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Story of MySpace Details a Lack of Scruples

There’s at least one story that has never been told on the no-holds-barred social networking Web site MySpace. That story is the chaotic, action-packed history of MySpace itself. Now Julia Angwin, [pictured] a technology and media reporter for The Wall Street Journal, has done prodigious digging into the shady business practices, trailer-park aesthetics, lucky accidents and borderline personality types that have allowed MySpace to tap into the American psyche.

Her account is necessarily convoluted. But like the site itself, Ms. Angwin’s book about this, “Stealing MySpace,” is accessible to anyone, except during its most intensive dissections of deal-making. Overall, you needn’t know a portal from a platform to follow this sprawling, rollicking Internet history.

There are many books about how tech stars struck it rich in Silicon Valley. “Stealing MySpace” isn’t one of them. This isn’t a tale of shy computer geeks making billions by creating perfect algorithms. Instead it’s about rogue marketers cobbling together half-baked plans, trying reckless gambits, relying on a “get it out fast, fix it later” philosophy and never bothering to worry about the consequences. With its Santa Monica corporate ambience and utter lack of scruples, Ms. Angwin says, MySpace qualifies as “a Hollywood-style media company — one where crazy creative people run the show, and nobody really knows what makes a hit or a flop.”

What the founders of MySpace do know and have so successfully exploited is the value of voyeurism. Theirs is the site that anyone can trawl with anonymity. Like every other aspect of the winning MySpace formula, this feature evolved by chance and then unexpectedly struck a nerve. MySpace modeled itself on the earlier site Friendster, while noting that Friendster had angered users by not allowing fakes or imposters onto its site. And the Fakesters, as those imposters dubbed themselves, had been angry enough to post a “Fakester Manifesto” that had a rallying cry: “Every day is Halloween.”

The MySpace founders, Chris DeWolfe and Tom Anderson (who did not make themselves available to Ms. Angwin), would go on to dump Friendster’s strictures and make their own site an all-Halloween playground. But first they had to get started.

It isn’t easy for Ms. Angwin to set forth the many-tentacled, extremely complicated story of their early ventures, but she captures the brazenness of her principals. Mr. DeWolfe once showed up at a Christmas party looking “just like Hansel from ‘Zoolander.’ ” Mr. Anderson was more reticent and more intense. He showed early interests in computer hacking and Asian pornography, and he once invoked Nietzsche in his heated review of a baseball video game.

Ms. Angwin explains how Mr. DeWolfe and Mr. Anderson met while working for Xdrive, an outfit specializing in computer storage. When they were laid off from Xdrive in 2001, they started ResponseBase, notable for its schlocky tastes and total lack of scruples. Obnoxious spam and spyware were among its specialties. After the United States invaded Iraq and the military created a deck of playing cards featuring the faces of deposed Iraqi leaders, for instance, ResponseBase sold counterfeits and boasted that their “authentic replication” of the cards had a laminated finish. ResponseBase had ties to, and indirectly, even the good old television infomercial star, the Veg-O-Matic.

The story of how ResponseBase, while affiliated with eUniverse, started a social site that it nearly named YoPeeps or Comingle has many twists and turns, what with the huge array of dot-com bottom-feeders that are part of the action. It’s the glitches that have made MySpace interesting, and they work well for this book too. For instance: MySpace did not intend to let users strew hearts, glitter and smiley faces all over its home pages. It’s just that when the Web site switched from one programming language to another, shoddy engineering created a huge loophole allowing users to upload their own computer code. And without that loophole it never would have become a smash hit with teenage girls.

Among others who have been seduced by MySpace: Rupert Murdoch, whose successful maneuvers to acquire the site are the most dizzying part of this book; creeps, whom MySpace has never tried hard to discourage; and Eliot Spitzer, who cracked down on the spyware tricks that were Mr. DeWolfe’s specialty only to wind up connected to MySpace himself, linked to a prostitute who had a page on the site.

Incidentally, one of the book’s memorable factoids is that it is very difficult to develop software that will screen out pornographic pictures (which can be bad for business if they scare off advertisers). An early version of such screening software once confused a tangle of human body parts with a lattice-crusted apple pie.

Beyond the specific story of MySpace’s explosive growth, Ms. Angwin’s book offers glimpses of the extreme culture clashes among the book’s various players. She keeps track of the watering holes they chose for meetings (from Starbucks to the Viper Room) and sartorial flourishes. And she has an ear for the different languages spoken in these different worlds. From Mr. DeWolfe: “We want to be the MTV of the Internet.” From Geoff Yang, a Silicon Valley investor: “This guy has espoused a vision I could actually buy into.”

“Stealing MySpace” also hints at the vast and fascinating range of business opportunities that have been created in this one Web site’s ecosystem (as Ms. Angwin calls it) in a very short time. Behind a slide show on a MySpace page is valuable computer code. MySpace page design has spawned a “layout community.” There are porn industry talent scouts who monitor risqué pictures. (Porn stars were among this technology’s early adopters, after all.)

And a search for friends needs an algorithm to decide which friends the user would most like to hear from and what topics are of interest. So Facebook, MySpace’s more upscale and uptight competitor, created a feature that would do that. On the evidence of Ms. Angwin’s history, MySpace won’t go to that trouble. MySpace would rather dodge, feint, copy, scam or improvise.


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