Do you Facebook or MySpace? Increasingly, membership in one social network does not necessarily rule out the appeal of belonging to the other. Of course, each company wants you to visit their site more often than the other, if not exclusively. But both sites have been taking steps to sharpen the differences between them. "MySpace is Hollywood and Facebook is Silicon Valley," says David Card, a senior analyst for Jupiter Research. Or you could put it this way: MySpace is glam; Facebook is geek. Not that there's anything wrong with either.
MySpace seems to be morphing into an entertainment portal where everyone is in your extended network and a potential member of your audience. Its splashy licensing agreement with Sony BMG—the world's second largest label—announced earlier this month will give its members access to streaming videos, music and other types of content (the social-networking giant and the music studio plan to share advertising revenue). In a bid to conquer the social-networking world beyond U.S. borders, MySpace will soon be offering its 110 million active monthly users free voice chats via a new partnership with Skype (220 million strong, mostly outside of the United States). In a new service called MySpace IM with Skype, the Internet phone company will boost the MySpace instant-messaging service with free VoIP capabilities starting in November. (The companies will split the revenue, but other specifics have not been disclosed.)
These moves stand in direct contrast to Facebook, which seems to be focused on being a more efficient communications and information network. Instead of teaming with major media players to build services for its network of 47 million users, it allows third-party developers to build applications—essentially giving geeks of the world the keys to the site. A staggering 6,000 applications have been built for Facebook just this year. "We are not a media company," Mark Zuckerberg, the wunderkind behind Facebook, announced at the Web 2.0 Summit in San Francisco recently. Facebook is more of a communications hub than its rival. More so than MySpace, Facebook's platform infrastructure is built around connecting you to your actual friends—hence the viral appeal of applications like Scrabulous (which lets you play a Scrabble-like game with your friends), Where I've Been (which literally maps out for your friends where in the world you've visited) and Top Friends (a visual representation of who's connected to you and how).
The two companies, of course, still share a great many similarities. It's already possible to make calls on Skype through some Facebook apps. MySpace is also working on a developer platform that would make it possible for third-party software developers to add services to the site. Details are sketchy, and so is the launch date ("Within a couple of months," say MySpace execs). Kyle Brinkman, vice president of product development of the social network, seemed to downplay the move. "I do think there's a place for widgets and add-on applications," says Brinkman, but he makes it clear that the company—not freelance geeks—will be building MySpace's "core" services.
Which means MySpace is thinking like, well, an old-media company. It's basically cutting megadeals to share content and provide services, the way, say, Sony once moved big-time into film and music. "I don't think it's really revolutionary thinking at all," says Rodney Rumford, a consultant and publisher of FaceReviews, a blog that tracks and critiques the network's applications. "Where Facebook has a great advantage in the long term is the ability to serve me ads based not on what page I happen to be on, but through my behavior. It knows what groups I'm in, it knows my behavior and it knows my friends."
How Facebook ends up doing that remains to be seen. So far, Zuckerberg, who declined many outlandish offers for his company in order to stay in control, has maintained a vigorous reluctance to publicly adopt anything as mundane as a business model. That may have to change now that Microsoft is taking a stake. And who's to argue with success? Facebook is a media darling despite having about half the active users of its chief rival, and in any event the contest may not end with a loser. For consumers, it increasingly seems to make sense to belong to both: one for your music fix and the other to keep tabs on your friends.