[Snowball] Social Media Ghosttowns

ghost town banner

Facebook is the girl you bring home to mom but in the early 2000s, your social network probably wasn’t. The landscape was littered with ragged possibilities named Bebo, Hi5, and Friendster. It was the social media equivalent of the swinging 60s: no attachments, no regrets. There were a few diamonds in the rough but what happened to them? And where are they now?


Myspace started out as Harvey Dent but soon saw itself become the enemy. From 2005 to 2008, it was the most visited social network in the world, boasting hundreds of millions of users. In 2007, it was valued at $12 billion and looked down on The Facebook as a cute preoccupation for college kids. So how did Justin Timberlake buy Myspace in 2011 for only $35 million?

Myspace lost traction because it failed to innovate and quickly developed a reputation as a Wild West. Users were bombarded with spam and Myspace was unable to create an effective filter. This problem became public when a Connecticut Attorney General launched an investigation into minors being exposed to porn.

Users became frustrated by the site’s Geocities aesthetic and auto-play music. There has been no more compelling argument for a digital ghost town than Danah Boyd’s comparison of Myspace to a black ghetto. When Facebook expanded into the upperclass University demographic, offering more control to users’ networks, it exploded like a hastily built suburb. Users didn’t walk from Myspace, they ran.

A real Myspace page

Now, Myspace is surprisingly different. It has been transformed into a music and entertainment news site. On the far right of the menu bar is a link called ‘Browse People’, the vestigial remains of old Myspace which looks like a dating website, complete with search capability by relationship.

You can search users by activity. My first result in the ‘Last Login’ search gave me a user who logged in 21 days ago. My first result for ‘Recently Updated’ gave me a Vancouver rap duo who last made changes on February 2, 2012.


Live Journal was every teenagers digital diary in the early 2000s. It was somewhere between a blog and Facebook, allowing users to regularly update their ‘How Are You Feeling Today?’ Emoticon.

LJ lost trust with users by backing down on its own anti-ad policy. Although it made a social contract with users to ‘never offer advertising space in our service or on our pages’, it broke that promise on multiple occasions. In 2006, LJ introduced Sponsored+, an ad supported version of the site that offered new features. In 2008, it just gave up and implemented advertising on all basic accounts. The user base felt betrayed.

Live Journal cannot compete with its former self. In June 2011, the site counted 31,722,640 accounts with only 1,959,750 listed as active in some way. Weirdly, the site became popular in Russia which now accounts for 51.8% of its visitors. Only 10.5% are from the USA, the next highest represented country.

If you visit the site today, you’ll notice the front page hosts a ironic ‘Visit us on Facebook’ widget. You will also find a list of LJ’s most popular communities. At number one is ‘ohnotheydidnt’ a celebrity gossip group with only 6,098 readers.

Perhaps the thing keeping the Live Journal alive is Game of Thrones author George R.R. Martin who loves the hell out of it. So…that’s cool.

George RR Martin

Proof. Martin’s Live Journal from 2012.


I want to mix it up and took a look at a modern ghost town, Google+. It’s an interesting study because it didn’t fall into into disrepair, it was never an attraction to begin with.

Google+ seemed to do really well when it launched. It took Facebook and Twitter five years to reach 100 million users but Google+ did it in only eight months. It currently sits at 250 million users and is expected to rise to 400 million by the end of 2012. How can such a populated place be a ghost town?

The lack of activity is the problem.  There might be lots of accounts but there are 350 million Gmail users who have been forced to make Google+ profiles. That doesn’t mean they use it at all. According to a January comScore report, Facebook users spent 7.5 hours a month on the site. Google+ users only spent 3.3 minutes. Probably by accident. On Wednesday, Google VP Vic Gundotra updated that number, saying that users now spend 12 minutes “in the stream” but they generate that number by calculating how much time Google+ users spend using ALL things Google. By comparison, Twitter is happy to boast 190 million tweets a day, Facebook is proud to advertise their 292,000 status updates a minute, but Google+ has been silent on the specific activity of its users. That’s probably a sign.

In its defence, us users might be the ones at fault since Google+ does offer some unique features. There is Hangouts – a live video chat – which is the star of the site but feels like a completely separate product. Google+ Events sounds fun too…if I had friends who Google+.

And therein lies the problem. Everyone I know has Google+ but no one uses it. It’s surprising that the most visited site on the internet can’t convince more people to stick around.