User Customization: Too Much of a Good Thing?

One of the features members love about MySpace is that it gives people who open up an account a great deal of freedom to customize their pages with Cascading Style Sheets (CSS), a Web format that allows users to change the fonts, colors and background images associated with any element of the page.

That feature was really “kind of a mistake,” says Duc Chau, one of the social networking site’s original developers. In other words, he neglected to write a routine that would strip Web coding tags from user postings—a standard feature on most Web sites that allow user contributions.

The Web site’s managers belatedly debated whether to continue allowing users to post code “because it was making the page load slow, making some pages look ugly, and exposing security holes,” recalls Jason Feffer, former MySpace vice president of operations. “Ultimately we said, users come first, and this is what they want. We decided to allow the users to do what they wanted to do, and we would deal with the headaches.”

In addition to CSS, JavaScript, a type of programming code that runs in the user’s browser, was originally allowed. But MySpace eventually decided to filter it out because it was exploited to hack the accounts of members who visited a particular profile page. MySpace, however, still experiences periodic security problems, such as the infected QuickTime video that turned up in December, automatically replicating itself from profile page to profile page. QuickTime’s creator, Apple Computer, responded with a software patch for MySpace to distribute. Similar problems have cropped up in the past with other Web software, such as the Flash viewer.