NEW YORK - The Internet has a rising star whose name isn't Google. Just over 2 years old, MySpace now has 2 1/2 times the traffic of Google Inc., and it quickly eclipsed Friendster as the top social-networking site where users build larger and larger circles of friends.
Credit luck and acumen: MySpace learned from predecessors and figured out the right tools to package. And when its founders noticed heavy usage among musicians and fans, MySpace embraced that community with custom features.
"It's like being at a giant music conference 24 hours a day every day," said Greg McIntosh, 27, guitarist for Ann Arbor, Mich.-based Great Lakes Myth Society.
College students, meanwhile, can rate their professors and find classmates or alumni. Others play games, view classified ads, send online party invitations or rate the brave on how "hot" they are.
Sure, none of these features is unique, but what's the point of going elsewhere if your friends are already on MySpace?
"I noticed a lot of my friends talking about it, so I went on it and signed up," said Magda Olszanowski, 24, a University of Toronto senior. "And I've really pressured my friends who don't have it to get it."
Instead of using e-mail and instant messaging, Olszanowski keeps in touch with many friends simply by posting bulletins on her personal MySpace page, known as a profile. There, friends can send her a private message or post a public comment; they can see her photo album or read her Web journal, called a blog.
The free, ad-supported site has gotten so popular among teens - a quarter of its users are registered as minors - that parents, schools and law enforcement officials have taken notice, warning of sexual predators and other dangers.
Big media noticed, too. Last year, News Corp., the media conglomerate controlled by Australian native Rupert Murdoch, bought MySpace's owner for $580 million in cash.
The U.S.-heavy site now wants to expand internationally and on wireless devices, and it is adding such features as video-sharing to become more like a Web portal.
"We want people to stay on MySpace," said Tom Anderson, its president. "We'll give them whatever they might want to do."
The development comes as the leading portal, Yahoo Inc., becomes more like MySpace, starting a social-networking service called 360 and buying content-sharing sites such as Flickr and Del.icio.us.
MySpace was by no means first. In early 2003, Friendster Inc. introduced a system that connects people for networking and dating through existing circles of friends, rather than randomly or by keyword matches alone.
But just a half-year after MySpace launched, it surpassed Friendster in monthly visitors and now ranks 13th among all sites, according to Nielsen/NetRatings. ComScore Media Metrix places it fourth by total page views, two notches above Google.
Compared with rivals', MySpace profiles are more customizable - hence the "my" in MySpace. Users can obtain Web programming code elsewhere to create their own layouts, change background colors or incorporate photos and video stored at other sites. (Friendster, already trailing MySpace in usage, added a similar feature last fall.)
"MySpace gives you more freedom to express yourself," said Zlatan Stankovic, 21, a sophomore at Hudson Valley Community College in Troy, N.Y. "You can leave different kinds of comments, pictures, movies, stuff like that."
Brad Greenspan, an early MySpace investor no longer affiliated with the site, said that after observing Friendster, "we just realized that to allow people more personalization and control would give people more attachment to their Web pages."
MySpace profiles are also more accessible. A challenger named Facebook requires an affiliation with a high school or college, while LinkedIn focuses on professionals. Friendster, meanwhile, requires registration before viewing full profiles.
MySpace not only promotes openness, it also adds Anderson as your first friend, immediately connecting you with everyone else. But ultimately music is what made MySpace special.
McIntosh's band can update fans on new gigs, when sending too many e-mail messages might otherwise appear to be spamming. People who happen to catch a performance can look up the band's MySpace profile and "friend it" when they get home.
Users can easily discover emerging and independent artists and instantly hear their tunes through a built-in music player.
"All you have to do is press `play,'" said Rob Theakston, 28, Detroit-based music editor for the site AllMusic and a co-worker of McIntosh's.
Other sites, he said, require you to download a file and open up a separate player.
Given the success, MySpace has even started its own recording label, and it is now hoping to bring that magic to filmmakers, and later to comedians and fashion designers, said Chris DeWolfe, MySpace's chief executive.
But success also draws a spotlight on MySpace's darker side.
In Middletown, Conn., police suspect that as many as seven teenage girls recently were fondled or had consensual sex with men they met on MySpace who turned out to be older than they claimed.
In schools across the country, students have been suspended for threatening classmates on MySpace, and in a case outside Pittsburgh attracting the attention of the American Civil Liberties Union, for creating a phony profile under the principal's name and photo.
Parry Aftab, who runs the Internet safety group WiredSafety, said most MySpace teens behave, but a good number are creating online alter egos with which they brag about nonexistent drinking and sexual conquests in a bid to appear cool.
And as parents discover their kids' profiles, Aftab said, they start to worry and tell other parents, who in turn spread the alarm. Parents, in some cases, try to ban their children from MySpace or the Internet completely.
"Just about every parent is aware of it and every kid is on it," Anderson said. "Some kind of reaction (is expected) as MySpace becomes part of the mainstream."
DeWolfe said the company has worked with WiredSafety to create guidelines and improve practices - dozens of employees now monitor profiles and images 24 hours a day - and encourages parents to talk with their kids about online safety.
The worries are bound to grow along with the site, which gets as many as 180,000 new members a day. It now has more than 54 million registered users, compared with more than 24 million for Friendster.
But it's not a given that MySpace will grow forever, particularly as its youth-oriented base matures and gets busier. In fact, the flashy icons and colorful lettering that MySpace enables are already too much for some.
"This isn't their bedroom," said Rina Raphael, 23, a New York magazine publicist who prefers Friendster. "People don't want to spend tons of hours creating a home page."
Complaints also have been directed at News Corp.'s purchase, including accusations of censorship as MySpace occasionally blocked video stored elsewhere and embedded in profiles, just as MySpace was readying its own video-sharing service. DeWolfe denied any connection, explaining that links and entire sites may be blocked as MySpace investigates complaints of pornography or racism.
Anderson said e-mails expressing concerns about the new owners have subsided as users realize that MySpace continues operating as a quasi-independent unit of News Corp.
Yet DeWolfe and Anderson were largely mum about what they - or News Corp. - have in store.
For now, size helps MySpace grow even bigger. Call it the network effect: The service's value grows the more people use it. And growth gives MySpace more reason to add features.
"They may have gotten lucky," said Amanda Lenhart, a researcher at the Pew Internet and American Life Project. "Enough people started using it that it became the place to be."