- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 1, 2009

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

STEALING MYSPACE: THE BATTLE TO CONTROL THE MOST POPULAR WEBSITE IN AMERICA

By Julia Angwin

Random House, $27, 384 pages

If you’re the type of person who likes reading about other people’s computer habits, you probably will enjoy Julia Angwin’s new book, “Stealing MySpace &#8212: The Battle to Control the Most Popular Website in America.” Otherwise, you probably won’t.

Ms. Angwin, a reporter for the Wall Street Journal, tells the unlikely story of how two men with unsavory pasts and unpromising futures created a Web site that eventually would sell for $580 million and, as Ms. Angwin says more than once, become “the most popular Web site in the United States.”

The rise of MySpace is certainly significant, but the ins and outs of the Internet business are a subject with a limited audience, composed almost entirely of people in the Internet business and subscribers to Wired magazine.

Nevertheless, Ms. Angwin takes a fairly important but boring topic and makes it somewhat interesting. While her frequent citing of data gets tedious very quickly, she makes up for it by wisely adding entertaining quotations, many of them taken from interviews and internal e-mails. She quotes Dana DeArmond, a porn star who credits MySpace for launching her “acting” career, as saying: “MySpace can make you famous. After my first movie, I went to porn parties, and people knew me not from the movie but from MySpace.”

Such comments, which undoubtedly will fascinate twentysomething male readers, are central to the MySpace narrative. Shortly after its debut in 2003, the site became a haven for the obscene and predatory, which is unsurprising when one considers the personalities of its creators, Chris DeWolfe and Tom Anderson.

Before starting MySpace, Mr. DeWolfe sold spyware through pop-up ads and downloadable cursors, and Mr. Anderson ran a pornographic Web site. That these two men would go on to put together the most popular Web site in the country, ultimately selling it to Rupert Murdoch for hundreds of millions of dollars, is neither surprising nor particularly interesting. What is interesting is that more than 100 million people would want to join a Web site started by a pornographer and a spam artist.

That leads to a question Ms. Angwin never answers — or asks. Her book explores the how but not the why of MySpace’s success, even though the latter happens to be the more intriguing question.

In a rare philosophical moment, she says MySpace offers a forum for “proactive personal creativity and ongoing self-discovery,” without ever explaining what that means. Evidently, being able to choose between various wallpaper designs is a huge deal to people obsessed with finding and promoting themselves.

The odd thing about self-discovery in the Internet age is that it cannot be done alone. Self-expression requires millions of strangers, many of whom do not express themselves but create false identities instead.

It was this freedom to falsify that set MySpace apart from its earliest rival, Friendster, which lamely insisted on truth-telling. MySpace, on the other hand, was tolerant of untruth almost to the point of encouraging it. Pretending to be someone else was, somehow, a form of “individual self-expression” — the principle upon which MySpace ostensibly is based.

Even MySpace co-founder Mr. Anderson, who created the first-ever MySpace profile, succumbed to the lying impulse, pretending to be 27 when he really was 32. “You can do that?” creepy middle-aged men soon inquired. The answer was an unequivocal “definitely.”

Before long, MySpace had evolved into a place where real people play fictional characters, some of whom later are greeted by a real Chris Hansen and a dozen television cameras. Reality has a habit of intruding on make-believe, and MSNBC has a habit of filming the intrusion.

MySpace’s shady reputation, as Ms. Angwin shows, triggered its growth: By sparking curiosity, it attracted new members. Just two years after it launched, MySpace was a top-50 Web site with 13.5 million visitors a month. Not bad for an operation initially powered by two computers.

In November 2006, MySpace had more page views than any other Web site in America, surpassing Yahoo. As impressive as that is to people who care about such things, it is a little misleading to employ the superlative “most popular.” Looking at something doesn’t necessarily mean liking it. If it did, the Elephant Man would have had as many fans as Elvis.

Still, the popularity of MySpace is undeniable, at least for the time being. Based on the history of faddish Internet ventures, it’s safe to say that Julia Angwin will be writing a sequel.

Windsor Mann is the letters editor of The Washington Times.

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