MySpace aesthetics revisited

Posted by Rob Walker on November 28, 2007
Posted Under: "Social" studies,The Designed Life

So the other day I asked: If “good design” is more important than ever, then why is (the basically hideous) MySpace so popular?

I got a variety of answers in the comments to the post, and having pondered them. One of the first responses was: Design isn’t how something looks, it’s how it works.

I understand this point. I should have used the word aesthetics. That’s what I was talking about. And I think it should be indisputable that design at least includes aesthetics, and I’m not aware of any example of something that it is said to be “good design” that is not also aesthetically pleasing, at least not in the consumer market. Correct me if I’m wrong.

I also want to clarify that the importance of aesthetics in the current marketplace isn’t a point of view that I made up, or even one that I necessarily hold. It’s one that is repeated almost constantly by a wide variety of commentators. (Virginia Postrel, to name maybe the most obvious example, makes a theme of pointing out new examples of businesses responding to the “aesthetic imperative.”) Stuff that is judged to be aesthetically beautiful sells well in many categories now, categories where that didn’t matter before, and this is widely taken to be evidence of improved design/aesthetic taste among masses of consumers. This isn’t something I’m declaring, it’s something I’m repeating.

Okay: So if aesthetics are important, why is MySpace successful?

To me there are basically two possible answers. One is that aesthetics are simply overrated. MySpace users don’t care that much about the look of MySpace, they just care about its functionality. Some comments suggested things along these lines. (And this line of thinking is bolstered by the idea that people are moving over to Facebook, if that’s actually true: Facebook is certainly more aesthetically pleasing to me, not because it’s anything special, but because it’s relatively clean and uncluttered.)

The second possible answer is that MySpace users like the way the site looks. Some comments also pointed in this direction, and it’s what I find most interesting.

When I first looked at MySpace, my reaction was: “What a mess. It’s just (visual) noise.” In fact I think I reacted to it much like parents reacted to some of the music I listened to when I was a kid: That it wasn’t music at all, just noise.

Now what’s interesting about that to me is that, from my point of view, it most certainly was music. It was not “noise” in the way they meant, at all. They just didn’t get it. We differed.

And since I first looked at MySpace, I’ve wondered if something analogous isn’t going on. It looks like visual noise to me, but maybe I just don’t get it. The people who made MySpace a hit originally were largely members of a generation that I’m not in. Maybe MySpace spoke to them in a graphic/visual language that not only made sense to them, but pleases them — the same way the Ramones or the Clash pleased me, but agitated my parents.

Given the size of the MySpace audience, the real answer is probably a combination of all of the above, and everything in the comments to an earlier post. But this last line of thought is the one that interests me the most. And of course it’s worth pointing out that the difference between me and my parents is that they did not end up listening to the Ramones on their own time in an attempt to “get” what I heard, whereas I gritted my teeth and got a MySpace account even though I hated looking at it. Draw your own conclusions on that one.

Further diversion may be found at MKTG Tumblr, and the Consumed Facebook page.

Reader Comments

Rob, more evidence that the kids like clutter: One of the most popular things to do on Facebook (apparently), is to fill up your page with useless widgets – just like MySpace. Facebook’s widget mess looks more elegant than MySpace’s widget mess, but if you go to a hardcore Facebook user’s profile page, you’ll see that it’s cluttered, too. Alternate suggestion: It’s not just that kids these days like a different kind of noise than you and I did/do, but they just like more noise, period.

Written By Peter Kafka on November 28th, 2007 @ 5:49 pm

To be fair, some of us liked facebook _because_ the pages weren’t filled up with useless junk. I know I did, and I’m not yet 21. I wound up using greasemonkey and a script to hide all the annoying applications:

Written By Jack on November 29th, 2007 @ 4:05 am

No, I think it’s just that people have no taste.


Written By David McCabe on November 29th, 2007 @ 5:09 am

I think it isn’t about the result, but about the process. MySpace users don’t judge aesthetically other people’s profiles because they are having too much fun customizing their own. No matter how garish, cluttered and noisy, they just enjoy the opportunity to make a personal statement. That, and they find the core functions of MySpace (the ability to leave comments, send messages and browse photos) compelling enough to overlook the messiness created by individuals.

Written By Matt on November 29th, 2007 @ 2:56 pm

Doesn’t the answer also have to do with the issue of something free vs. something purchased? Would people tolerate the aesthetics of MySpace if they had to pay for access to the site?

Written By Braulio on November 29th, 2007 @ 5:15 pm

Three words: lowest common denominator.

(And yes, I have an abandoned MySpace page!)

Written By Jess Sand on November 29th, 2007 @ 6:10 pm

I think the two options are a bit misleading. MySpace’s popularity needs to be placed in historical context, when it started it had one competitor, Friendster, which was also pretty ugly, and had way less features. Functionality trumped there, but one one was making a functionality vs. aesthetic decision, just a functionality vs. functionality one.

A whole bunch of MySpace competitors came along of course, some that looked better, but at that point MySpace had some serious network effects going, it takes a lot of work to migrate your entire social network to a new site, so not that many people were willing to do so just on the lack of aesthetics on MySpace. People also learned how to hack MySpace to customize the look (to a point), and while the results were often ugly, people loved them the way mom’s still love ugly babies.

Aesthetics along does not make a myspace competitor, Facebook indeed succeed partly on it’s better looks, but also by adding functionality and effectively tapping into existing social networks (namely at colleges) to add social value that MySpace lacked. Even then there are still millions with too much vested into their MySpace networks to switch easily…

Written By Abe Burmeister on November 29th, 2007 @ 6:29 pm

a few thoughts.

what you’re calling good design is minimalist design, and while i personally would agree with that definition, i think that minimalism always has been and always will be a minority preference.

as just one example of many: if clean & simple was really that important to people, Windows would not have a 90% market share and the Mac a 10%, or whatever the stats are. (yeah, i’m a Mac partisan, but i’m not tryng to pick a fight–i think that even a Windows user would have to admit that the Microsoft interface has a lot more going on.)

the Windows example is directly relevant to MySpace in another way: its popularity fed on itself. more people used Windows because that was what everyone else was using. more people switched to MySpace because that’s where their friends were going. what’s the economic term for this–“lock-in advantage”, i think?

i’m very skeptical of generational-shift arguments; i think that things change less than we think. but, if you want to argue that the kids these days like cluttered graphics, i could see how this could be a visual reflection of their lives. if you’ve got several IM windows going on your laptop while you’re doing work and playing music, and your cell keeps going off, and you’re in a cafe talking with friends while all this is going on, you’ve already got clutter going on. MySpace mirrors that.

in general, this is just another case of the wrong candidate winning the election. but, they always do.

Written By discoczech on November 29th, 2007 @ 10:47 pm

I agree, I feel MySpace is a mess but I probably don’t ‘get it’ entirely (since i went to high school in the 80’s). Facebook has a much more elegant approach to clutter and usability.

My major gripe with MySpace is with the overall lack of improvement in design/usability after they were acquired by giant NewsCorp. I can understand the approach of ‘if it ain’t broke don’t fix it’ but come on. MySpace gets away with some of the worst aesthetics AND performance on the interweb. How is the acceptable? How is it tolerated? I abandoned my MySpace page out of frustration long ago and before I jumped on Facebook.

What is Tom doing w/ all that dough? He could have gotten a new profile pic at some point.

Written By Mike on November 30th, 2007 @ 12:46 pm

Maybe the kids know how to see past the clutter.

Think of Myspace like a spatula. You don’t make spatulas attractive by making them aesthetically pleasing. You make them aesthetically pleasing by making them attractive by making them functionally effective.

Myspace can’t bear your aesthetic taste. But, aesthetic tastes change, a la music.

Written By Steven on December 2nd, 2007 @ 12:44 am

to be quite honest about myspace design: it sucks. but, and here’s the rub, you actually need to invest time and research into it if you want it to look decent. myspace is like an old car- how it comes out in the end is how much effort you put into it. you can turn a 57 Chevy into a hotrod with nitrous tanks or refurbish it to its original glory or just drive around a rusty clunker.

tom will not hold your hand. myspace takes some basic knowledge of coding, and if not at least some savvy to use Google to find a WYSIWYG editor for your layout.

if you don’t believe myspace can’t be customized to look good check out my myspace:

Written By damien on December 5th, 2007 @ 12:44 am

Myspace is horrible because it is the first of its kind. Gen Y loves customization, and when you give people endless options (free templates, widgets) they will abuse it in our eyes.

Just because you can doesn’t mean you should. But this site was a first and people had to experience it fully. Now they have exhausted the options and matured at the same time, hence moving to face book to clean up their “identity.”

Cars of the 50’s had chrome everywhere because they could, doesn’t make it right. Now it is used more tastefully and controlled. These sites will get better as they evolve. As big as Myspace is now, give it a few years and I am sure it will be reduced to nothing.

Written By dshed on December 5th, 2007 @ 12:32 pm

Most kids, with thier space at home, live in a clutter. They feel comfortable with clutter. Need more be said.

Written By al bee on December 8th, 2007 @ 12:57 pm

I have a less complicated explanation: anti. Given the widespread rejection of mainstream brands, many have embraced “anti” style – if “designed” is mainstream, corporate, manipulative, then “ugly” or “accidental” is now desireable for anyone seeking to avoid that mainstream. Another example jumps to mind: Drudge.

On second thought that’s a complicated explanation. The simple explanation is not everyone cares about “design”.

Written By Dave on March 19th, 2008 @ 10:38 pm

Damien – I hate to tell you this, but your MySpace page is as fugly as the rest. If that looks good to you, then you don’t know what we mean by “proper aesthetics.”

Written By Dwight on April 1st, 2008 @ 5:09 pm
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