Personal Branding Interview: Julia Angwin

Book ReviewsInterview

Today, I spoke with Julia Angwin, who works for the Wall Street Journal and is the author of Stealing MySpace.  In this interview she talks to us about her new book, the story of MySpace, how it compares to Facebook, and if MySpace is safe for kids.

What is unique about the story of MySpace?

“MySpace is the first successful Hollywood Internet company.”

Most Internet startups were founded by techie engineer types and based on some technological breakthrough.  MySpace was founded by cool Hollywood kids, and its chairman was a nightclub owner. Before they founded MySpace, Chris DeWolfe and Tom Anderson sent spam, sold cute cursors that contained spyware, pushed spy cameras and dabbled in pornography. MySpace proved that the Internet industry was not just for geeks.

What does the title “Stealing MySpace” mean?

It can mean a lot of things. First of all, the founders of MySpace basically stole the idea of Friendster and copied it directly to create MySpace.

Then the site was stolen from them, when it was sold behind their backs to Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. MySpace had been in negotiations to sell itself to Viacom at the same time.

Finally, there were the internal battles at News Corp. over who would control MySpace. All along, the founders of MySpace have struggled to control their creation.

Is MySpace still cool? Is Facebook surpassing MySpace?

Facebook has a commanding lead worldwide with 236 million monthly visitors, compared to MySpace’s 129 million. But in the United States, MySpace is still in the lead with 75 million monthly visitors compared to Facebook’s 57 million.

MySpace has lost ground because it has failed to innovate technically and was slow to embrace its status as a “platform” for other software developers.  It turns out the cool Hollywood kids needed some Silicon Valley technology wizardry after all.

Don’t you work for MySpace’s owner, News Corp.?

When I left the Wall Street Journal to write this book about MySpace, the Journal was controlled by the Bancroft family. While I was out on book leave, the Journal was purchased by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. I felt a bit nervous returning to the Journal after writing an unauthorized book about my employer, but so far everyone has been treating me very well.

I did not set out to write an unauthorized book. I asked MySpace to cooperate, but they never agreed to be interviewed.  However, I was able to get the story from lots of different sources – both on and off the record.

Is MySpace safe for kids?

The data shows that most kids use these sites innocuously. But there are still the occasional horror stories such as the suicide of a girl who was harassed on MySpace by her friend’s mother. My view – as both a journalist and a parent – is that parents need to treat social networking sites as unsupervised playgrounds in a sketchy neighborhood.

One thing about MySpace that I like is its tolerance of anonymity, which is very important for democracy. I think that we need public spaces online where we are free to express ourselves anonymously.

Julia Angwin is a Wall Street Journal technology editor and columnist.  She is also the author of the new book, Stealing MySpace: The Battle To Control The Most Popular Website In America.  Julia took a leave of absence in 2007 and 2008 to write this book before returning to the WSJ.  Before that she covered technology and the dot-com boom from an East Coast perspective.  The rise and fall of the AOL Time Warner merger was part of her beat.  In 2003, she was on a team of reporters at the WSJ that was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in Explanatory Reporting for coverage of corporate corruption.  Before that, in 1996, she joined the San Francisco Chronicle and covered technology, including Microsoft’s antitrust woes.