In the wake of Facebook’s privacy debacle, Myspace Tom has emerged as an unlikely hero. But the platform he built and the data you put on Myspace continues to help advertisers target its old users.
Tom Anderson's profile photo. Composition: Jason Koebler
As Facebook CEO and architect of our privacy nightmares Mark Zuckerberg answered for his company’s improper sharing of 87 million users’ data this week, a lot of people are pining for a simpler time: When the founders of giant tech companies lived quietly on your “friends” list instead of testifying before Congress. Everyone’s first “friend,” Myspace Tom, has become something of a meme in the last few days. Some might say you either die a Tom, or live long enough to see yourself become a Zuck.
As much as we’d like to believe the early 2000s were an innocent era, the thing is, Myspace did sell your data—and your teenage profile can still be used to help advertisers target you. Myspace sold your profile, and mine, to ad tech giant Viant in 2011, which in turn was bought by Time, Inc in 2016.
Of course, Myspace CEO Tom Anderson sold his creation to Rupert Murdoch in 2005 for $520 million, six years before Viant got its hands on Myspace. But he built the thing, and set a precedent for how we use social media. What’s left of Myspace is still valuable to advertisers not because people still use the site (they don’t), but because it’s a graveyard of data and user profiles.
Reuben Binns, a post-doctorate computer science researchers at the University of Oxford, came across the Myspace-Viant connection while studying data collection and targeted advertising.
Whenever you visit a website that serves targeted ads, there’s an auction happening behind-the-scenes between bots run by ad networks. The winner gets to serve you an ad. For Google AdWords’ display ads, for example, choosing a winner is a combination of which bidder is willing to pay the most for that ad space (and is therefore most confident that it’ll work on you) and whether that ad will be a good match for the users’ interests. The more data an ad network has on you, the more attractive it is to advertisers who want to make sure they're reaching the right audience.
“That did not exist when we were all Nirvana fans.”
We collect certain information about you when you interact with the Myspace Services (e.g., Usage Information), both by directly asking you to provide us with such information and by automatically collecting it, including through the use of Web Technologies. Some of this information may be shared with third parties, including other Users and Visitors, advertisers, advertising related service providers and VIANT affiliates, as described further below.
You may be served with targeted advertising on the Myspace Services and on websites, applications, and other platforms owned or controlled by third parties based on information about you collected both on and off the Myspace Services , including advertisements based on your location and/or Usage Information.
Binns told me that beyond what’s in those privacy policies, it’s hard to say what, exactly, Viant and Time, Inc. would use from a long-dormant Myspace profile. It could be just another datapoint in a much broader map of what advertisers know about each of us. “It’s a very complex point in a multidimensional space they’ve put you in,” Binns said.
Viant VP Toby Benjamin revealed a bit of how his company uses Myspace profiles in a recent interview with Mobile Marketing Magazine:
“With the Myspace database, a lot had changed in people’s lives since they registered, so to maintain the quality of names, email address, etc, we have consumer interactions across the Time Inc universe. Things like magazine subscriptions or emails when people sign up for newsletters. This doesn’t apply to everyone though, so we partner with Experian and a couple of other big data companies for a one-to-one ID level match.”
In 2015, Tim Vanderhook, chief executive of Viant Inc., told the Wall Street Journal that Myspace still has access to over a billion registered users globally, and over 465 million email addresses in the US. Even if many of those users are inactive now, Vanderhook said he believes Myspace’s pool of registered data “can serve as the centerpiece of a major new cross-channel marketing initiative.”
Few of us would have considered we were part of a “cross-channel marketing initiative” when Myspace was at its peak. I was a junior in high school. I logged onto chat forums and Myspace from a clunky old PC with a dial-up connection that lived in a room of my parents’ house. I was still years away from carrying around a smartphone—and with it, a world of valuable data for companies to harvest about my exact GPS location and myriad applications that track my behavior constantly. We're nostalgic for the 2000s because they seemed like simpler times, but we were already giving up our data.
“I think one of the reasons this sits so weirdly with people is that the realm of online behavioral advertising has changed so much since we were teenagers,” Van Kleek said. Back then, advertisers could look at your profile and decide that if you mentioned liking Nirvana, perhaps serving an ad for the new Pearl Jam record would work. Today, online behavioral advertising is much more sophisticated, cross-referencing every website you visit and your interests and demographics to create a comprehensive personality profile that can be sold to advertisers.
“The fact that data from that era could be used in the modern machinery we have today is, I think, what’s causing this perception of dissonance,” Van Kleek said. “That did not exist when we were all Nirvana fans.”
In Myspace’s defense, it chose the opposite tack of Facebook’s “move fast and break things” strategy. As Facebook started to overtake Myspace in popularity in 2010, instead of ushering in addictive third-party farming apps and personality quizzes, Myspace continued mulling its developer platform, taking a “more cautious approach.”
I reached out to Anderson via email, and have not heard back.
In the end, Zuckerberg won the social media monopoly, but you don’t see Tom Anderson sweatin’ on a booster seat in front of Congress, either.