The Big Idea: Julia Angwin

Hey, folks, this Big Idea piece is a huge thrill for me to present to you because the author, Julia Angwin, is an friend of mine back to our college days, when she was an editor at the Chicago Maroon, the newspaper at which I was the editor-in-chief. We both went into newspapers, but unlike me, she stuck with it and is now the Senior Technoloy Editor of WSJ.com, the Wall Street Journal’s web site. Which is pretty damn cool, if you ask me. Also cool: her sharing in a Pulitzer Prize for explanatory reporting in 2003.

Being a technology reporter and writer put her in a good position over the last few years to watch the rise and transformation of MySpace, and now she’s put it all together in a book: Stealing MySpace: The Battle to Control the Most Popular Website in America. It’s unsurprisingly (to me, anyway) been garnering great reviews (“You needn’t know a portal from a platform to follow this sprawling, rollicking Internet history” — The New York Times) and puts into context one of the most influential Web sites ever.

And now for your edification and amusement, Julia explains how the Big Idea for non-fiction differs from the big ideas for fiction — and how what she thought the Big Idea about MySpace was changed during the writing of her book. Take it away, Julia:

JULIA ANGWIN:

As a nonfiction writer, I don’t get to choose the ‘big idea’ in my work. All the ideas – large and small – arise naturally from the facts I uncover. My job is to take the facts, stare at them hard and extract the ideas from them.

When I began writing Stealing MySpace, I thought that the ‘big idea’ that would emerge would be about the remix generation – the kids who were using MySpace to reshape their digital worlds. After all, weren’t they changing the world with their behavior?

But, in fact, the big idea that arose from my reporting was altogether different. It was this: what does it take to be a successful entrepreneur?

Early in my investigation, I discovered that the founders of MySpace were scammers. Before they started the social-networking site, they sent spam, distributed spyware, and peddled spy cameras you could hide in your shoe and e-books touting “how to grow taller” and “how to hypnotize people.” MySpace was just an idea they copied from a popular Web site at the time, Friendster.

MySpace’s parent company, Intermix, wasn’t much better. It made most of its money selling subscription wrinkle cream and diet pills online, had a spyware business of its own, and had a thriving animated greeting card business best known for its fart and poopy diaper jokes.

In the book, the venture capitalist who backed Intermix (and was initially reluctant to support MySpace) David Carlick says why he’s not worried about the unsavory parts of Intermix. “Marketing has always been on the scary edge of ethical.”

This was a vastly different story than the canonical tech startup tale. This oft-told narrative stars a Bill Gates genius-type founder dropping out of Harvard to work on his technological breakthrough in a garage somewhere.

This was the story that I absorbed into my pores as a kid growing up in Silicon Valley, and then as a reporter covering the industry.

Meeting this new type of success story I wondered: were the MySpace founders just lucky? Or was their hucksterism part of what it takes to succeed?

One solution presented itself to me: Web technology had finally become easy to use. No longer were Web companies going to be run by engineers; now they could be run by marketers, too.

But then, slowly, it dawned on me that the Silicon Valley tale I’d grown up on was a bit of a myth. Hadn’t these tech companies really been run by marketers all along? Bill Gates, although he was a brilliant programmer, was an even more brilliant marketer. Ditto for Steve Jobs, whose marketing prowess is such that he is considered a “reality distortion field.”

And thus I stumbled onto my big idea: The greatest entrepreneurs are hucksters who have simply crossed the line into brilliance.

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Stealing MySpace: Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Powell’s

Read an excerpt of Stealing MySpace (pdf link). Visit Julia Angwin’s blog. Follow Julia Angwin on Twitter.

19 thoughts on “The Big Idea: Julia Angwin

  1. Websites like MySpace take off by pure chance alone. You just have to spark with the right people, become the right “meme” and it takes off like a virus.

    I mean look at the surge in the sales of Bacon. Wasn’t that stuff bad for you in 2007? Then bacon became an internet meme, and people can’t seem to get enough of it.

    Meme’s are an odd phenomenon.

    But this book is already dated. MySpace is so 2008…Facebook is the new MySpace for 2009.

  2. Chapel:

    “Websites like MySpace take off by pure chance alone.”

    No, they don’t. As the book details.

    Nor is the book dated any more than any history of any current phenomenon is dated. Facebook is more popular than MySpace at the moment; it doesn’t mean that the story of MySpace’s rise isn’t still fascinating in its own right.

  3. Hey John,

    Thanks for sharing this! I’m inclined to pick up a copy based on this post. I love books of this nature (besides what you author, of course!) I can’t wait to swing by the bookstore here on campus to see if they have a copy.

  4. It depends on what you mean by “chance”. All entrepreneurs succeed by chance in the sense that success comes through grabbing the opportunity that comes to you by chance that hundreds of others are passing by.

  5. Yes, but in the last 10 years the internet communities evolved numerous times. Just a handful of years ago I could talk about the rise of AOL or the rise of Geocities, or the rise of any of the other community mediums. Today however, I wonder how many people would even remember their names. They are flashes in the pan. And then there are the multitude of them that never took off at all, even though they offered almost the same set of functionality.

    They are all fascinating stories, but do you really believe peoples attention span, as it is, will move product about yesterday’s internet phenomenon? Or maybe I’m just in the minority here.

  6. “The greatest entrepreneurs are hucksters who have simply crossed the line into brilliance.”

    While I absolutely agree that marketing is an important aspect of many a startup’s success, I don’t agree with this generalization. Yahoo, Google, Hotmail, Facebook, to name a few. None required much, if any, initial marketing (and certainly no hucksterism) to gain critical mass.

    Of course there are hucksters out there. But the “canonical startup tale” referenced above, at least in my experience, is indeed true and still alive in Silicon Valley.

  7. Chapel:

    “They are all fascinating stories, but do you really believe peoples attention span, as it is, will move product about yesterday’s internet phenomenon?”

    It’s not in evidence that MySpace qualifies as “yesterday’s phenomenon,” simply because Facebook is a hotter subject with the media right now. And “hotter” is in many ways subjective: MySpace continues to be leading social network in the US (Facebook is outperforming MySpace internationally, however) and it continues to be hugely influential in music and in media. Let’s also remember MySpace is owned and operated by News Corp, which is a savvy competitor in any number of media fields.

    All of which is to say I’m not 100% convinced of your blithe dismissal of MySpace as yesterday’s Internet phenomenon.

    Now, that said, it’s true MySpace is undergoing a rough patch at the moment, but in terms of books, a company’s rough patches don’t necessarily mean bad things for books about them: NB: Barbarians at the Gate as a classic example of this.

  8. Brilliance = gets some notice, makes some money ( maybe )

    “Oh Lord Montebank, you are so clever!”

  9. Agreed, I have dismissed MySpace outright, but the speed in which these business models start to circle the wagon is measured in months and weeks. MySpace a business that is based almost solely upon Hype, and once you start losing that, can you ever really recover?

    Tweens can be fickle.

  10. I disagree that MySpace is viable in the long term. These sorts of things rarely came back into the fore once they fall behind. At best, it looks to become some sort of niche market. Even there, I personally don’t thing those who run it are savvy enough to react to the market. Newscorp may be savvy in the media old-world, but I’ve seen little evidence that it gets it in terms of the new world of online social networking. What moves it has made with MySpace after it acquired it have mostly been boneheaded.

    In the end, though, I don’t think that any one SNS is going to dominate for social reasons if for no other. Facebook is currently being taken over by the middle aged while MySpace is a teenage hangout. This can be partially due to random circumstance, for instance, in the way Orkut got taken over by Brazilians. Facebook’s advantage is that the middle-aged are less flighty than teenagers.

    This is of course entirely orthogonal to the question of whether the story of MySpace’s rise is an interesting one that one might want to read about.

  11. “And thus I stumbled onto my big idea: The greatest entrepreneurs are hucksters who have simply crossed the line into brilliance.”

    Two examples: Donald Trump and the guy who does “Girls Gone Wild”.

  12. Steve Burnap:

    “I disagree that MySpace is viable in the long term.”

    I think what you may consider viable and what is viable in terms of a business model are two different things, however. Also note that a declining property or industry can still make tons of money right up until they fall off a cliff: A number of newspapers had admirable profit margins up until a couple of years ago, for example (and believe it or not, AOL still makes a nice chunk of change on dial-up services).

  13. Well yeah, I am sure MySpace will continue to make money in the near term, but I am fairly certain that MySpace will be a net loss for News Corp in the end.

    I’m not sure “making money until you fall off a cliff” would be the sort of thing that most business folks would consider a viable business model.

  14. Oh, agreed. Myspace’s founders have hardly shown themselves to be fools in this respect. (Especially in a world filled with stories of companies sold for a a tenth what the founders had once been offered.)

    I don’t see News Corp selling it for a profit, though.

  15. Chapel:

    “They are all fascinating stories, but do you really believe peoples attention span, as it is, will move product about yesterday’s internet phenomenon? Or maybe I’m just in the minority here.”

    I’ll admit that I haven’t read the book and as such am limited in my knowledge of its contents, but from what I gathered in Angwin’s introduction, the story might be less about the rise and fall (and how) of MySpace specifically and more about what Angwin said herself, “The greatest entrepreneurs are hucksters who have simply crossed the line into brilliance.”

    I’m more interested in the truth (or not) of that claim than I am in MySpace itself, truth be told.

  16. It doesn’t matter if MySpace is a success for this book to be worthwhile. We wouldn’t say a book on the Roman Empire was worthless because it fell.

  17. Good choice for The Big Idea, John.

    And like Greg, I’m going to use my comment to say hi to Julia:

    Hi, and congratulations on the book release, Julia!

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