(This interview was originally published by the Columbia Journalism Review)
With its eye-popping graphics and teen-friendly vibe, MySpace was hardly the first site to capitalise on the Web’s potential for personal connectivity. But its phenomenal rate of growth vaulted social networking into the mainstream—and touched off a white-knuckle bidding war between Sumner Redstone and Rupert Murdoch, which the Aussie mogul handily won.
In Stealing MySpace: The Battle to Control the Most Popular Website in America, Julia Angwin chronicles the site’s raffish (a nice way to put it) origins. She also devotes a good deal of space to the corporate tug-of-war over this unlikely prize. (Doubters beware: Murdoch recouped nearly his entire purchase price when he sold the site’s search rights to Google for $900 million.) In this interview with CJR’s James Marcus, the author chats about entrepreneurial smarts, the fusion of Old and New Media, and her own circuitous career path.
Let me start with a question specifically geared to CJR readers. I see that before you began writing for the San Francisco Chronicle, you earned an undergraduate degree in mathematics. Then you added an MBA from Columbia. Could you say a few words about your career path, which eventually landed you at the Wall Street Journal?
I grew up in the Silicon Valley, and my parents were involved with technology, and I always wanted to work in the industry. I didn’t know anything else—I worked at Hewlett-Packard during the summers. But when I went to college, I had so much fun on the school newspaper! And I thought, I’ll do this for a few years, then I’ll go back to my real thing, which was maths. I never made it back. My mother’s always been disappointed that I didn’t put my maths training to better use.
Has it factored into your journalistic career in any way?
It’s been incredibly useful and important. Not because I’m actually doing maths all day long—but I’m not scared of people who try to run numbers by me or intimidate me with them.
And how did the MBA come into play?
Because of my maths degree, I kept getting pushed into business journalism. But I didn’t actually know a single thing about business. At some point when I was at the San Francisco Chronicle, I went to my editor and said, “You know, I’m looking at these Microsoft earnings, and I just don’t get it. Should I be looking at the balance sheet or the income statement?” She looked at me with an expression of horror on her face, and said, “I thought we hired you because you knew something.” She was the one who suggested that I look into the Knight-Bagehot program at Columbia, which is essentially half of an MBA. And once I finished the first half, I went on and got the degree.
Now for a question about the gestation of this book. Obviously you had been covering the corporate tug-of-war over MySpace at the Journal. But what made you want to grapple with this subject at greater length?
So much of what I was learning about MySpace was about the deep history of the company, and these crazy characters. And journalism is really about the now. I just couldn’t get anyone interested in a daily newspaper story about the fascinating history of the place, not unless it had some relevance to that moment. Also, I had always wanted to write a book, but no topic had really spoken to me. This one I felt was meaty enough, and needed to be told.
It sounds like the MySpace management couldn’t make up its mind about whether to cooperate with you. In retrospect, are you glad the book was essentially unauthorised?
I went into this project desperately wanting them to cooperate, thinking that would be the only way for the book to succeed. But in the end, they did me a great favour by not cooperating. They made me work so much harder. I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have gone down some of the roads I went down if the information had simply been handed to me.
One of your points early on is that MySpace was the first Internet heavyweight to materialise outside the usual high-tech/Silicon Valley axis. In other words, it was the brainchild of marketing guys rather than geeks. Do you see this as the first of a new wave? Or is MySpace still the exception to the rule?
I really wanted to think it would be the beginning of a new wave. But I haven’t seen any evidence of that yet [laughs]. One reason is that the MySpace guys have found it technically much heavier going than they expected. In fact, they have fallen behind and not kept pace with the social-networking movement. So we have seen the potential repercussions of being a marketing-focused company.
But I think it will happen. Because the big media companies are investing a lot of time and expertise in this, and they will figure it out. Things like Hulu are beginning to be the next wave. The technology will have succeeded once it becomes to easy for people who are not technologists to use it.
So we’re waiting for Old Media to save the our bacon?
You do need money to launch a really big website. I mean, look at Twitter—they’re still barely keeping up with their growth.
I hadn’t read much before about Chris DeWolfe and Tom Anderson, and to be honest, I was taken aback by the sleaze level of their earlier enterprises. Essentially these guys were scam artists.
You know, I like to say that they were really good at imitation.
But hold on. At ResponseBase and Intermix, they were peddling spam, fraudulent e-books, and anti-wrinkle cream. They made a business of sneaking spyware onto people’s computers. You must have been aware of this stuff when you began your research.
I knew a tiny bit of it. But as I dug, it got richer and richer, and I was very pleased.
Did it surprise you?
It did surprise me. I thought, OK, whatever, they had sent out spam emails for one product. There were always rumours, things that had been hinted at in the past.
For me, there was a certain comedy in them selling the cheapo remote-control cars from China, or the miniature spy cameras. That’s just low-end retail. But the American flag cursor they persuaded people to download, which then planted spyware for banner ads on their computers—that’s actually illegal. And morally indefensible.
Yes. Particularly given the fact that they were jumping on the 9/11 bandwagon.
So what do you make of it all?
I hadn’t spent much time with people like this before, and it made me realise that this is what entrepreneurship is all about. These people throw stuff against the wall until something sticks. They have no way of knowing which of their crazy ideas will make it big. It’s the entrepreneurial spirit, which I have to admire. I probably couldn’t cut it in that world.
A related question. At one point in your book, venture capitalist David Carlick recalls his initial meeting with Richard Rosenblatt, who would become the CEO of MySpace corporate parent eUniverse. “I fell in love with the guy,” recalls Carlick. “He’s a reality distortion field.” Didn’t such reality-distortion specialists already wreak enough havoc during the first dot-com boom? Or is this just the nature of the entrepreneurial game?
I think it is the nature of the game. Carlick compares Rosenblatt to Steve Jobs. His basic point is that Steve Jobs is the ultimate reality distortion field (he didn’t invent that line, by the way). And it’s true. The greatest entrepreneurs are hucksters who have simply crossed the line into brilliance.
To a large degree, your book is about the mating dance between Old and New Media—with Rupert Murdoch dominating the dance floor. At this point, how does Murdoch look? Is he a swashbuckling visionary, or did he get sold a bill of goods?
Rupert Murdoch wanted to get into the Internet. And what’s interesting to me about the way he did it is that it was very entrepreneurial, very opportunistic. He had a list of all these things he wanted. MySpace wasn’t on that list! But MySpace was available—and he knew he had to move fast. One thing that Rupert Murdoch has consistently proven (the exception being his purchase of the Wall Street Journal) is that he has a great sense of timing.
Did you feel any discomfort writing about Murdoch, since he’s ultimately your boss at the Journal?
I knew we were going to get to that question. What’s so strange is that when I left the Journal for book leave, I was the News Corp. beat reporter. All I did was write articles about Rupert Murdoch that he generally wouldn’t like. I left to do the book, and I had no idea this bid was coming (which probably makes me a bad reporter). He wasn’t my boss when I left! Then he bought the paper, and I thought, “Oh, dear.” I had a lot of conversations with people when I returned from book leave, and everybody has been really nice. Mostly because what he’s done with the Journal is very similar to what he did with MySpace—he put one new person at the top, but everybody else is still there, all my old colleagues. There has not been a huge overhaul of management.
So it was basically OK.
So far. The book isn’t out yet.
It doesn’t sound like News Corp. cooperated with the project, aside from giving you a book leave.
They were very sweet about not cooperating. They weren’t against the book, but since MySpace wasn’t participating, they couldn’t either. So we’ll see. The Journal said it would run an excerpt from the book—they do that for all Journal reporters—but I’ll be interested to see if that happens.
At the time you completed the book in April 2008, you wrote: “MySpace remains the dominant social networking website, with 70-two million monthly visitors in the United States.” As I’m sure you know, that is no longer the case. Facebook has taken the lead.
No, you’re incorrect. What’s actually happened is that Facebook has surpassed them worldwide, but in the U.S., MySpace is still ahead, with 75 million monthly uniques, versus 57 million for Facebook.
That always depends on where you’re getting the numbers. [Angwin’s numbers are confirmed by comScore. However, statistics from Compete and Nielsen Online tell a different story, with the latter site pegging Facebook at 62.4 million uniques in January 2009, versus 60.6 million for MySpace.]
Right, but I’m sticking with comScore. Again, MySpace is out ahead, but stagnating. It’s like AOL: when you’re that big, it takes a long time to fall.
So what do you see in the site’s future?
I think MySpace is in a difficult position. [Former News Corp. president] Peter Chernin has left, and he was actually very involved. The COO and the two top engineers also just left. And Tom and Chris—well, their contracts are up in the fall. There’s no question that they have to innovate. But I see people leaving, and I see them launching a celebrity news site, which is not what they need to be focusing on. So the prospects aren’t great. On the other hand, you never know.
After all, the whole phenomenon is only five years old.
Absolutely. It’s all so new. When I was working on the book, I don’t think I even thought about Twitter. And now it’s taking over the world!
Let me bring the conversation back to your own experience for a moment. Putting aside the drama of corporate mergers, how have the new media affected your own work as a journalist?
Interestingly, I don’t use these media too much as a journalist. I’m very—you know, most of my book is anonymously sourced—and for me, some of these things are difficult to handle. I need to be on them, but I don’t want to expose my sources in any way, or my reporting techniques. I find them great for the promotion of a finished product. They’re also useful for starting a conversation about something I’m interested in. But when it comes to ferreting out facts, they’re just not that useful.
What’s your take on Twitter, which Google CEO Eric Schmidt just called “a poor man’s e-mail system”?
That’s totally inaccurate. People don’t use Twitter for email at all—he’s obviously never been on it [laughing].
So you don’t use Twitter in your work?
I do use Twitter. I use it to promote myself and my book.
And as a journalist?
Occasionally I’ve thrown out questions. I haven’t gotten great answers. It works for other people, but the kind of questions I ask require answers that are more than 140 characters long.
I’m looking at your own MySpace profile right now. I see you’re a Libra. I also see that you’ve got only 20-nine friends—shouldn’t you be pushing on this a little harder?
Those 20-nine friends—I worked really hard to get them! I’ve been trying to get friends on MySpace since I started this book, which is two years ago. And without even trying, I have amassed 300 Facebook friends; they’re just rolling in. Our demographic is not on there! My generation of thirtysomething professionals, people working in media and things like that? They are not on MySpace.
Won’t Tila Tequila be your friend?
Tila wouldn’t cooperate either.
(This interview was originally published by the Columbia Journalism Review)