Stealing MySpace: An Interview with Julia Angwin at SxSW

Stealing MySpace: An Interview with Julia Angwin at SxSW

One of our favorite parts of SXSW thus far is that we got to meet and interact with the people that shaped our careers, hearts and minds (I'm talking to you Bill Wasik and Lawrence Lessig). Continuing in the same vein, we were thrilled at the chance to talk shop with tech ambassador and longtime Wall Street Journal reporter Julia Angwin (she wrote possibly the most endearing Twitter article we have ever read) after the panel on her new book, Stealing MySpace.

We've compiled some of the best moments below:

L.A. Weekly: So who exactly is "stealing MySpace"?

Julia Angwin: Well, MySpace stole the idea from Friendster so that's a given. What people don't know is that MySpace didn't know it was being sold to Rupert Murdoch. The sale happened behind their backs by their parent company Intermix. There was a complicated reason for it and it was a very fun and dramatic "down to the wire" negotiation.

What's your take on this? Are you anti-monopoly or anti-Murdoch?

Julia Angwin: First of all, this is what happens when you take a baby step towards being an entrepreneur. If you start your company in a garage and get venture capital funding it's a different story because you control your fate even though the venture capitalists do have some impact. These guys [Chris De Wolfe and Tom Andersen] started [MySpace] as a division of another company so their fate was always going to be in the hands of the parent company. It helped them in the early days because they got funding, the company they were working for sold wrinkle crème, making tons of money selling "Better Than Botox" so they could fund them. It was low risk low reward strategy, but [De Wolfe and Andersen] made a mistake by not taking that full step towards "entrepreneurship in a garage" and taking the risk.

Your take on it is that they should have had the [moxie] to do their own thing?

Julia Angwin: If you want the reward, you're going to have to take the initial risk. They were unhappy about it being sold behind their backs but it was also the inevitable result of the situation.

High tech, high stakes, high egos... What are your thoughts on making tech exciting?

Julia Angwin: The greatest thing about Stealing MySpace is that it's a real L.A. story. I grew up in Palo Alto and when I discovered this L.A. tech world I couldn't believe how different it was than the area where I grew up. In Palo Alto everyone is smart; they all went to Harvard and had some brilliant idea. In Hollywood, in L.A., these guys were totally scrappy - they would do anything to make money and they were marketing geniuses so it's a totally different world filled with clubbing and hanging out in Santa Monica and pornstars. We just don't do that in the Silicon Valley so that's what makes the story particularly fun - it's the vibe of L.A. It also proves something - it used to be that technology was so hard and Internet coding was so hard that you had to have people that were experts in it. It's actually gotten so easy enough now that the media guys can do it right.

Yes, it's kind of "soft." We're soft in L.A.; we're not making Silicon Chips and we're not coding...

Julia Angwin: You guys have an eye for the audience and what they want. That's what [DeWolfe and Andersen] had. They were able to go where the audience wanted. Now you might not agree that "Better Than Botox Wrinkle Crème" is the greatest Business on earth but it was what the audience wanted.

People are buying anything - fake European license plates for their cars, the Snuggie... things are selling that people didn't know there's a market for. Basically you make money off niches, in "niches there are riches..."

Julia Angwin: That's one of the things I loved about the MySpace story, that it really proved the evolution of where the Internet is going. It's no longer just for the high priests; the people who create media can also create great businesses. Hulu's the next great example of that.

I know I'm planning something on Hulu, regarding how it's very hard to make money on the Internet.

Julia Angwin: Yes, it's really hard; MySpace is not making that much money. They're profitable but it's thin, and the only reason they make money at all because they have this gigantic Google deal which is going to expire next year. I don't know if they're going to make any money after that. It's interesting because you can have that big of an audience, 75 million unique visitors, and still not making money.

That drives me crazy.

Julia Angwin: I know that it's going to change and it will change, but it might be ugly between now and then.

Well, we're there bootstrapping with you and trying to find some solutions.

Julia Angwin: All you can do is try. We might not even have these crazy things called books in the future.

Note: Newscorp, which bought MySpace from Intermix, also owns the Wall Street Journal, where Julia reports.

Are you going to be in trouble [for the potential conflict of interest]?

Julia Angwin: The Wall Street Journal is my publication, and it is an unauthorized book. Newscorp has been really good about it and the Journal's been really good about it. So far I haven't lost my job. But it is a weird position to be in, to have done all this and then come back to the paper after my book leave which is now owned by the company I just wrote about.

On that note, what do you think about transparency in journalism?

Julia Angwin: Transparency has to be where we go; I don't believe in objectivity, I believe in transparency. Objectivity is false as you can never meet that standard. But if you're transparent about what you think or why you think it, then people will cut you slack. That has been proved by all the blogs and MySpace needs more transparency; they've actually been fighting with the lawmakers about their privacy. If you're in an antagonistic situation and you're transparent, people will cut you a break. We'd all love Google if they'd just tell us what they knew about us, if we could just search "what do they know about me personally this minute," because once you know what they know it takes away the mystique...

It's like exposing it to air; it kills the bacteria. The MySpace deal sounds like a novel - and it's one of L.A.'s greatest success stories.

Julia Angwin: It's really a fun L.A. story. I learned so much about L.A. and came to appreciate the culture there and all the risk taking and entrepreneurship that's going on.

Likewise Julia Angwin, #kindredspirits.

Check out the New York Times book review on Stealing MySpace.

Follow us on Twitter at @alexiatsotsis and @laweekly. Also, check out Village Voice Media's SXSW Festival site for more coverage.


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