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Battle for MySpace — And The Web's Soul

Stealing MySpace cover

Julia Angwin's Stealing MySpace: The Battle to Control the Most Popular Website in America is a true story. But given the tawdriness of the site's humble beginnings (in 2003, as "the trailer park of the Internet"), as well as its serendipitous and revolutionary discovery of the secret techie (and/or harlot) that resides within every American teenage girl, this is a story that should have been written by Tom Wolfe.

Indeed, one can only imagine how many exclamation points and italicized words the novelist would need to describe, say, a flashing, jangling MySpace page, or to recount a self-serving tirade from one of its temperamental founders. But like most American products, virtual or otherwise, MySpace is a capitalist venture, and though there are indeed peeks into some of the Net's more sordid corners and seamier personalities, the "battle to control" MySpace is essentially a series of negotiations over page views and advertising revenue.

Even so, the site's move from its decidedly low-rent early digs to Rupert Murdoch's multibillion-dollar News Corp. empire yields some pretty juicy off-the-balance-sheet material for a reporter, and ever up to the task is Angwin — a Pulitzer Prize-winning technology editor and columnist at The Wall Street Journal — who skillfully exploits this conflict of cultures, blending the journalist's crisp financial reporting with the storyteller's enthusiasm and color.

Murdoch, whose News Corp. courted and eventually bought MySpace for $580 million in 2005, lurks throughout the book. But Angwin wisely makes the founders and users of MySpace the story's most prominent players. Murdoch may throw around his fortune like a barbarian at the gate, but it's far more interesting to read about, say, MySpace user "Male porn star Christian," who estimates that "95 percent of porn industry professionals have MySpace pages that they check daily."

Angwin does well to chart the fickle nature of one's online identity as refracted by social networking sites, demonstrating how the "personality" of a destination like MySpace or its heir apparent, Facebook, will inherently inform that of the user. That is, the denizens of social networking sites become as much product as the networks themselves.

Unlike its older rival Friendster, MySpace banked on this flexibility, allowing users to register as "Fakesters," or fictional versions of themselves. Embracing the solipsism inherent in its very name, then, MySpace placed its emphasis on the individual aspect of social networking, allowing users to sport pseudonyms, spurious personalities and multiple identities.

In short, MySpace promised members virtually unlimited freedom and anonymity, then tacitly demanded that they take advantage. It was this freedom provided by the anonymity of these fakesters, Angwin concludes, that afforded MySpace its exponential growth — and its dubious distinction as fertile stomping grounds for voyeurs, hackers and opportunists.

Angwin's account is most prescient when it backs away from the computing aspect of the story and focuses instead on the broader, philosophical picture. As Facebook rises to challenge MySpace's hegemony, the story takes the tone of a Cold War ideological struggle: "MySpace represented the freewheeling spirit of the Web," Angwin writes. "In contrast, Facebook represented a more structured view of online identity, where people authenticate their offline identity in the hopes of creating a community of trust."

OK, it's not Khrushchev vs. Kennedy, but Angwin frames it well as a clash between the methodical, beta-tested Silicon Valley culture (embodied by Facebook) and L.A.'s fly-by-wire, "Get it out fast, fix it later" vibe (MySpace). Asked recently whether MySpace would ever "cease to exist," Angwin demurred: "MySpace is unique. I think it's important to have a space on these social networks where you don't have to be your real self."

A bona fide identity, as the increasing success of Facebook demonstrates, may have its staid, dependable advantages. But there will always be people who want to share some of their darker or more private fantasies. And for that we may just need, well, some personal space.

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Simon Maxwell Apter
Simon Maxwell Apter is assistant editor at Lapham's Quarterly, where he also runs the Web site. His commentaries and reviews have appeared in The Nation, The Guardian, The American Prospect, and the San Francisco Chronicle. He is also a frequent contributor to The Huffington Post.