Picture Myspace founder Tom Anderson in your head. What do you see? A man, 20-something, with short hair, looking over the shoulder of his white T-shirt. And his face, well, his face is slightly pixelated.
That’s because you’re not thinking of a person. You’re thinking of a photo — one particular photo, which is the same photo I’m thinking of, which is the same photo that everybody thinks of when they hear “Myspace Tom.” This is because Tom Anderson might have the most consistent, recognizable profile picture of anyone on the internet.
First, it was his Myspace profile picture. Since founding the site in 2003, Tom was the first person to appear on every user’s friends list, guaranteeing that somebody would appear in your Top 8. Though Myspace has changed owners and designs, Anderson’s profile picture has remained the same.
But that photo was taken before Myspace, so it’s at least 14 years old. Despite the time-slowing effect that great wealth might have on your physical appearance, there’s no way Anderson still looks like that. And yet the photo remains his Twitter profile picture to this day. It’s also his Instagram profile picture. And his Facebook one. When you Google Image search “tom from myspace,” you’ll see a quilt of this one image stitched together over and over. It’s as if from the moment this picture was taken, Tom Anderson went into hiding and this photo got plastered on the side of a million milk cartons.
Anderson, it turns out, loves cameras; he just prefers being behind them. Since he stepped down as the president of Myspace in 2009, Anderson has occupied his time with a new hobby: landscape photography. His Instagram bio is “retired and taking photos.”
In fact, when I emailed Anderson to ask him about his attachment to his profile picture, he declined to comment and said he would prefer to talk about his work as a photographer (but not that photo). But if Tom is ostensibly distancing himself from Myspace, why does he stick with the public image that most ties him to it?
The biggest clue we have is a tweet. In December of 2012, @J_don17 tweeted at Anderson, “dude you are creepy! Get a new damn picture!” This was his response:
.@J_don17 If I used a new pic it would break the Internet ; my pic has been viewed more than than the mona lisa bitch— Tom Anderson (@myspacetom) December 20, 2012
Let’s talk about the second point, because it’s impossible to predict what will “break the internet” or quantify the results of such breakage. The Mona Lisa vs. Tom Anderson. The Mona Lisa is currently housed at the Louvre in Paris. The Louvre had 8.6 million visitors in 2015, according to a museum press release. Assuming everyone who goes to the Louvre also looks at the Mona Lisa, that’s 8.6 million views in one year. Although the Mona Lisa has been installed at the Louvre since 1804 (except for the two years it went missing), let’s even the playing field and limit views between this year and 2003, the year Myspace was founded.
Accounting for shifts in museum attendance, I’ll drop the count of annual Louvre guests to 8 million — multiplied by 14 years, that’s 112,000,000 views. Tom has 238,000 followers on Instagram and 237,000 followers on Twitter. Assuming there’s no overlap, that’s 475,000 views. Then there’s Myspace, which was reportedly still drawing 50 million users per month in 2015. By year, that’s 600,000,000 views. So even if you account for the fact that Anderson deleted his profile when he left the company, maybe he is right.
Except he can’t really be. This equation is assuming that none of those Myspace views are from the same person. And it ignores the fact that the Mona Lisa is centuries old. And that the Mona Lisa is also available to view online. But sure, from 2003 to 2017, it’s probable that more people saw Tom Anderson’s profile picture online than saw the Mona Lisa in person.
Number of views doesn’t translate to cultural significance, but few images of tech founders (or of celebrities) are more immediately recognizable. But Tom himself isn’t really that recognizable. Would you know who this man was if you ran into him on the street? The most obvious reason for Anderson to keep using this photo is that you wouldn’t know who he was otherwise.
Anderson’s profile picture is more brand logo than profile. Looking at it, you barely register the specifics, like how you don’t really take time to think about the hyphen in Coca-Cola. That image means “Tom from Myspace” more than the name Tom Anderson does. Because every new user was forced to be friends with Tom, and have his image added to their page, the picture became as ubiquitous as the Myspace logo itself.
Maybe this is a result of Myspace’s social media monopoly in the early 2000s, but it’s also indicative of the weight profile pictures had at the time. Unlike modern Facebook, early Myspace didn’t offer a news feed or the option to share photo albums with friends. And fewer photos were being shared anyway. Internet connections were unpredictable, most laptops didn’t have built-in web cams, and underpowered “camera phones” barely captured fuzzy interpretations of one’s face.
Your profile picture was the most prominent representation of who you were. It was your personal brand before it was a thing to have a personal brand.
“Sure, it's a bit of a relic,” Jonah Fay-Hurvitz, director of strategy at the brand agency Red Antler, told The Verge via email. [But] it's like looking at your old high school yearbook, and being like, "Ohhhh, I love that guy!" In the end, you want your brand to be the most honest expression of who you are, and I think this photo nails it for Tom.”
It might be strange for Fay-Hurvitz to compare the founder of one of the most popular tech companies to “that guy” in your high school yearbook, but Tom himself has never had the cultural capital of someone like Steve Jobs or Mark Zuckerberg. He kind of is that guy.
And we all know that guy.