The single most important engine driving the popularity of MySpace is that it's free. Free to have a Profile, free to post pictures, free to have a personal blog, free to have a friends list, free, free, free. Free is the engine that has driven much of the Internet. If you like this blog and want your own, it's yours for the taking; blogs here on Blogger.com are free, too.
[Actually, the only person who had to pay anything for MySpace is Rupert Murdoch, whose Fox News Corp. just paid 580 million dollars for the company that owns MySpace. I guess Tom, the dorky-looking geek who started MySpace, and who adds himself as a "friend" to every new member's profile, won't have any problem getting dates from now on.]
Mention MySpace to the average adult and, if they've heard of it at all (I live in Silicon Valley where a disproportionate number of adults actually know about Internet trends), they usually dismiss it as "a big teenager thing." There is some truth to this, even in my own personal experience. Two of my three "friends" are the teenage daughter of a friend of mine and a friend of hers (the other is an early-twenties magician buddy).
I don't know the statistics, but any search without an age range will return far more 18-25 year-olds than 25-60 year-olds. Much of this probably has to do with the fact that teenagers have the skills and the time to mess around on MySpace; they don't have kids and mortgages to worry about. But I think something else is afoot as well.
The Internet Generation, which I have dubbed Gen I* is growing up with a sense of global connectivity unseen in the history of life on earth. They keep in touch with their friends as often as they desire, through their ever-present cell phones (via talk and text messaging) and through myriad channels on the Net. MySpace and the other social networking sites give them a place to homestead in cyberspace. Because everyone is connected to everyone else at all times on Myspace, it really does share an important quality with a village: everyone lives in your neighborhood.
In perusing various profiles on MySpace, I have been repeatedly struck by the level of personal detail people put out there for all to see. I'm not talking about sexual proclivities, or that sort of thing. But people have huge lists of their favorite bands, films, TV shows, drinks, sports, activities, and other passions. You can tell a lot about a person by the info they put out there, and it's clear the subjects of the profile want it that way.
For the moment, much of the activity on MySpace does seem somewhat infantile, but the kids who are growing up on this and similar sites will very soon be the adults of tomorrow. They will be used to having their own personal profile as an extension of themselves. I have already noticed how useful the web can be for finding out more about people I meet, especially in the context of where they work, since most companies have a web presence. How useful it would be to be able to pop over to my doctor or lawyer's MySpace profile to find out quickly how likely we are to be compatible (doctors who love hunting - no; lawyers who do pro bono work with the ACLU and listen to Radiohead -- much more likely).
It's hard to predict where social networking sites will be in five years, but I doubt they're going away anytime soon.
* [Damn. Gen I seems to be mine, but with Generation I Bill Gates seems to have beaten me to the punch by an embarrassing five years.]