Before there was Facebook, there was Six Degrees, then Friendster and then MySpace, and for two glorious years, it was the world’s leading social networking site. Pretty much anybody with access to a computer and dial-up in the 30-50 age range now had a MySpace page back in the day, and everybody’s “first friend” was MySpace Tom.
Ah Tom! He’s kind of the anti-Zuckerberg in many ways. The light to the dark, the good to the bad, the cool to the so-not-cool.
Tom Anderson wasn’t quite on the same level as the Queen of England or Adolf Hitler when it came to being the most recognized face in the world, but for a hot minute back in the mid-2000s, his cheeky grin, white T-shirt, and somewhat disturbingly hunched posture was seen by over 100 million people each month.
Despite his clean-cut looks, Anderson was quite the teenage rebel—albeit the geeky sort—becoming a hacker as a kid, who went by the alias “Lord Flathead”. The teen’s escapades even prompted an FBI raid after he successfully broke through Chase Manhattan Bank’s security wall.
Thankfully for Anderson, he was a minor at the time, so he managed to escape prosecution, but it’s safe to say he still managed to cause some major humiliation and headaches for the bank’s tech team—not bad for a 14-year-old kid.
In contrast, although Zuckerberg was also a prolific and talented hacker, he was captain of his prep school fencing team and was “really into Greek odysseys and all that stuff”, according to Napster founder Sean Parker, who recalls how Zuckerberg once quoted lines from the Roman epic poem “Aeneid” by Virgil, during a Facebook product conference—and you thought your Zoom meetings were a snooze fest.
The MySpace Era
MySpace was launched in 2003 by Tom Anderson, and two of his eUniverse work buddies, Chris DeWolf and Jon Hart, after they decided to create an “improved” version of Friendster, which had hit the market just months previously.
MySpace quickly buried Friendster, due to its combination of tech-savvy, clean design, bandwidth, and the ability for users to customize their page—choosing their favorite photos, music tracks, and videos, and creating playlists. (If you want a trip down memory lane you can likely still locate your old MySpace profile unless you went to the trouble of deleting it at the time, you can find out how-to here).
In retrospect, MySpace was a breath of fresh air compared to the Facebook juggernaut that was to ultimately smash it to pieces, it had an undeniable influence on music, pop culture, and technology, and had the added bonus of not having your parents and other meddling relatives keeping a check on what you were up to 24-7.
It was also the first social networking platform to be truly global and it gave people the opportunity to connect with others all over the world (the main thing I remember is learning that “Braveheart” is the favorite movie of an inordinate amount of Saudi Arabian men–true story).
There was a purity to MySpace, with no political propaganda and misinformation campaigns, no feeling of being monitored and commoditized, and next to no advertising, however, that all changed after the site was purchased by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation in July 2005 for $580 million.
News Corp was determined to maximize all and any bang for their buck, an initial surge in users led to MySpace overtaking Yahoo and Google as the most visited website in 2006, and saw the dawn of a new age with a redesign and the emergence of intrusive full-page ads, in addition to a three-year, $900 million advertising pact with Google.
And so began the beginning of the end.
The MySpace Decline
Facebook had launched in 2004, a year after MySpace, but initially, it was aimed purely at Harvard students before branching out to other college kids, then businesses then finally the public.
By April 2008 Facebook’s traffic had overtaken MySpace’s, and it went from strength to strength as ever-increasing numbers of its rival’s users became sick of the clunky, ad-heavy content that came along with the $900 mill News Corp MySpace Google deal.
As is often the case when big money becomes involved, MySpace lost its heart, soul, and spirit as the site shifted its focus to bringing in revenue and hitting traffic targets in order to meet its quotas with Google. Despite pleas from MySpace execs to reign back the relentless ads and to invest in improving the site’s features, infrastructure, and user experience, News Corp top brass remained steadfast in their pursuit of profit over quality—which proved to be an exceedingly costly error ultimately.
MySpace’s decline was rapid, hemorrhaging users by the hour, and it also quickly copped a bad rep, asfter an investigation was launched into the easy-ability of kids to access porn through the site, in addition to fake profiles springing up from old creepsters targeting and grooming young girls—and MySpace was suddenly dubbed a “vortex of perversion” compared to the “safe haven” of Facebook.
Good job News Corp.
MySpace Tom Bows Out
Anderson had stayed on as President of MySpace following Murdoch’s acquisition in 2005, for four more years before finally parting ways with News Corp in 2009. A year later MySpace Tom was unceremoniously removed as everybody’s “first friend” and replaced with a profile called “Today on Myspace” or “T.O.M.”
Same same but different.
Although Tom Anderson has never spoken publicly about the circumstances surrounding his departure, it’s fair to assume there was no love lost between the MySpace co-founder and his corporate bosses. In fact, tensions were evident from the get-go.
“Before the acquisition, I could do whatever I wanted,” Anderson said shortly after the buy-out. “Now it takes more time to get people to agree on things. All the budget reviews and processes. That can be a pain. But it’s not stopping us.”
Meanwhile, an unnamed News Corp exec told Reuters, “Tom was responsible for the product but ended up being a complete bottleneck on getting things done.”
In the end, Murdoch sold MySpace to Specific Media and Justin Timberlake in 2011, for $35 million, making for a whopping $545 million loss. One thing’s clear, although Murdoch may have been left licking his financial wounds, MySpace Tom was laughing all the way to the bank.
The Reinvention of MySpace Tom
At the ripe old age of 38, Tom Anderson found himself to be a multi-millionaire retiree. He could have restarted his tech career and continued to expand his estimated $60 million fortune yet further.
Some might have suffered a bruised ego, been left with a bad taste in their mouth from the experience, and felt a burning desire to build a new “empire” in order to “prove” themself.
But not everybody’s first friend Tom.
MySpace Tom pretty much fell off the grid for a bit, whilst he took time out to re-evaluate his life and priorities. In true Tom fashion, he found his mojo again at the 2011 Burning Man festival after falling in love with photography.
Anderson discovered his true passion and now he spends his days roaming the world, taking stunning landscape photos in all the exotic climes he visits.
Dude’s good too.
“I’m not necessarily trying to represent nature exactly. I’m trying to make something beautiful like a painter would.” Anderson told ABC in a 2014 interview.
“If you knew me before MySpace you’d probably thought I’d have been a scholar teaching philosophy in a university my whole life. If you met me before college, you’d probably have thought I’d be a musician for my entire life … I like change.”
As for Tom ending his early retirement and plunging back into the tech world, don’t count on it—but, at the same time, don’t totally rule it out either.
“Many people really seem to want that from me,” Anderson said. “On the one hand, it’s flattering. I’ll never say never, because more than anything I like the idea that anything can happen. I don’t know exactly where my life will lead. Adventure and the unknown has always been appealing to me.”
Amen to that my friend.