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Published: November 24, 2009
 / Winter 2009 / Issue 57

 
 

Best Business Books 2009: Technology

Disruption 2.0


Julia Angwin
Stealing MySpace: The Battle to Control the Most Popular Website in America
(Random House, 2009)

Lawrence Lessig
Remix: Making Art and Commerce Thrive in the Hybrid Economy
(Penguin, 2008)

Scott Rosenberg
Say Everything: How Blogging Began, What It’s Becoming, and Why It Matters
(Crown, 2009)

 


In March 2007, at a lunch with MySpace.com founders Tom Anderson and Chris DeWolfe, I personally delivered what I thought would be some troubling news to them. MySpace had just lost the United Nations School in New York City. My son, who was then a junior at that high school, had been part of a cohort that spent a huge amount of time on the social network. But recently, the entire junior and senior class had engaged in a mass defection to Facebook. What’s more, I had collected anecdotal information that this was happening all over the country.

I thought I knew what the MySpacers would reply. They first would acknowledge the trend and assure me they were on top of the situation. Then they would outline the myriad ways they were improving their site to make it more compelling for people like my son and his friends. But to my surprise, they shrugged off the migration, sniffing that it was an isolated phenomenon among privileged East Coast schools, and changed the subject to movie tie-ins with the MySpace parent company, Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation. They were also eager to discuss their plans to start a record label. No matter how hard I tried, they would not engage in a discussion of the competition between MySpace and other social networking sites.

I was baffled. Two years later, Facebook — growing at a breakneck pace — passed the flatlining MySpace in number of users. And I was still baffled by Anderson and DeWolfe’s continued insouciance. But Julia Angwin’s relentlessly researched and compellingly rendered Stealing MySpace: The Battle to Control the Most Popular Website in America explains everything. The founders of MySpace had unwittingly put their company in jeopardy because they, like a surprising number of other technology pioneers, did not understand the nature of what they had created.

Stealing MySpace, along with the other two books that stand out in the business and technology field this year, would seem at first glance to grapple with a particular aspect of the digital revolution: the empowering effect of technologies that allow people to communicate, connect, and express themselves on a global scale via the Internet. This effect alters the relationship between companies and customers, which, in turn, lays waste to traditional business models, while giving rise to new ones.

The direction of technology itself is rather predictable. We know that it insistently drives forward, powered by the rocket fuel of Moore’s Law and a seemingly bottomless reservoir of innovation and brainpower, most often generated by fuzzy-cheeked geeks wearing sneakers. But those people actually running businesses — not just the enterprises that introduce disruptive elements, but all of the enterprises subsequently affected, too — must navigate new minefields. How well they do this depends not just on wizardry and gadgetry, but also on more elusive factors like personality, culture, and a knack for knowing what to do when the lawyers come calling.

One might assume that a book about MySpace, which seems to deserve the “most popular Website” description in the subtitle (more than 70 million users by April 2008), would be a chronicle of far-seeing visionaries who first identified, then successfully harnessed, the need that young people had to organize their social networks online. That’s not the case. Nor is Stealing MySpace a deep analysis of what the company means to the millions of people who create messy pages, swap songs, and intemperately post party pictures on its site. Angwin is less concerned with cultural effects than she is with spinning an old-fashioned investigative boardroom drama.

 
 
 
 
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