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:
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.