With its eye-popping graphics and teen-friendly vibe, MySpace was hardly the first site to capitalize 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 math. I never made it back. My mother’s always been disappointed that I didn’t put my math 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 math 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 math 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 unauthorized?
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 favor 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 materialize 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.