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Stealing MySpace and accidental features

How some of the best features are often happy accidents.

This week I started reading Stealing MySpace: The Battle to Control the Most Popular Website in America. It's a great book that has allowed me to reminisce about the early social web and think back about my own abortive work with social network creation in the mid 2000s.

I recently read the passage where they talk about one of MySpace's killer features: customisable profile pages.

But customisable profile pages were never a planned feature. During the site's development a mistake was made which meant that user input wasn't sanitised. This meant that a users could inject HTML and CSS into their profile pages.

Despite this side-effect being a bug, once it was out in the wild users wanted the feature to stay. So it did, and it became a cornerstone feature that differentiated MySpace from the competition like Friendster and gave people a more expressive place on the web to hang out.

As the web matures and product development becomes more structured — be it through more conservative or systematic approaches to design, or through more rigorous QA processes — the opportunities dry up for happy accidents to happen like the one which became a hallmark of MySpace.

Large scale systems that we gravitate toward are much more mature and stable now, but that early form of accidental discovery seems to have died along with that stability. And that makes me sad.

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