Bringing back MySpace for Gen Z
A brief history of self-expression on the internet & the future of consumer social
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I recently wrote about the Gen Z aesthetic, and the move away from "premium mediocre" towards "intentional ugly". The aesthetic trends I noticed were mostly revealed in fashion, personal styling, memes, and the more surface-level elements of graphic design. You could say these trends are superficial — they're manifested in visual design, the "UI" of our lives. But I was curious, will these trends also bleed into the design of the systems we experience day-to-day — the "UX" of our lives? In my last post I dove into how the cultural pendulum swings between two aesthetics: clean / tech-y / homogenous and rustic / cosy / diverse. But does it also swing between these points on a deeper systems-design level?
In this post, I'll run through a brief history of self-expression on the internet, through the lens of popular social media sites from the early 90's to now. I'll analyze the relationship between fashion and interiors, and UI and UX design, and take a swing at predicting what the future of consumer social might look like.
For humans, self-expression is an important part of achieving a sense of belonging, which has historically been key to our survival. As tribespeople, the markings we painted, the garb we wore, and the adornment of our shelters were signals of our associations. We expressed these identities visually to remain accepted and protected by our people. We fashioned ourselves for survival.
On the internet these days, survival is a very different game. Self-expressing in certain ways grants us acceptance from certain internet tribes, which translates to career opportunities, romantic opportunities, friendship opportunities, etc. Cancellation is what happens when our self-expression on the internet deviates from what's expected in these tribes. But that's probably a whole separate post.
What's both liberating and dangerous about the internet, is the chance to express what we intrinsically think and believe with fewer concerns about others’ disapproval and judgments. The often pseudonymous nature of the internet means we can quickly experiment with different forms of self-expression to see what sticks. We can also broadcast to a wider audience, and people who don't know us IRL can grasp what we represent from just a few taps, strokes, or swipes.
There's not a time more important for self-expression than in your teenage years. Which is why almost all major consumer social internet products are first adopted by this age group. Teens are madly throwing identities against the wall to see which sticks, quickly morphing and changing to ensure they're entrenched in one sub-culture or another. Since the internet dipped into the mainstream, teens have been quick to commandeer its platforms for their identity experiments. In observing how these platforms were designed throughout time, and plotting them against adjacent trends in fashion and interiors, we can start to see how the design of online social networks may follow a cyclical path, just as trends in fashion and interiors do. And we may be able to predict the illusive ✨Future of Consumer Social✨.
From L-R: A bulletin board system, AOL Instant Messenger, MSN Messenger.
Bulletin board systems were some of the earliest forms of online communication and expression. Users could perform functions such as uploading and downloading software and data, reading news and bulletins, and exchanging messages with other users through public message boards. Many BBSes also offered online games in which users can compete with each other. Internet Relay Chat became popular, but expression was still mostly limited to text. The AOL screen name and away message field was how you crafted a unique personality.
The Early 2000’s
From L-R: Friendster, Xanga, MySpace, Habbo, Neopets.
With the arrival of the first social networking sites, the concept of an online profile was born. Users customized their profiles by tweaking the HTML, copy/pasting code snippets for funky backgrounds, custom fonts, and a range of other trimmings. Your MySpace profile was like a canvas you wanted to keep fresh and just differentiated enough from the profiles of your Top 8 friends. Kayne's 'Stronger' played over top of my carefully selected rainbow-patterned background. Virtual communities like Habbo and Neopets similarly allowed for a big range of modification to the UI, with customizable rooms, avatars, and virtual spaces. Users self-expressed less by generating content, and more by iterating on the components of their personal virtual spaces.
The Late 2000’s
From L-R: Facebook, YouTube, Tumblr, Bebo, Reddit, Twitter.
We soon ditched our technicolor backgrounds and HTML editing in favor of prescribed templates that encouraged the sharing of user-generated content. Self-expression came through in what we wrote and in the visuals we posted, as opposed to the aesthetic trimmings of our profile. This new format turned us into exhibitionists, and we did more broadcasting than interacting. Written expression was King, and the information fields were rigid. We embraced the sameness, and diligently uploaded our lives into stacks upon stacks of neat little boxes — constraints and order we probably desired amid the chaos of the post-9/11, GFC world.
The Early 2010’s
From L-R: Instagram, Snapchat, Pinterest.
As the use cases for giant networks like Facebook broadened, vertical social networks were spawned. Young people demanded more lightweight and visual mediums of expression. A picture said more than a Tweet, and it said it instantly. But we were still putting out content within these tight cookie-cutter templates. Our tools for expression were limited, so the 'Instagram Aesthetic' developed and a sickly sameness swept over our content. The introduction of Stories, with their goofy filters, stickers, drawing tools, and labels allowed for more raw and varied expression. It was a welcome reprieve from the homogeny and perfectionism of the feed. Visuals were now King.
The Late 2010’s
From L-R: TikTok and Discord.
As Gen Z came of age they rejected the perfectionist ideals of Instagram culture, and desired online spaces where they could freely express their goofiness, humor, and commentary on the world. There was a movement towards more cosy, private spaces where conversation could flow unmoderated in communities of like-minded people. Life on these social platforms is very collaborative — users find inspiration in and riff on each other's content.
Because I'm in the business of trying to build the next generation of consumer social products, I'm super interested in how this space will look in the future. I was curious to see if there were parallels between trends in the UI/UX design of social platforms, and trends in fashion and interiors, across the above eras. My thinking is that if design trends in internet products happen in sync with changes in fashion and interior design — and fashion and interiors follow cyclical trend patterns — it might become easier to spot where design on the internet is headed. Let's see...
As you can start to see, we're just beginning to cycle back around to 90's design preferences across a few categories. In fashion, styles are "intentionally ugly", they're eclectic and comfortable. "Cottagecore" — a trend that has emerged out of a desire to return to the simple country life is rising in popularity amongst Gen Z. A preference for interiors that are cosy, textured, and "lived-in" is emerging. This casualness and messiness is being translated online in the form of Brutalist web design — 'its ruggedness and lack of concern with looking comfortable or easy, a reaction by a younger generation to the lightness, optimism, and frivolity of today's web design'. Dorky, unprofessional layouts are cool, their unpretentiousness is endearing and inviting. 8-bit graphics, or 'Techno Nostalgia' is in vogue. Poolside.fm is a great example.
You can start to see parallels between the quirky, modular design of platforms like MySpace, and the way young people prefer to package information today. Spatial interfaces — 'interfaces that consider the physicality of the objects on the screen, and afford users more powerful ways of thinking and interacting' — are beginning to make a mainstream resurgence. John Palmer notes that these concepts have always been used in gaming, and the recent growth in gaming has called attention to the power of this kind of UX, which shares many parallels with Habbo and Neopets. I think we'll start to see personal profiles and chat interfaces become more customizable. We've already added Giphy's, stickers, audio, and video into our digital communication — I imagine other mediums that allow us to inject humor, honesty, and creativity into our conversations will arise.
Muze, Teeoh, Figma town, and some examples of Brutalist web design.
I think we'll see awkward color combinations, more chaos, and more customization. On the UX front, I think we'll see users becoming more and more empowered to control their surroundings in online spaces. Collaboration in virtual environments will move out of gaming to become more mainstream. This 'WFH Town' built on Figma, and this 'Elliott Virtual Mall' built in Google Sheets are funny examples. Information will be more disordered and collage-like, we'll communicate ideas in moodboards and digital scrap books.
The return to more open and creative forms of expression and communication on the internet is exciting, but it may not come easily to those of us accustomed to squeezing our lives into neat little filtered boxes. I don't think tools for expression in consumer social platforms should be boundless. Constraints breed creativity, but perhaps we're hungry for new types of constraints, and new types of creativity.
Though maybe the cookie-cutter templates provided by Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram became so popular because they took the pressure of having to be creative in our self-expression. The constraints make these platforms more inclusive, and they prevent people from producing unattractive profiles. Literally anyone with an internet connection can participate, have a great looking profile, and feel a sense of belonging to a community. And that's pretty cool too.
But if order, cleanliness, and homogeny are synonymous with perfectionism, and Gen Z are rejecting perfectionism, it stands to reason that Gen Z could soon reject Instagram. Here you could make the case to bring back MySpace for Gen Z. Like a 20 year old with a record collection and an analog camera, it would probably be immensely cool for kids these days to be seen hanging out on sites like MySpace. Shall we bring it back?
Yours in rainbow backgrounds,
(Actual photo from my MySpace circa 2007. Strong clown vibes 😂)
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Some friends and I are assembling a team to build a new social product for Gen Z creators. If you’re interested in working in this super fun space, please hit me up firstname.lastname@example.org