What Ever Happened to Everyone’s Friend, MySpace Tom?

Derrick H. asks: Whatever happened to Tom from MySpace and why was he the first friend of everyone on the site?

myspace-tomTom Anderson, better known online as MySpace Tom, was, for a brief period in the early 2000s, arguably the most popular man on the internet. Boasting over 200 million friends at the apex of MySpace’s popularity, Tom was everybody who signed up to use the site’s first, but hopefully not only, friend. So what is he doing now and why was he everyone’s friend?

To answer the latter, well, if you want to be everyone’s friend, helping to found the website is a good way to make that happen. Created in 2003, MySpace was a direct response to Friendster, an early social networking site that has since faded into obscurity, though at its peak had several million members and was turning down dozens of millions of dollar buyout offers from companies like Google.

In early 2003, while working for a company called eUniverse, Tom lamented that Friendster took a heavy-handed approach to so-called “Fakester” profiles belonging to people pretending to be fictional characters, or satirical accounts from people pretending to be celebrities, etc. Tom felt Friendster’s policy of summarily deleting these was a mistake, reasoning that the internet of all places should be a forum people felt comfortable expressing themselves in any way they chose. In a later interview, Tom waxed poetic about the nature of personal identity, musing, “Identity is provisional. Who we are is whom we choose to be at any given moment, depending on personality, whim, temperament or subjective need.”

With this in mind, Tom approached his friend and eUniverse boss, Chris DeWolfe, with a simple proposal- launch a site that basically aped everything Friendster was doing, but not be as stuffy or uptight about users calling themselves Noir Angel or Dark Blade 69 or taking on any persona they chose. DeWolfe agreed with Tom that this could potentially be a lucrative venture and the pair quickly set about finding a name for the site.

According to Tom, early ideas for what to call the website included both YoPeeps.com and Comingle.com, before DeWolfe remembered that he had previously acquired the domain MySpace.com from a data storage company YourZ.com, Inc. that had gone out of business.

As for why MySpace took off and the then wildly popular Friendster went the way of the Dodo, the ultimate success of the site is generally largely attributed to a combination of good timing, the duo’s business acumen, their experience and resources in the field, and plain old dumb luck. As an example of the latter, when coding the website, they committed a cardinal sin in software engineering in forgetting to properly sanitize their inputs. Or, in other words, they accidentally allowed users to insert HTML tags and the like into their pages.

A huge potential security risk, this nonetheless meant that users could customise their profile pages in almost any way they wanted- people loved this (at first). When this snafu was discovered, while steps were taken to mitigate some of the security problems this could have introduced, Tom and DeWolfe came to appreciate how allowing users to do this fit into the site’s ethos of letting people express themselves any way they wanted. As a result, rather than fully fixing the bug, in a great example of textbook software engineering ethos, they rebranded the bug a feature.

As for the duo’s business acumen and experience, they not only were able to create a system that performed much faster than Friendster’s notoriously slow site, but also embarked on a 17 city nightclub tour to woo hot women to their platform via having professional photographers take free glamor shots of the ladies in exchange for said women joining up. Naturally, where attractive women are online, the men of the species inevitably flock like the salmon of Capistrano.

On top of that, they traveled around attempting to get bands to sign up on the platform, ultimately convincing over 5,000 such groups to join up in the early marketing blitz days. These bands, in turn, encouraged their fans to check out their MySpace pages. As DeWolfe put it at the time, “We want to be the MTV of the Internet”. Towards this end, they even eventually implemented features to allow musicians to upload and sell their music through the site. (This strong connection to music is still one of the ways MySpace survives as a surprisingly well trafficked site even to this day, ranking in around the 3800th most popular site in the world and around the 1900th most popular in the United States. While those might seem like unimpressive numbers to the uninitiated, that likely means MySpace is still getting several million unique visitors per month. Which, well…)

On top of those in-person member acquisition methods, the pair also leveraged access to their day job at eUniverse’s 20+ million strong email address list to promote the site.

That said, the biggest initial marketing payoff came from wooing several of Friendster’s most prominent users over to MySpace. The biggest of these was the now somewhat infamous social media personality Tila Tequila, who noted of her social media fame at the time, “There’s a million hot naked chicks on the Internet. There’s a difference between those girls and me. Those chicks don’t talk back to you.”

At the time, Tequila had approximately 40,000 friends on Friendster. Besides being fed up with how slow Friendster was, Tequilla also kept getting in trouble on the site for her risque photographs and larger than life confrontational/controversial public persona.

Reaching out to her, Tom and DeWolfe convinced Tequila that she’d have no such problems on their new social media site. She, thus, jumped ship to the new platform.

Tequila’s impact on the site’s growth was felt immediately and, soon after, other major online personalities followed her lead. As Tequila herself would later note in an interview with Time magazine:

At that time no one was on there at all. I felt like a loser while all the cool kids were at some other school. So I mass e-mailed between 30,000 and 50,000 people and told them to come over. Everybody joined overnight.

Oft called “The Queen of MySpace”, during the site’s heyday Tequila had around 1.5 million friends on the site, which, while impressive, was nowhere near the 200+ million Tom had during MySpace’ reign at the top.

And for those who missed out on that era, despite Facebook being founded in 2004, from about 2005 to 2008 MySpace was indeed on top, including for a brief time in 2006 even becoming the most visited site on the internet, edging out Google for that honour. And, amazingly, in 2008 MySpace generated nearly a billion dollars in revenue, valued at some $12 billion at that point.

(As an interesting aside, in February of 2005, DeWolfe even turned down Mark Zuckerberg’s offer to sell Facebook to MySpace for a mere $75 million… It’s also fascinating to note that Friendster likewise turned down an offer to merge with MySpace not long before Friendster’s ultimate decline into oblivion.)

In any event, as to why Tom was automatically added as a friend on MySpace, this was partially a way to ensure everyone had a friend right from the start but, much more importantly, this was a way to introduce some of the friend management features to newbies, like the “Top 8” which allowed users to sort their friends in order of who they liked most.  As any of us who lived through it remembers, this was a hugely popular feature that led to an amazing amount of teenage angst and drama.

Although users were free to immediately unfriend Tom if they felt like it, most didn’t, making him, for a brief window in the 2000s, one of the most recognizable people online.

In regards to Tom’s now iconic profile picture, Tom continues to use it across his current very prominent social media profiles, despite the picture being around a decade and a half old at this point. On Facebook- yes, we’re quoting a Facebook post written by the co-founder of MySpace- Tom noted that while his name Tom Anderson is “pretty generic”, his MySpace profile picture is so iconic that most internet savvy people recognise it almost instantly. Furthermore, in a tweet (and now we’re quoting him from Twitter- some people just like to watch the world burn), Tom replied more succinctly to a fan asking why he still used the same profile picture:

If I used a new profile picture it would break the internet; my pic has been viewed more than the mona lisa bitch

You might now be wondering if that’s actually true.  Well, probably not, and definitely not if you level the playing field to include digital copies of the Mona Lisa. However, if you restrict the sample-set to the number of people who’ve seen the original, physical Mona Lisa since the debut of Tom’s profile pic, then, yes, though, as noted, that’s hardly a level playing field.  Nevertheless, for reference, the Louvre gets about 7-9 million visitors per year in modern times. Even if everyone who has gone in the 21st century took a gander at the Mona Lisa while there, that’s still at best maybe 120-ish million people viewing the painting, which doesn’t hold a candle to Tom’s profile pic’s unique viewer numbers.

We do, however, like to think several hundred years from now “The MySpace Tom smile” is something that will be studied by historians, with the profile pic featured at digital museums the world over- no doubt a centerpiece of internet history sections of the museums. I mean, those perfect teeth, and the way his eyes seem to follow you no matter what angle you look at the picture from… What’s he smiling about anyway? Did someone make a joke? Is he just naturally photogenic? Who took the photo?  Adding to the mystery and presumably infuriating future historians, Tom is quite secretive about the origins of the photograph when asked.

In any event, beyond not wanting to “break the internet”, a secondary reason that Tom has never changed his profile picture is that it looks almost nothing like him today. You see, paradoxically for a man who once had 200+ million online friends, Tom is a pretty private person and he’s noted that he’s very happy that the most well-known photo of him in existence isn’t all that representative of how he looks most of the time. In an interview with PetaPixel Tom further explained: “I’m always amazed that someone can recognize me from that picture. Its kind of been a benefit that people don’t really know what I look like… I get recognized just enough for it to be fun and not disruptive.”

Which is actually pretty genius and something we’ve written about before when discussing Daft Punk. To summarize a point we made in that article, Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo and Thomas Bangalter adopted their robotic alter egos early in their career partly so that they could enjoy fame without having to deal with the inevitable downsides that come with it, such as being constantly accosted by fans or followed by the paparazzi.

This all brings us around to what Tom’s up to now. It turns out, Tom has a bit of an obsessive personality about whatever he’s currently doing, with those interests being quite diverse.  As he notes, “I’ve lived many lives, so to speak. At one time I was in a band (both as a singer and guitar player) and that was all I did every day. If you knew me in college, you would have assumed I was going to be an egghead professor…. I like change.  I like the idea that anything can happen…”

What he doesn’t reveal there is that before all that, at the tender age of just 14, he spent his days hacking, going by the name Lord Flathead. Most famously, he managed to hack into Chase Manhattan Bank’s mainframe. Not as exciting as movies depicting such things make out, he reportedly managed this by simply war dialing and then, when the system responded, he was eventually able to guess an administrative user name and password correctly.

Once in, beyond sharing this information with a few dozen hacker friends, he also changed a couple passwords to stop certain bank officials from being able to access the system and, at least according to a contemporary New York Times article, created a few accounts of his own, then left a message for bank officials that he was going to start deleting financial records unless they let him use the computer for whatever he wanted…

Unsurprisingly, soon after there was an FBI raid of some 23 homes in the San Diego area where Tom lived. Initially thinking they were about to make some major hacker arrests, what the FBI found was a bunch of young teens just playing around. Because Tom was so young, the FBI and Chase Manhattan Bank let him off with a simple slap on the wrist- taking away his computer and never returning it, as well as making him promise to stop his black-hat hacking ways lest he be arrested.

Much more recently, after spending four years serving as the president of MySpace when NewsCorp acquired the site for over a half a billion dollars in 2005, Tom basically retired in 2009. He even ceased using MySpace at that point, posting on Facebook, “I don’t like using it anymore… not a fan of what the new folks have done with MySpace.” (You and me both, Tom.)

At this point you might be wondering exactly how much Tom made from selling his stake in MySpace. Well, this isn’t clear, with sources wildly conflicting on the amount- quoting numbers everywhere from a few million dollars to a few hundred million. Whatever the case, it’s safe to say even if it was $0, thanks to his salary after the NewsCorp acquisition- which included an initial $30 million, two year contract- after Tom walked away from the site, he hasn’t had to worry about money. Tom himself sheds a little light on the matter, stating, “When MySpace sold, I made more money than I could ever possibly need”.

Following his quasi-retirement, Tom notes he spent a lot of time “learning about architectural design.” He goes on, “When I left the work world, I started designing my dream house. I dived into architecture and bought seven vacant lots. My plan was to build one house, move in, and build the next. If the next was better, I’d move in and sell the previous one – so on and so forth”.

He designed and had built three homes before his passions went another direction, which leads us to present day in which Tom spends most of his time with a different obsession- travel photography.  While he does not sell his photos as, to quote him, “that would just feel like work, which I don’t want to do”, it’s still something he pursues full time.

This is a profession he was inspired to start after attending Burning Man in 2011. In his own words:

I became friends with photographer Trey Ratcliff and since I was going to hang out with him at Burning Man, I decided to get a camera. I didn’t really develop an interest until I saw the photos I was getting. In other words, I didn’t think “I want to be a photographer.” I just saw the photos that were coming out of my camera and I was kind of blown away.  I was mystified why I was liking what I was getting so much. With most creative pursuits, I would struggle for years and still not like the result. With photography I was liking what I was producing literally from day one. Then gradually it just became a way of life and now an intense passion… I’ve divested myself of all other responsibility so I can just travel and shoot.

Or to put it another way, like most of your friends from MySpace who had way more friends than you, he’s today spending most of his time taking artsy photos for Instagram. And, actually… wow. Unlike most of those aforementioned former MySpace friends, he’s got some pretty ridiculously amazing shots over there, which can best, I think, be described as Top Shelf Travel Porn… Nothing halfway, eh, Tom?

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