Book Review: 'Stealing MySpace: The Battle To Control the Most Popular Website in America' By Julia Angwin

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Review by Scott Rosenberg
Sunday, March 15, 2009


The Battle To Control the Most Popular Website in America

By Julia Angwin

Random House. 371 pp. $27

At the peak of the dot-com bubble in 2000, a Wall Street Journal columnist set out to tell the story of the colossal merger between America Online and Time Warner, the Web's biggest deal ever, one that promised to shape the new communications medium. But by the time the book came out several years later, Kara Swisher's account of that ill-fated corporate coupling felt like ancient history. AOL was losing customers, Time Warner was retrenching, and the Web was obsessed with Google, blogging and video.

Pity the poor financial reporter who tries to pinion the protean online business between hardcovers: It simply changes too fast.

Events have now similarly overtaken another Wall Street Journal writer's new book on a Web company's hot deal. Julia Angwin's "Stealing MySpace" centers on how Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation acquired the MySpace social network for $580 million in 2005. MySpace is a site where millions of young people build profiles, post messages and follow their favorite bands. Murdoch put this unconventional property at the heart of his strategy to move his media conglomerate into the 21st century.

As a chronicle of corporate maneuvering, "Stealing MySpace" is meticulous and engaging. There was nothing simple about Murdoch's effort to win MySpace. Under the company's byzantine ownership structure, which Angwin explains clearly, any substantial offer from another bidder could have blown up Murdoch's deal. To block him, all that Viacom, the rival suitor for MySpace, had to do was to send an offer letter directly to MySpace while Murdoch was haggling with MySpace's parent company. Viacom's highly paid executives and lawyers could have learned this essential fact from public filings; instead, they remained in the dark -- and lost their quarry.

"Stealing MySpace" also does a great job of unearthing MySpace's roots in the Web's shadier precincts. The site's co-founder, Chris DeWolfe, originally started an e-mail marketing outfit named ResponseBase in 2001. After it was acquired in 2002 by another downmarket company, eUniverse, ResponseBase helped its parent eke out a profit by selling remote-control toy cars and spyware (privacy-invading downloads foisted on unsuspecting Web surfers). When these businesses dried up, DeWolfe launched MySpace -- a carbon copy of Friendster, then the dominant social-networking site -- as a last-gasp effort to save his team's independence inside the larger company.

MySpace took off not because of any technical innovation but because it gave its users plenty of freedom and targeted bands and their obsessive young fans. During its meteoric rise, DeWolfe somehow evolved from a peddler of borderline spam to an advocate of user creativity and self-expression. How? Alas, Angwin evidently got no cooperation from MySpace's founders and is unable to illuminate this trajectory.

Angwin is more comfortable digging up details about late-night negotiations than plumbing the social dynamics that drive Web phenomena like MySpace. As a result, "Stealing MySpace," which sparkles as a boardroom page-turner, never makes a sustained case for the cultural significance of its subject. Angwin only briefly touches on the controversies over anonymity and the scares over sexual predators that have marred MySpace's public image. And though she lauds MySpace as "a place where people can write their own narratives," you won't find many of those narratives in the book.

When Murdoch won his prize, he discovered that he'd acquired a vast population of users but not much in the way of technology. He also found that, however much users loved their MySpace pages, News Corp. was not going to have an easy time making a profit from them. Meanwhile, a similar startup company called Facebook, hatched at Harvard and spread from college campus to campus, was zooming up the charts with a somewhat different approach to social networking. It steadily gained ground on MySpace in both site traffic and public mindshare.

Angwin tries to cast MySpace as "The first Hollywood Internet company" -- freewheeling, glitzy, "where crazy creative people run the show" -- in contrast to what I guess we'd have to call the Internet Internet companies, like Silicon Valley-based Facebook, where programmers rule the roost. But that's a bit of a false distinction: Programmers can be crazily creative people, too, and plenty of creative types have learned to master technology. (See, for example, Pixar.)

You can't help getting the impression from "Stealing MySpace" that MySpace's founders, however smart and dogged they may have been, were also opportunists who simply got lucky. That leaves us wondering about the wisdom of Murdoch's acquisition. Facebook surpassed MySpace long ago in innovation, buzz and, more recently, actual traffic, according to some tallies. It has thereby stolen MySpace's claim to being "most popular" and rendered Angwin's subtitle obsolete.

Sic transit gloria Webby. Was Murdoch's purchase of MySpace a savvy coup or just a panicked act of desperation, like Time Warner's far more costly AOL mistake? It will take at least a few more years before we know for sure. By then, no doubt, both MySpace and Facebook will have been elbowed aside by some newcomer nobody has heard of today.

Scott Rosenberg is the author of "Dreaming in Code" and the forthcoming "Say Everything: How Blogging Began, What It's Becoming, and Why It Matters."

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