Last fall, MySpace.com looked like a dance club in need of a new DJ.
Its users were spending less time on the social networking site as upstart Facebook Inc. added new ones at a breakneck pace and stole the spotlight with splashy interactive features that MySpace lacked.
"Facebook awoke the sleeping giant," said social networking expert Joseph Smarr, an engineer for online address book Plaxo Inc.
So MySpace went to Silicon Valley to get its mojo back. To counter the perception that it was a digital laggard run by Beverly Hills posers without technical chops, it set out to win over the inventive software developers who make the entertaining applications that keep users hanging around.
MySpace was the first to attract these developers with its mass audience, but Facebook had grown popular by allowing them to cash in on features they created that allowed users to throw food at each other (called FoodFight) or join social or political causes (called Causes).
MySpace decided to win back these developers by making it easier for them to make money from their viral creations.
Now, that campaign is beginning to pay off. About 1,000 new applications created for MySpace in the past two months by more than 10,000 developers have helped keep MySpace's 117 million users on the site longer.
Some major Internet players - Yahoo Inc., EBay Inc. and hot start-up Twitter - have backed a MySpace initiative that lets users bring their profiles and network of friends to these sites.
"We're obviously huge believers in social media," MySpace Chief Executive Officer Christopher T. DeWolfe said. "We've been in business for four years. We've pioneered new revenue streams. ... Now, it's just a function of broadening relationships and leveraging the special capabilities we have."
Facebook's initiative last May to invite developers to create entertaining features for its users was an instant success: It spawned what has been dubbed "the Facebook economy."
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced the initiative at a packed event. "Right now, social networks are closed platforms," he said. "Today we are going to end that."
Soon developers were dreaming up all kinds of features, ranging from the practical, such as buying music or scouting vacation spots, to the quirky, such as biting your friends to turn them into zombies. The features spread quickly because users could alert their friends when they added them. As Facebook's population skyrocketed, MySpace grew uneasy.
"Companies get complacent when they are in the top market position," said Yanda Erlich, founder of Social.im, which makes instant-messaging software for social networking sites. "But MySpace realized that if it just sat around and did nothing, Facebook was going to eat its lunch."
The turning point came in October, on the two-year anniversary of MySpace's acquisition by News Corp. With the average time spent by users declining, MySpace chose the technology industry confab, the Web 2.0 Summit, to signal its desire to put down roots in the high-tech community.
Sitting on a red couch alongside News Corp. Chairman Rupert Murdoch in a packed hotel ballroom, DeWolfe spoke the words developers had longed to hear: MySpace was committed to opening up its platform, giving them access to a much larger audience.
A month later, MySpace and Google Inc. announced OpenSocial, which established a common set of standards for developers to write programs for social networks. A bit geeky, it's true. But it meant that developers could spend their time dreaming up novel applications instead of thumbing through programming manuals to adapt the software for each individual network.
"It was one of the first steps on the Internet to create a truly open, truly social Internet that's friendly to application developers," DeWolfe said.
It won support among creators of Facebook's most popular programs, including Slide, the company that makes features that allow users to virtually ninja kick or throw sheep at friends; iLike, which lets them add music and videos to their profile, and Flixster, which enables the sharing of movie reviews and ratings.
"They have done this humongous about-face," said Jia Shen, co-founder of RockYou.
No one would know better. Shen and his wingman, Lance Tokuda, got their start on MySpace when they wrote a Web application that could turn anyone's photos into a slide show. That application and subsequent ones were huge hits, but MySpace had a "we don't need you" attitude, Shen said.
So RockYou defected a year ago, when Facebook opened its site to developers and made it easy for them to make money from applications. Although RockYou became one of the most popular purveyors of new features on Facebook, it has returned to MySpace now that it is letting developers collect their own ad revenue.
"We had not launched a single new thing on MySpace for 12 months," Shen said. "This month we launched 12 new things on MySpace. ... They are creating a real ecosystem where a company like ours can do well."
Dawn C. Chmielewski and Jessica Guynn write for the Los Angeles Times.