MySpace looks to former Facebook exec to stop its slide

News Corp. taps Owen Van Natta to be new CEO of its social networking unit, which has fallen behind Facebook on users

News Corp. said today that it has chosen a former Facebook Inc. executive to run its MySpace social networking unit, two days after announcing that MySpace CEO Chris DeWolfe was stepping down.

Owen Van Natta, who worked previously as chief revenue officer and vice president of operations at Facebook, is taking over as MySpace's CEO effective immediately. He will report directly to Jonathan Miller, a former chief executive at AOL LLC who several weeks ago was appointed CEO of News Corp.'s digital media operations and chief digital officer.

Van Natta, who also previously worked at Inc. as vice president of worldwide business and corporate development, comes to MySpace from Project Playlist Inc., an online music company where he was CEO.

In a statement, Miller said News Corp. officials expect Van Natta's "deep understanding" of social networking and his business and operational experience to enable him to lead MySpace into a new growth phase.

MySpace, once the undisputed champion of social networks, has lost its leadership position to Facebook in recent years. By tapping someone who was directly involved in building up Facebook to what it is today, News Corp. clearly hopes that MySpace will get a quick infusion of tactical and strategic guidance that will help it recover lost ground.

The current numbers don't paint a pretty picture for MySpace. News Corp.'s Fox Interactive Media sites, a group that includes MySpace, had 88.3 million unique visitors in the U.S. in March 2008 — a figure that dropped to 85.1 million last month, according to market research firm comScore Inc. In that same time period, comScore said, Facebook's U.S.-based unique visitors grew from 36 million to 61.2 million.

On a worldwide basis, Facebook sped past MySpace last year. In December, Facebook attracted 108.3 million unique visitors worldwide, while MySpace had 81 million, according to research firm Nielsen Online.

In addition, Facebook announced earlier this month that it had reached 200 million users. On Wednesday, News Corp. said that MySpace has 130 million "passionate followers" worldwide.

And in a report issued last month (download PDF), Nielsen Online said that between December 2007 and last December, the total amount of time users spent on Facebook grew by 566%, from 3.1 billion minutes to 20.5 billion minutes. That gave Facebook the highest average time spent online per user — 3 hours and 10 minutes — of the 75 most popular Internet brands worldwide, according to the report.

Analysts attribute Facebook's rapid rise in popularity to several factors, including its appeal to a broader swath of people than MySpace, thanks to what many perceive as a more organized and controlled environment. For example, most Facebook members use their real names, which often isn't the case with MySpace, and Facebook's layout is considered to be cleaner and more streamlined.

Facebook also offers more granular privacy controls, giving users various options for fine-tuning access to their member profiles and data. In addition, Facebook was first out of the gate on opening its site to applications built by external developers, a move that also has helped to increase its attractiveness to users.

Not that Facebook is perfect, of course. A few months ago, thousands of angry users slammed Facebook over changes in its terms-of-service policy. The company said last week that it would let users vote online to choose between two terms-of-service options — the current policy or a new set of rules. Voters overwhelmingly chose the new rules in balloting that ended last night, although far fewer votes were cast than Facebook had hoped would be.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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