Will MySpace Erect Tollbooths?

Lately, I’ve been thinking through an oft-discussed scenario involving MySpace… one that I have good reason to believe is now highly likely in 2007. What if MySpace suddenly decided to put up tollbooths and all the players within the MySpace third-party ecosystem had to start paying the mothership access fees?

Without doubt, a strategic shift in policy by MySpace along such lines could cause significant ripples, if not outright panic, among many of those vested in the MySpace economy.

While I can’t reveal the “deep throat” reasons for my speculation, let’s discuss some of the more publicly-known factors that could influence such of move:

  • With the departure of Ross Levinsohn as the President of Fox Interactive Media (“FIM”), the MySpace economy lost its best internal corporate champion and defender of the Web 2.0 “open & share” ethos. While the cofounders of MySpace, Tom Anderson and Chris DeWolfe, are also net-savvy and remain ostensibly in charge of the social network, they are no match when squaring off against Peter Chernin (COO of News Corp) and Peter Levinsohn (the new head of FIM). The loss of Ross was a tremendous setback to FIM, and it looks like the pain will be felt by hundreds of entrepreneurs as well.
  • Unconcerned by the virtues of operating under Web 2.0 principles, the aforementioned two Peters of the old media guard live by a different ethos: money and control. And as MySpace continues its quest for improved monetization, their objective to deliver a “clean” environment to major advertisers is increasingly aligning with their vigilant efforts to improve safety & security.
  • Given such internal momentum, Chief Security Officer Hemanshu Nigam has identified its existing level of openness to its third-party ecosystem as the number one threat to its unifying objectives.The problem here, of course, is the everlasting delicate balance between openness and control. The question is, which is the optimal path to continued growth and sustained profitability? In my view, it would be very premature and self-destructive for MySpace to close up now as social networking monetization schemes are in their infancy and the major innovations are yet to come. Put another way, while extracting rents from its third-party ecosystem may prove financially beneficial in the short term, such a strategic shift may sow the seeds of its destruction in the long run.
  • As I’m told, one of the key drivers for MySpace to start charging their ecosystem has to do with YouTube. Specifically, FIM wants to monetize all those YouTube videos that are embedded within MySpace pages. Now that YouTube is owned by Google, internal forecasts are estimating that MySpace can add as much as an additional $500 million in revenues to the existing agreement they have with Google (which is guaranteed at $900 million of revenues over 15 quarters). That’s a lot of cash, and who can blame them for wanting to secure that income stream? But if MySpace starts charging YouTube, do they have to set up tollbooths for everyone else? They’re pounding their heads against the wall on this one.These are vexing issues and I empathize with the management of FIM and MySpace.
  • And let’s be clear, erecting tollbooths is not the same as closing up behind walls. It’s a monetization strategy that could conceivably add much to the bottom line — something Murdoch insists of all his companies. At the end of the day, there’s only one thing that we can be certain of: the current relationship between MySpace and YouTube will not continue as is. MySpace will either move to monetize the relationship, or it will cut YouTube off. In either case, it will set a new policy for the third-party ecosystem.