So here's a question: What is MySpace?
Aristotle once said:
The greatest thing by far is to be a master of metaphor; it is the one thing that cannot be learnt from others; and it is also a sign of genius, since a good metaphor implies an intuitive perception of the similarity in the dissimilar. (De Poetica)
Organizations--especially startups--must also master the metaphor.
I'll be the first to admit that emerging technologies are tethered to the market's dominant metaphors, which are built from people's current and past experiences. We make sense of the new only in terms of the old.
But I have also argued the issue is not whether new technologies are interpreted through old frames, but which old frames. This weekend, after reading both a WSJ story on MySpace (MySpace, ByeSpace) and a parent's experience with facebook.com (Facebook... ), I saw the enormous leverage of a good metaphor in business.
So what is MySpace?
Is it the next media platform--a new company with the reach and influence of an NBC? Does its phenomenal ascendance and enormous population of demographically perfect users mean it is the platform that will usher in a new golden age for marketers. What they last saw in the 1950's with television and its ability to reach 75% of the viewing audience at a single moment? Is MySpace the next television?
Or it is not the network but rather the hot show--the Mickey Mouse Club or Davy Crockett that sold millions of mouse-eared hats and coon-skin caps. The kids across America who watched these shows were the canaries in the marketing coalmines (pardon my own metaphors), giving advertisers a glimpse into the power of that new medium to create and drive buying behavior from the ground up. Before then, kids were an elusive target and, a few decades later, were so bombarded with advertising that no one message carried as much weight. Is MySpace a glorified, 24/7 Mickey Mouse Club?
What I realized this weekend, reading both the business press and a parent's account of these social networking sites is that, to me, these social networking sites are exactly that. When I was a junior in high school, after basketball games we would all meet at the nearby McDonalds (Mickey D's). When I was a senior, we shifted to Burger King (the BK lounge). Why the shift? As Yogi Berra would have explained, "Nobody went to McDonald's anymore, it was too crowded." The same flocking behavior accounts, on differing scales, for shifting fortunes of the club scenes in LA and New York.
MySpace is the new BK Lounge. Granted, a national one, but it's the place kids go to see and be seen.
The discerning teenager--and when it comes to social networking, perhaps nobody is more discerning--now talks candidly about where they choose to spend their online time and why. Kids talk about how MySpace is getting too crowded, too mainstream, and they are looking for somewhere else to hang out. Somewhere with a bit of cachet. And for this reason, the club/lounge seems the closest metaphor for social networking sites.
The problem with this metaphor is that, while it accounts for the phenomenally easy growth of MySpace, it also predicts an equally easy abandonment by its users. Time will tell.