social network represented the era of social media innocence: “The design was weird, the layout was weird. People got clever with it. But I don’t think you had quite as many anxiety triggers as later platforms do. You couldn’t ‘like’ posts in the same way. It felt like more of an expression of who you are and less a platform to just boast about your life. That’s what most of social media is now; it’s just boasting about your life.”

Still, like all social media platforms, Myspace had its unpleasant side: “The thing that springs to mind most is the really hideous anxiety-inducing top friends feature, which is brutal,” he recalled. “This idea that you could only pick a certain few people, and then the rest of them would just go fuck themselves.”

By the end of Joe’s first year at university, Facebook’s popularity was spreading fast. It had some obvious advantages over Myspace: crucially, Facebook let you tag friends in photos. These kinds of notifications were exciting, and logging on to see what everyone had been up to the previous night proved addictive. Within a year, Joe had logged off Myspace for good.

But some people weren’t ready to let go. In 2011 Justin Timberlake would play a major role in attempts to revive Myspace. The star announced he would “lead the business strategy” for the site’s impending resurrection as one of the investors behind the $35m deal. Eventually, in 2016, Timberlake gave up, and the site was sold to Time Inc. Users still cling to its remains – as recently as 2019, Myspace had more than 7 million monthly unique visitors – but the world’s original social network is a shadow of its former self.

[See also: Eleanor Peake on TikTok and self-loathing]

And it wasn’t the last to fall from glory; the platform death toll continued to rise.

At the time of Myspace’s demise, a new generation of millennials were beginning to enter adolescence. Too young to fit in with the university students on Facebook, teens in the UK looked for a platform they could call their own, and for a short while around 2008-09, Bebo was thriving.

“I remember asking my mum if I could have it,” said Verity, now 24. “It was the first social media I was allowed.” Verity was 14 when she first set up her Bebo account. Every night after school she would rush home and check her page. Various boys would post comments on her wall as she meticulously decided who should be selected for her top friends’ list that day. “It was a massive deal at the time. I remember being really obsessed with backgrounds and what images you put on.” 

Social hierarchy on Bebo was primarily based on the number of hearts your friends gave you, which were displayed on your profile. “The ‘give love’ system was a clear public display of how popular you were,” said Charlie, 25. “There’s only so many times you could get your mate to give you love because you only got one a day.”

At its peak Bebo had 40 million users – a quaint figure compared to Facebook’s current 2.8 billion, but hardly insignificant. When Bebo’s founders, the husband-and-wife duo Michael and Xochi Birch, sold the social network in 2008, they got $850m for it. But as Facebook began to expand globally, even younger millennials began to join the great migration. The fledgling social media site didn’t stand a chance. By 2013 the couple were able to buy it back for just $1m. 

And yet against all odds, Bebo is back. Secretly, Michael Birch has been working to reinvent the platform, set to relaunch this month. “Bebo is back as a brand new social network” a bulletin on the site’s homepage reads. “This is a totally new site developed by the original founders. All the old accounts are long gone (probably for the better, though sorry for the old photos!).

“It has been 15 years since the original Bebo was conceived, and over 12 years since it was last a vibrant community. Although there are nods to the original Bebo we are not trying to re-create it as was. This is an experiment to re-imagine what a social network can be today.”

Social media has been through a lot since Bebo was put to rest. “The digital world has progressed significantly since the site first existed and there are also more challenges present,” said the digital expert Laura Toogood. “Issues such as misinformation, discussion about regulation and content charges, as well as problems involving cyberbullying and cyberstalking are more widely discussed in today’s digital age.” The digital landscape Bebo is returning to is in many way unrecognisable from when it was founded.

However, Bebo’s previous life just might be its secret weapon: “It has the benefit of experience. If the platform is remodelled and relaunched in the right way, then it could build on its previous success and disrupt the market,” said Toogood. “Social media moves at a rapid pace and some of the big platforms have been experiencing challenging periods recently, so this could be an interesting time to present users with another option. Time will tell as to whether it will sink or swim.”

[See also: Eleanor Peake on why Big Tech wants us to feel nostalgic]

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