Music meets social at the new MySpace
The new MySpace is pretty. It incorporates many of the trends in modern web design and social media - big visuals, responsive design, easy discovery - and gives them a clear focus: connecting through music. And it really works.
You may remember the old MySpace ("MySpace Classic", in the new site's parlance). The old site was the one-time social media king, boasting more than 100 million users at its peak. However, it also had a Wild West reputation with a lot of NSFW content, chaotic user profiles (filled with tacky design and annoying auto-playing songs), and tons of spam accounts. When Facebook offered a cleaner, more manageable alternative, MySpace users abandoned the service in droves.
Now MySpace is back, and it's no exaggeration to say it's better than ever. The service opened in limited form last year, and now it's available to anyone who wants to join. From the first minute you spend on the site, it's clear that the new MySpace has learned a lot from successful social networks, especially those that emphasise visual media, such as Pinterest.
Case in point: like most social sites today, MySpace calls for both a profile picture and a cover photo. The cover pic, however, has a minimum size of 1024 x 768 - probably the most high-res requirement for a cover photo that exists. The pic takes up the entire browser window, so the strict rule is definitely a good thing, preserving the experience for yourself and everyone. It also subtly discourages you from sticking an easily downloaded (and probably copyright-violating) pic in there.
GOT THE LOOK
The cover photos are just the tip of a visual-design iceberg, though, extending to photos in your feed, artist pages and the discovery process. It's extremely user-friendly, with actions typically only taking one or two clicks. When you try to do something, it usually does exactly what you expected, sometimes better.
As I got my feet wet in the new MySpace, it struck me how much the site reminds me of Windows 8. The horizontal scroll is the most obvious parallel, but it goes further: wherever you are in the site, you can just start typing to search for something - exactly how the start screen in Windows 8 works. It's a superbly convenient feature that I wish more sites and services would incorporate.
MySpace also mirrors Windows 8's People hub a little, putting all the updates from the friends and artists you connect with in one big horizontal stream. There's clearly no curating algorithm yet, merely dumping all the latest stuff from your contacts into an everscroll, but the break from Facebook's "edited highlights" approach to the news feed feels refreshing and honest ... at least for now.
Finally, the service also features the dubious inclusion of a news feed (labelled "Trending"), with what appear to be original articles from MySpace staff. This is one of the new site's weakest elements. The pieces themselves are a grab bag of round-ups about entertainment topics with a few longer profiles on some artists, but it's all fairly random. I believe the site would be better served by a curated news aggregator, pulling in articles from a variety of showbiz sites based on your preferences and connections. Perhaps that is to come.
The site is clearly intended to be first and foremost a music service, mixing a Spotify-like player (and radio) with elements of Facebook and Pinterest. The result is one of the best services for music discovery I've seen. Eventually MySpace intends to expand the service into all entertainment - it made a big announcement with Panasonic a year ago about TV integration - but with Justin Timberlake backing the site, music was a logical first move.
MySpace has a top-notch music player, which interacts with the site content extremely well. It constantly resides at the bottom of the screen, and whatever media you select enters the queue and starts playing as soon as you click on it. If you're in the middle of listening to a playlist (or "Mix"), the song or video just slips into the queue without disturbing the rest of it.
The player handles videos excellently. When you begin playing a video, it'll automatically take up the whole browser window, but if you move your mouse, the site navigation immediately appears. Click on something else and the video is instantly reduced a smaller window in the lower corner, playback undisturbed. You can even close that window and still listen to the song, again with no interruption. Perfect.
Music discovery works well, too - in fact, it's the primary reason to use MySpace instead of, say, Spotify or Grooveshark. First there's the big Discover button that encourages clicking, and when you do you're rewarded with compelling imagery and a few simple, clear options such as Music, Mixes and People. Browse just a little and you're sure to find something you're looking for, whether it's hip-hop mixes or reggae DJs in your city.
Use the new MySpace for a little while, and you'll quickly find yourself engaging with music more than you would on other sites. Whereas services like Pandora and Spotify are often more about passively listening, MySpace is all about users actively seeking out fans and artists with the same passions. It's what I believe Apple had initially wanted Ping to be, but done right.
If the new MySpace has a problem, it's a learning curve that's steeper than it needs to be. When you log on for the first time, the site encourages you to make connections with other users, but it's not immediately clear how to do that. The site needs some more signposts and walkthroughs on getting started beyond the option to "take a tour", which actually isn't that helpful.
Iconography is at times perplexing. The "connection" rings, which symbolise your relationship with songs, artists and other users - everything on the site, really - feel a little weird. (For what they mean, here's a guide.) It's a needlessly more complicated version of Twitter's Following/Follows You nomenclature. Although it's not that hard to understand, the fact that it needs a tutorial makes the site feel more insidery - not good for site that revolves around music.
And then there are the artist pages. Some have an active presence on the site, and MySpace apparently has a "verified" system, represented by a blue check mark underneath the person's profile pic, although again the site would be helped by clearer labelling. However, shortly after I joined MySpace, a profile that claims to be Paris Hilton connected with me. It's most likely a fake account - the scourge of Classic MySpace - and I hope the new site polices these diligently.
The flip side of the fake-account issue is the service's inherent democratisation of artist access. Similar to Twitter (but with more depth) or Facebook (but with more focus), MySpace allows artists to interact with fans directly, showcase their best work and perhaps even learn a thing or two from them. By its nature, MySpace encourages more engagement between parties beyond just "Likes", and I'm excited to see what emerges from the new relationship - assuming the site takes off.
From the user experience alone, it's hard not to declare the new MySpace a success. However, the challenges it now faces are of marketing and overcoming its own past. Many still think of the site as the abandoned amusement park of social networks, and it's going to need a lot of positive word-of-mouth to reach a critical mass of interest to truly become a force again. In that way, the new MySpace reminds me again of Windows 8 - all the tools for success are now in place, and now it just needs to overcome prejudice and convince the audience to respond.
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