The point is debatable. Between its acquisition of 10-million visitor RateMyProfessors.com and a rumored investment in social networking site TagWorld, MTV is clearly gunning for a return to empire. But at least for now, it does look as if the world's sixth most popular site has stolen the lead from the suddenly presidentless MTV.
But the MTV versus MySpace competition is a bit more complex than just the old replaced by the new. That's because MySpace isn't as much the usurper of MTV, as it's an evolution of MTV's basic concept: a horizontal channel in which glamorous stars, the common folk, and the channel itself are all on surprisingly equal footing. And, like MTV, MySpace is a channel that's built on reaching out to a youth generation who's the first to have really grown up with a new medium. So MySpace hasn't replaced MTV, as much as MTV has evolved into MySpace. And none of this evolution would have been possible without search.
Let's start with MTV. MTV was first built around the '80s generation, the first generation to really grow up with television -- and even color television -- as a given in the home. Their baby- boomer parents also grew up with TV, but the boomers often weren't born into a TV household.
MTV also introduced horizontal media in 1992, when "The Real World" spawned reality TV a full 8 years before "Survivor." And "The Real World" entirely changed the rules of how television works. Now, instead of a medium in which lofty stars appear on the screen while couch potatoes watch them, MTV's invention of reality creates a model in which the stars and the mere mortals occupy the same space. MTV showed us how media can become horizontal.
MySpace isn't so different. MySpace is also built on capturing, and capitalizing on, the first generation of youth who's grown up with new media -- in this case, the Internet and mobile. In Anderson's own words to Der Spiegel: "If you are 23 now, you probably started using the AOL Instant Messenger ten years ago. It's totally natural for you to talk to your friends that way. A few years after that you started text messaging. I think the MySpace generation is these people who just have this experience. It's perfectly natural."
MySpace is also a truly horizontal medium, with everybody vying for the same attention: Madonna, Jamie Foxx, and the Honda Element all have to go head to head with your 12-year-old cousin to get noticed.
And so, again, while MySpace may have replaced MTV, it's also just an evolution of the MTV model, brought online. Both MTV and MySpace gained success by providing young people with the opportunity to just be themselves, while understanding that technology had made young people "just being themselves" into something fundamentally different than it had ever been before. And they both did that while creating a new kind of horizontal channel.
It was search that allowed the MTV-MySpace evolution to happen. As New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman points out, search is the Web's great flattening force: by offering a single window through which to jump to the Web's billions of disconnected pages, search pulls the entire Internet together.
Instead of developing a relationship with just one site at a time -- in the way that viewers watch one TV channel at a time -- search turns the Internet into a single, unified Web. That puts all Web pages on equal footing, all Web pages at the mercy of the user, and all Web pages in direct competition with one another. (A similar point could be made about the effect of remote controls on TV, but search gives way more user control than remotes do, across billions of pages rather than just dozens of channels.) Search made the Web horizontal, and that horizontality enabled MySpace to use the Web to take MTV's horizontality to a whole new plane.
This means a tremendous amount for those of us in search. If search is a driving force behind the new horizontality, then those of us in SEM -- the first industry to make business sense of a horizontal universe -- can drive unique value in the new horizontal world.
That's also a challenge. As communications evolve -- and search, and elements of search, become just one piece of a much larger media picture -- SEM needs to turn its insights into ideas that can provide value, regardless of the directions that media take. And if we can't make that happen, it won't just be MTV that's facing replacement.
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For a bit more on the future of search and social media, have a look at my recent interview with MarketWatch.