MySpace, a place for (knife wielding) friends

By Michael Copeland, senior writer

NEW YORK (FORTUNE) -- Even measured by Internet time, that was fast.

Thursday morning, MySpace announced that CEO Owen Van Natta was stepping down after nine months in the top spot at the beleaguered social networking company. Mike Jones and Jason Hirschhorn, now promoted to co-Presidents, are replacing Van Natta, a former Facebook and Amazon (AMZN, Fortune 500) exec. Both men will report to News Corp.'s CEO of digital media Jon Miller.

If you believe the chatter from within the social networking world, part of the problem Van Natta had in recent months was having to get the OK for everything from Miller, who was the guy who brought in Jones and Hirschhorn in the first place.

Miller spun it differently in a release: "In talking to Owen about his priorities both personally and professionally going forward, we both agreed that it was best for him to step down at this time." Of course, now the two guys that Miller hired are running the show.

Showdown with Facebook

When Miller hired him, Van Natta was trumpeted as the guy who would reinstate MySpace at the top of the social media heap -- which ultimately meant fending off a incredibly fast-growing Facebook. MySpace's efforts under Van Natta to do that have been focused on making the site a hub for a community based around music and entertainment. But while traffic to MySpace has stabilized in recent months, Facebook has pulled away dramatically.

Consider that in the nine months with Van Natta heading the company, unique visitors to the site have declined 3%, from 125 million per month to 122 million per month according to Comscore. Facebook meanwhile grew monthly unique visitors by almost 50% in the same period, to 470 million.

It's hard to look at that comparison and not believe that Facebook is the present and the future, while MySpace is the past. Web companies rarely recover once that kind of a slide in traffic sets in. It's a tailspin that begins to weigh on every aspect of the business. For example, you can bet that when MySpace goes to renegotiate its search advertising deal with Google (GOOG, Fortune 500) which expires this June, the terms will be very different.

While it didn't start the social networking craze, MySpace was certainly the first service to break out on a mass scale. That is why Rupert Murdoch was willing to drop $580 million in cash for MySpace in 2005.

MySpace dominated then, but today it appears to be searching for a reason to be within a media conglomerate, News Corp (NWSA)., where it is clearly no longer the golden child. To top of page

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