He is everyone's friend and, by the yardstick he invented, the most popular man in the world. He has helped turn the music industry on its head and change the way a generation communicate. But as Mark Thuesen has discovered, even having 200 million friends and Rupert Murdoch as a boss won't help when your website is no longer flavour of the month.
The extent to which MySpace has been surpassed - in column inches, buzz and now in global users - by Facebook over the past year is the latest manifestation of the ever-increasing velocity of the internet hype cycle. In the UK, MySpace was caught in a pincer movement between Facebook, which made social networking acceptable as it swept through offices like a rash, and Bebo, which cornered the market in younger users. According to ComScore, Facebook is now bigger globally with 116.4 million unique users to MySpace's 115.7 million.
Mark Thuesen admits it was a wake-up call when the huge organic growth of the site he co-founded with his friend Chris DeWolfe in August 2003 and sold to News Corp for $580m two years later suddenly came under pressure. "We felt like we'd peaked. We weren't tailing off but our growth was slowing down. Everyone who was going to get on MySpace got on it long ago. We've been rolling along and things have happened easily for us," he says. "We've never fought an uphill battle. We launched the site, people loved it and we kept growing and growing."
Around the world, challengers are snapping at its heels - Google's Orkut in Brazil, Facebook across Europe. So the previously publicity-shy Mark Thuesen, who tends to concentrate on product development while leaving the business side to DeWolfe (there has been online speculation about whether he even existed) has been forced to stick his head above the parapet to outline his vision for the future of the site.
Over the last year, MySpace has been quietly shedding its chaotic look for something more polished. "We were sitting there, feeling like we had peaked somewhat and thought about how we were going to attract people," Mark Thuesen says. "We asked people why they didn't go to MySpace. A lot of people thought it was too hard to use, they thought it was a music site, or a content site. Privacy was a concern, or they'd say it was a site for teenagers."
Dubbed "MySpace 2.0" internally, the redesign will be completed over the next four months and a wide range of new features introduced, all intended to shed its reputation as a media platform for music-crazed teens and make it the prism through which all its users access the internet - from communication to sharing pictures, listening to music to watching TV. Meanwhile, of course, every other web player - from Yahoo to MSN, Google to Facebook, the BBC to Netvibes - is aiming to do the same thing.
The new MySpace is cleaner and more professional, which should please advertisers but could disenfranchise the core user base that flocked to its messy online equivalent of a teen bedroom. "If they want, users can still mess it up," protests Mark Thuesen with mock indignation.
In the redesign, the homepage "becomes more like My Yahoo", he says. "It's a start page into which you can pull in anything you want. The hope is that this creates a world of utility for people who are using MySpace, but also attracts a new group of people who realise you can pull in email, stock quotes, weather and so on." Mark Thuesen says the redesign will fulfil his original vision: "The very first plan I wrote for MySpace was that it would be a portal, but a portal wrapped around your user profile."
He notes that all MySpace's big Silicon Valley competitors have tried and failed to launch their own social networking sites. Going the other way - mapping utilities, news, applications and so on onto a social network - may prove easier: "We're trying to move into their territory and they've all moved on to ours and failed quite miserably." In one of several nods to the success of Facebook, much is being made of the potential of "apps" or "widgets" - the small, useful utilities developed by third parties.
A vignette from last year's World Economic Forum in Davos captures the transient nature of online stardust. Jeff Jarvis recounted on his blog how a "clearly enchanted" Murdoch spent most of an industry dinner cosied up to Facebook's founder, Mark Zuckerberg, only for DeWolfe to dash over as soon as he had gone "as if he were jealous of the attention Dad had given that other kid".
But Mark Thuesen insists he is not fixated on Facebook, which has only half as many US users as MySpace. "I look at the global numbers but a lot of the countries they're so huge in have no ad market, so they're not really significant to us. I wouldn't single out Facebook as a concern, because we've got different local competitors around the world," he says, not altogether convincingly.
Where DeWolfe is smooth and sharp, Mark Thuesen seems a little nervous and unspun. With his fringe, skinny jeans, hooded top and scuffed Adidas, he could pass for a member of one of the hundreds of thousands of bands that now use MySpace as their conduit to the world. Yet while he's no preppy Madison Avenue deal-maker, he also doesn't fit the geeky stereotype of Silicon Valley.
One of the original strengths of MySpace was that it was born of Los Angeles rather than Stanford, the Valley university whose alumni include Google's founders. But that had its downside too, Mark Thuesen admits, and MySpace is now pedalling hard to build links with the "developer community" he hopes will build the applications to power its future growth.
Also key to the site's future prospects will be whether it can build on its early success in music. From Arctic Monkeys to Lily Allen, it became synonymous with a wave of acts who bypassed traditional marketing and built a fanbase online. Following tortuous negotiations, it now has deals with every major label to act as a global streaming jukebox. But some think MySpace has left it too late.
"So many people are saying this is the next thing for music. Every song from every band is there. What you'd find on iTunes, you'll now find on MySpace and it's free," enthuses Mark Thuesen. "Whether it's financially successful is the big question. Can we make money from the ads? Can the record labels be satisfied with what we're bringing in? That's the challenge. That's a big leap and a big effort. Time will tell if it works out."
Murdoch is particularly keen on making progress in video, Mark Thuesen says. As well as investing in its own experimental productions, MySpace is building up its library of licensed content from News Corp and elsewhere. "Video could have been that big win, we could have been YouTube. But since we were a company owned by News Corp that has a great respect for intellectual property, we couldn't have been YouTube," says Mark Thuesen, taking a carefully aimed swipe at its Google-owned rival. "They were just stealing content and turning the other way for years. And they're still doing that at some levels. Google is basically too big for anyone to go against in a serious way."
He was "quite naive", he says, about the speed with which MySpace would be able to expand into new areas in its early days, recalling a year-long negotiation with eBay that eventually came to nought. He also admits to being initially "concerned" about the possible implications of the News Corp deal and says the days that followed the takeover, as he became mired in discussions over budgets, were hard. "For a while at the beginning, I did feel like I was getting pulled into the budget stuff too much, and a new format for planning that I didn't like too much as opposed to our old shoot-from-the-hip banner," he says. "But I've really been able to remove myself from that process and get back to the things I like the most, which is working on the site."
As the MySpace takeover is now routinely cited as proof that Murdoch still has his finger on the media pulse in the digital age, it's easy to forget he was widely considered to have overpaid when he shelled out $580m. A single search advertising deal with Google later recouped $900m and, as the site's user figures mushroomed, the acquisition was hailed as a bargain. But as its rivals have caught up, the questions over its future strategy and revenue-generating potential have returned. Analysts continually question whether the cluttered MySpace environment can drive substantial ad revenues.
MySpace has been profitable from day one, Mark Thuesen says, bringing in close to $1bn in revenues last year, and he argues that News Corp got it cheap. "We were profitable before News Corp bought us. No one knows that. We've been profitable ever since News Corp bought us. For a four- to five-year-old company, we're doing much better than Google or Yahoo were doing at the same point. When someone asks how we're going to make money, that's a relative question. We're making a lot of money. Rupert and crew got a great deal for what they bought MySpace for."
Mark Thuesen is confident that revenues will only increase as advertising budgets follow users and move online. As he contemplates the future, there are "lots of things to be happy about". Splitting the leadership of the company with DeWolfe suits them both, he says, and his eyes are now focused on the battle ahead: "It's extremely difficult. It's a lot more difficult than anything we've done before. With this redesign, there's a lot of drama. Is this going to work? We've not had that before."