For an entire generation, MySpace was a gateway to the addictive social networking platforms that are now a ubiquitous feature of our lives. And for many members of that same generation, MySpace was a gateway to another inescapable part of modern life—writing code.
Since the site’s demise nearly ten years ago, certain totems of the MySpace experience have stuck in our collective memories—e.g. the top 8, auto-playing music, and, of course, Tom. But of all the features that made MySpace the cultural sensation that it was, the ability to style a profile page with HTML and CSS might have left the biggest footprint behind.
For tens of millions of people, tinkering with anchor and style tags to personalize a MySpace profile was an introduction to code as a means to solving a problem, to expressing something about yourself, or to just experimenting and seeing what happened. The flat-out necessity of having a customized profile brought forth an entire ecosystem of theme sellers and HTML tutorial writers, early pioneers in their own right who commodified their coding knowledge while convincing millions that writing code was something they could do too. So let’s look back on what made MySpace so code-friendly, and on how that friendliness eventually played a part in the site’s downfall.
A Place for Friends
In a 2009 New York Times review of the book Stealing MySpace,Michael Agger described MySpace as the “product of striving, nighttime Los Angeles, where you go to be famous, to be something new.” Its allure was in allowing users—the vast majority of whom were teenagers and young adults—to invent and express a three-dimensional, digital version of themselves, from their profile photo, to the eight friends they considered closest, down to the font and background images on their profile pages.
Changing the styling of your MySpace profile was a way to distinguish yourself from your friends. With a cursor depicting a favorite movie character, or font color combinations that recalled a favorite sports team’s colors, users could use every pixel on the profiles to set themselves apart.
MySpace wasn’t the only platform that allowed this kind of expression through code—Xanga, Tumblr, Pitas, and plenty of other platforms allowed users to customize their profiles with HTML and CSS. But as the most popular of the bunch by far, with over 110 million active users at its peak, MySpace was the standard-bearer, and the one that left the biggest legacy behind.
A Happy Accident
The code-friendly nature of MySpace was actually borne out a mistake. As Julia Angwin explains in her aforementioned 2009 book Stealing MySpace: The Battle to Control the Most Popular Site in America, MySpace’s lead developer quit one month after the site launched in 2003. This left the remaining team with a site written in Perl, which nobody else at the company was familiar with. In response, the team paid developers Gabe Harriman and Toan Nguyen to rewrite the entire site in Adobe’s ColdFusion.
However, while rewriting MySpace, Harriman and Nguyen made a major mistake—they failed to block users from adding their own HTML and CSS to their profile pages. In Angwin’s telling, the team’s mistake was what “allowed users to build colorful backgrounds and wallpaper and load them onto their MySpace pages. Suddenly teenage girls could decorate their MySpace page with hearts and glitter and smiley faces the same way that they were decorating their lockers and book bags.”
This mistake created security vulnerabilities and crippled page load speeds. According to Angwin, a panicking product manager alerted Harriman that “someone hacked our site” after first noticing a profile with altered font colors and background images. But the accidental feature set was an immediate hit with users. The company decided to hold off on patching up the mistake because “users come first, and this is what they want,” former MySpace staffer Jason Feffer told Angwin. The rest is history.
How Profile Customization Worked
The overwhelming hunger for customization among the userbase spawned an entire sub-economy of layout sellers, tutorial pages, and ad-heavy websites that provided code snippets.
This was a legitimate income stream for many users who already had a bit of coding knowledge. For example, PatrickJS, a Y Combinator-backed founder who we previously profiled , told me his first experience as an entrepreneur was creating and selling MySpace layouts.
Many of these layout specialists did more than just create bespoke layouts for a fee—they sought to teach the fundamentals of HTML and CSS, empowering anyone who visited their profile to create and edit layouts themselves.
One such account was known as "Mack," or the “Profile Master.” For a time, the Profile Master’s page was linked to directly from the “About me” section on Tom Anderson’s profile. Tom was every MySpace user’s first friend by default, so his profile was among the most visited pages on the most visited website in the United States [https://mashable.com/2006/07/11/myspace-americas-number-one/]. The prime real estate he granted to the Profile Master speaks to the fact that HTML and CSS were not just features—they were a foundational part of life on MySpace.
There were plenty of other layout pages that adopted this same approach, with names like “Myspace Layouts” and “Graphics 4 myspace.” Knowingly or not, these pages introduced a generation to some of the same web development skills that are now an invaluable asset in numerous career paths.
They might seem like silly relics of a slightly embarrassing fad now, but these pages were valuable educational resources for a population that may not have had access to such an education otherwise. Computer Science education was not as prevalent at the high school level as it is today, and Codecademy was years away from being founded. These pages were likely the most widely-accessible coding tutorials available to the general public at the time.
The Demise of MySpace
The sort of unrestrained self-expression MySpace enabled was great for users, but it wasn’t very appealing to advertisers. Brian Stelter’s 2008 New York Times profile of MySpace and its founders, written three years after the News Corp purchased the company for $580 million, focused heavily on the "big contrast between the chaos that is comfortable to many MySpace residents and the neatness that appeals to consumer product companies." With the acquisition came increased pressure to turn a profit, and highly-customized profiles were seen as a hindrance to that.
Around the same time of the Times profile, Facebook began to emerge as a legitimate MySpace competitor. Its profile pages were (and still are) the polar opposite of MySpace—almost sterile in comparison. If MySpace was the equivalent of a high schooler’s decorated locker, Facebook was the nurse’s office.
Facebook also attracted a different demographic than MySpace, thanks in large part to its early policy of requiring a college email address to create an account. This combination of factors led to a platform that was seen as safer by advertisers, with a slightly older user base that had more money to spend. As Stelter put it at the time, “Facebook, with its cleaner interface and higher demographic profile, is also seen by some advertisers as a better bet.”
You know how the rest of the story goes. While Facebook used its reputation with advertisers to morph into the behemoth it is today, MySpace took half-hearted steps to mimic it—like doing away with code editing—before essentially vanishing.
It’s been over nine years since Facebook’s traffic surpassed MySpace’s and never looked back.
After MySpace, no social network has been quite as code-forward. The limits of customizability on Facebook and Twitter profiles are your profile photo and cover image. On Instagram, it stops with the profile picture.
These social networking sites still allow for MySpace-level personal mythmaking, but without ever writing a line of code. Higher bandwidth and platform optimization around multimedia have made photos and videos the preferred form of expression. In other words, Boomerangs and Snapchat filters are the new glittering backgrounds and auto-playing Soulja Boy songs.
None of these platforms have opened themselves up to code editing, likely due to the same security and advertising concerns that led to MySpace’s demise. It’s fair to predict that they probably never will.
But even though coding and social networking are no longer kindred spirits, plenty of professional platforms have taken MySpace’s lead and leaned into code customizability. For example, email platforms like MailChimp and Customer.io, as well as blogging platforms like Wordpress and Ghost, are much more powerful tools when you’re comfortable with HTML and CSS.
The MySpace generation has grown up, left the site, and entered an economy that’s hungry for the same web development skills that MySpace users got a taste of while fiddling with their profiles. So if you’re feeling nostalgic about a href and img src= being regular parts of your life, know that it’s easier than ever to brush up on those skills and take them further.
We’ll probably never see another social networking platform with MySpace’s combination of code-friendliness and overwhelming popularity again. That is, unless you build the next one.
Note: This article was originally posted in the Summer of 2018.