Huffington Post - "WhoseSpace?"

WhoseSpace?” – by Kevin Morris and Glenn Altschuler

Review of Stealing MySpace: The Battle to Control the Most Popular Website
in America
, by Julia Angwin. Random House Publishing.

Meet the New Boss. On July 18, 2005, News Corporation purchased Intermix, the parent company of the phenomenally successful social networking site, MySpace, for five-hundred-fifty million dollars. With one stroke, Rupert Murdoch outfoxed his arch-rival Sumner Redstone to vault his company to the front of the digital revolution. By 2006, Murdoch was crowing: “The Internet is a transforming technology that will have just as great an impact on our civilization as the invention of the wheel, the printing press, steam power and the combustion engine.”

Stealing MySpace: The Battle to Control the Most Popular Website in America, The Wall Street Journal reporter Julia Angwin’s well-researched and well-crafted new book, tells the fascinating story of the beginnings of MySpace and the big buy.

Moving and grooving in the go-go days of the Internet are MySpace cofounders, Chris DeWolfe and Tom Anderson, “cubicle-dwelling marketing executives with no technical prowess or revolutionary ideas.” After sketchy attempts at spam, spy cameras and anti-spyware-which-was-really-spyware, the boys hit on the idea for MySpace. Kind of. What they mostly did was borrow the look, feel, and functionality of the social networking site, Friendster.

Angwin combines juicy pulp with biz-dev context to turn this story of somewhat shaky and shady entrepreneur-businessman-techie-marketers into a page-turner. “This is not how Google and Yahoo were born…the time was ripe for a new kind of Internet giant to emerge – one where human creativity was at the center of the experience, not technology.”

MySpace became a cultural rocket ship, counting 75 million users in July, 2008, twice as many as its rival, Facebook. DeWolfe took to wearing black. As musicians and bands harnessed the power of social networks, Anderson hosted MySpace parties, bringing bimbos to rock-and-roll royalty. Users began to compete for the longest list of Myspace “Friends.” Weirdos like Tila Tequila became MySpace stars.

Anderson and DeWolfe’s dilemma, and the central conflict of the book, was (and maybe still is) that they controlled but never owned MySpace. Stealing MySpace documents their bounces from owner to owner, as they worked with, whined at, and outlasted the managers of the moment.

Angwin raises but does not resolve the two fundamental questions posed by the Internet: who will control the flow of content and how can content be monetized.

Despite their earlier experience as entrepreneurs, Angwin suggests DeWolfe and Anderson fought steadfastly for the power of the user, sending shots of lighter fluid from Santa Monica to feed the gas fire fight between the suits and the T-shirts. Reading Stealing, though, makes us wonder whether DeWolfe and Anderson’s evangelizing was a conscious ploy to retain their power in a company that kept changing owners.

In a world of MySpace, Facebook, You Tube, Skype and now Twitter, it is hard to deny the power of the user. MySpace’s particular appeal was that it “gave teenagers the world over a virtual street corner where they could interact without adult supervision, and express and discover themselves in a creative, liberating way.”

But direct control brings a plethora of problems. Sexual predators prowled MySpace from the get-go, requiring DeWolfe to face a beat-down from Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal in 2006. Next, MySpace’s open system included a decision by its founders not to stop “fraudsters” – impostors claiming to be someone else (like Pete Townsend) on a MySpace page. And finally, the theology of MySpace and its fellow travelers, made it easy for anonymous posters to rip up anyone they didn’t like.

The law is struggling to keep up with “realities” provided by Internet technology. The Digital Millennium Copyright Act of 1998 grants web-sites broad immunity from what their users post online. Yet the Children’s Privacy Protection Act of the same year requires all websites to obtain parents’ permission before collecting personal information about anyone under thirteen.

Like most Internet companies, MySpace’s challenge, as one Fox executive put it, was and is to capitalize on “the quantification of engagement,” the way in which advertisers know how much attention users pay to a particular space. But aside from a big – and it was big – commitment of nine-hundred million advertising dollars over five years from Google in 2006 (on which the verdict is not in), the results are mixed, and given the nature of Fox’s financial reporting, it is difficult to measure MySpace’s performance.

It may well be, we think, that the step-back from the story of MySpace is that, except for the amazing Google, with its amazing algorithm, no Internet provider has yet been able to extract big green numbers from social networks. No one has monetized “engagement” — certainly not yet. As it becomes more apparent that this Internet world isn’t making any money, we wonder if the last laugh will belong not to the users, and not to the techies, but to the media companies who know how to create content with mass appeal — and figure out a way to charge for it. Just like the Old Boss.

Huffington Post - "In Your Face(book)"

In your Face(book)” – by Kevin Morris and Glenn Altschuler

Review of The Accidental Billionaires: The Founding of Facebook A Tale of Sex, Money, Genius, and Betrayal . By Ben Mezrich. Doubleday Publishing.

Q: When is a book not a book? A: (1) When it is Facebook; (2) When it is The Accidental Billionaires: The Founding of Facebook A Tale of Sex, Money, Genius, and Betrayal.

The soft pornmeister of yuppy nonfiction, Ben Mezrich, author of Bringing Down the House, is back to tell the story of the founding of the hugely successful social network, Facebook. In an “Author’s Note,” he lays out his methodology:

I do employ the technique of re-created dialogue. I have based this dialogue on the recollections of the participants of the substance of the conversations. Some…took place over long periods of time, in multiple locations, and thus some conversations and scenes were re-created and compressed. Rather than spread these conversations out, I sometimes set these scenes in likely settings.

He then acknowledges that the founder of Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg, “as is his perfect right, declined to speak with me for this book despite numerous requests.”

So wait, a lot of this is, like, made up? And isn’t Zuckerberg the whole story? As the guy said in the movie, it’s Quiz Show hearings without Van Doren — it’s Hamlet without Hamlet.

The book — which begs to be called a novel — is set on the campus of Harvard University, its Finals Clubs and dormitories. The characters are cardboard cut-out versions of clever and connected college kids. The story is populated with Victims and Victimizers. The central victim (and, the all but acknowledged central source) is Eduardo Saverin, the Brazilian Young Enterpriser who used some of the $300,000 he made trading stocks during his sophomore summer to bankroll the embryonic stages of Facebook. Cast as roadkill are the strapping twins, Tyler and Cameron Winklevoss, Varsity Crew members by day and internet entrepreneurs by avocation.

And, of course, there’s Zuckerberg, a fleece-hoody and Addidas-sandals-wearing geek with a golden touch, as outwardly unemotional as Mr. Spock but ruthless in his determination to dominate. You half expect him to appear in the book sitting in a jacuzzi in Palo Alto with a laptop on his knees, telling a bevy of bodacious blondes, “Now the entire world is mine…all mine! Haha hahahahah!! Aaahhahahahaha!!!!”

Mezrich’s conceit is that the Victims were lambs led to the Zucker-slaughter. The twins, he tells us, thought they had hired Mark to design their website and Eduardo thought he was his partner. Aided by the slimy Silicon Valley serial entrepreneur Sean Parker, Zuckerberg relentlessly rolls Facebook into the behemoth that it’s become. Until, of course, in a final gooey twist, Parker makes a misstep and Zuckerberg zaps him. “Ahahahahah!!! Mine, all mine. Hahahahahah!!!”

Actually, there doesn’t seem anything especially accidental about the accidental billionaires. If this book says anything it’s that these kids wanted to make shitloads of money and decided that a social network was the way to do it. And that Zuckerberg knew what he was doing.

Mezrich misses few opportunities for pulp fiction digressions. He describes what it feels like to be drunk (“the pleasantly warm flush to his normally sallow cheeks”); the buildings at Harvard (“complete with iron bars, ornate masonry, and a great limestone boar’s head carved into its arched pinnacle”); and the girls that neck with the nerds (“his hands roamed under her open white shirt, tracing the soft material of her red bra, his fingers lingering over her perky, round breasts”).

With the exception of the author, who will cash in on a film version, it seems clear to us that it does no one any good to see people slammed and stereotyped with the sour-grapes recollections of their former associates. For all we know, Zuckerberg may have screwed his college colleagues. But, unlike Julia Angwin’s excellent book Stealing MySpace, the only case The Accidental Billionaires can make is a case of beer.

The “invention” of Facebook raises all kinds of interesting and important questions, including the viability of contracts between students, ownership of intellectual property in an academic setting, the proper role of the University in mediating disputes, and, of course, the features that made Facebook so popular. But Mezrich isn’t interested in laying them out — he’d rather imagine the scene of Eduardo and Mark getting laid in a dorm bathroom.

In an age blessed with heavyweight business analysts — from Michael Lewis to Ken Auletta — it’s too bad that Facebook went face down at the hands of bare-knuckled bantam Ben.

 

Huffington Post - "Round 2 - The Transformation of the Media and Entertainment Landscape"

Round 2 – The Transformation of the Media and Entertainment Landscape” – by Kevin Morris and Glenn Altschuler

The era of “creative destruction” in media and entertainment is best thought of as a round-robin boxing match. It is time to reassess the prospects for the three contenders: (i) artists; (ii) media companies; and (iii) technology. Each of them, we believe, continues to bob, weave, block, and jab – and the outcome remains in doubt.

Round 1 went to technology, or more specifically, the technology companies. Beginning with Microsoft in the early 80’s and through Google today, cyber-Sugar Ray Leonards from Silicon Valley to Seattle have brought us into the Digital Age. During Round 1, traditional concepts of value in media and entertainment appeared to be irrelevant.

In the Analog Age, professionally produced content was scarce. Those controlling distribution flew like a butterfly and stung like a bee. As iTunes libraries replaced record collections, companies like Google, YouTube, and MySpace made user-oriented platforms ubiquitous and offered search, amateur video, and social networking.

Hollywood scrambled to come up with a plan. Fears were fed by an assumption that the internet would replace television, home entertainment and perhaps even the movie theatre. With their bloated infrastructures, huge marketing budgets, antiquated analog distribution methods and flat footedness/arrogance, media companies, pundits declared, were Sonny Liston losers.

The devastation of the recorded music industry was the canary in the coal mine, foreshadowing the demise of studios in a time in which users glommed on to new platforms provided by Silicon Valley. And to make the matters worse for Hollywood, the concept of “disintermediation” gave voice to the notion that artists and users alike could stride into and out of the ring owning their own content.

It is time to say it ain’t gonna happen that way. The revolution may be televised, after all.

With the notable exception of Google, it is not clear that any of the other platforms will ever be profitable. Despite immense popularity, “monetization” problems have plagued every internet company from AOL to Yahoo, from YouTube to MySpace, from Facebook to Skype. As the experts put it, the tech side of the triangle has not been able to take the “quantification of engagement” and paint it green.

At the same time, reports of the death of Hollywood are premature. Despite the recession of 2009, as of today, US Box Office is up 17% percent over last year. Even with a deeply-wounded ad market and a strike-addled scripted show world, more people watch TV than ever before. Although DVD sales are down a bit, the Home Entertainment business remains very profitable. And finally, with touring revenues soaring, downloads gaining traction, and publishing doing fine, music may well be on the upswing.

We believe this evidence suggests that a re-configured balance of power is emerging and Round 2 has begun. The open-field run of the tech companies is at an end. Consumers, it seems, are not ready to give up production values and still look to the context provided by the media companies. Similarly, neither artists nor the technology companies – again, excluding Google – have been able to master the methods of monetization that is the stock-in-trade of the studios and the TV business: theatrical revenues, licensing consumer products and the efficient sale of advertising on a mass scale.

People prefer professionally produced content. While millions have gotten a buzz watching Diet Coke bottles filled with Mentos explode, YouTube’s recent announcement of revenue sharing deals with Hollywood speaks volumes about the fading commercial prospects for insurgent, disintermediating platforms. It is even whispered that YouTube might pay for content outright. Not only do users (who are being called consumers a lot more often these days) like their movies and TV shows, but that material is, well, a lot easier to make money from than uploaded videos of cats peeing in toilets.

People may no longer want to read newspapers, but, it turns out, they still want to see movies and concerts. Despite the diffusion of viewership across broadcast and cable networks, they remain interested in all kinds of TV shows. TiVo and time-shifting may have increased overall viewership. Americans want to see Bob Costas talk to Michael Phelps on the couch in the studio; they want to watch American Idol on FOX; they want to buySlumdog Millionaire as soon as it’s available on DVD; and they want to go to The Hannah Montana Movie, watch Mylie Cyrus on the small screen and listen to their songs on Radio Disney.

Young people – and a U.S. Senator or two – Twitter all the time, but won’t pay to play. Contrast that with “the old media companies,” who control movies, TV and home entertainment – and know how to use their assets to drive customers with credit cards to the content they produce.

The transformation from a media and entertainment landscape predicated on scarcity to one defined by ubiquity is indeed profound. And the media companies face enormous challenges. But they are not down for the count. In fact, the logical extension of this new world order in the heavyweight division is that those who control the content will wear the championship belt.

Which would bring us to Round 3. What might occur is that the actual creators of content, the individual artists themselves, will eventually summon their inner George Foreman and gain greater control over their own products. The difficulty here is that Artists aren’t grill salesmen, while tech and media companies are dominated by very, very good mangers, marketers and merchandisers. In the near term, the suits may well continue to get artists to work for wages and not ownership.

Is there a right and just distribution of power in media and entertainment? Well, here’s a modest Round 3 attempt to re-define the roles of the three sides of the triangle. Artists own and create content. They’ll engage media companies to finance, produce and market said content. Together they will look to technology companies to provide new and improved methods of delivering it to the consumer. No one bites the ear that feeds him. And at the end of Round 3, interests are properly aligned, profits are maximized, all parties are rewarded handsomely, and consumers have a feast at their fingertips.

Huffington Post - "All is Vanity (Fair): The Man Who Owns the News"

All is Vanity (Fair): The Man Who Owns the News” – by Kevin Morris and Glenn Altschuler

Review of The Man Who Owns the News: Inside the Secret World of Rupert
Murdoch
, by Michael Wolff. Broadway Books.

From Wall Street sharks and Manhattan socialites, to Hollywood stars and suits, to Brit twits and Muscovite murderers, Vanity Fair’s signature personal profiles eviscerate elites. There is nothing quite like heading to the couch, beach or pool with a six-thousand word deconstruction of de Rothschild wreckage. Falling between US Weekly and Harpers, VF pieces are informative, tasty, and snarky.

Author, acerbic CNBC commentator and former columnist for New York magazine, Michael Wolff defines the brand. With The Man Who Owns the News: Inside the Secret World of Rupert Murdoch, he continues to strut his stuff.

Using Murdoch’s purchase of Dow Jones and the Wall Street Journal from the hapless, Hapsburgian Bancroft family as his frame, Wolff serves lots of candy and cat food as he tells the story of Murdoch’s rise from scion of a smallish Australian newspaper empire to master of the universe in today’s amalgamated media world.

Wolff deploys the Vanity Fair style – a plethora of parenthetical clauses and dashes – exhaustive research – and access to the man himself – to surround – and skewer – his prey. Murdoch, he concludes, is actually an old-fashioned newspaperman, a palpable presence in all of his businesses, and not the arch-conservative he is cracked up to be.

The evidence in support of these positions is thin. Although Wolff credits him for understanding that “successful media is its own justification”, and acknowledges that he has “a minute-by-minute mind,” he often misses Murdoch’s fundamental directive: expand or die.

Similarly, for all the details of the man’s personality and tactics – and there are lots of details – Wolff barely addresses Murdoch’s greatest strength: understanding the importance of iconic acquisitions. (See, The Times of London, The New York Post, Twentieth Century Fox, and, of course, the Wall Street Journal.) Murdoch’s acquisition Los Angeles Dodgers in 1997 and of MySpace in 2005 get no innings in The Man Who Owns the News.

And in insisting on showcasing certain aspects of Murdoch’s business genius, like his extraordinary tolerance for the ambivalence of non-rational players – and “a keen eye for their weaknesses” – Wolff pays insufficient attention to Murdoch’s good fortune. After all, the News Corp. pirate ship almost sunk under a cargo of debt in the 1980s.

Descriptions of the mogul are so plentiful they become circular, elliptical, or downright square, in a what-else-do-we-have-to-do-here-at-Versailles level of analysis. Thus, Murdoch is a “colonist” here and a “whoremaster” there. He “began as an insider, became an outsider because people didn’t understand he was an insider; became such a successful outsider that he becomes, once again, necessarily an insider.” He “sees himself as the ultimate product of the liberated market – that is, when he does not see himself as the liberator of markets.”

And so, even when Wolff nails Murdoch, he never quite nails him down. Oddly, we found ourselves feeling sympathetic towards the mumbling, workaholic old Aussie codger, with his orange hair, his Wal-Mart shirts, and his all-too-familiar intergenerational family woes.

Wolff takes great pains to argue that Murdoch is distancing himself both from his traditional conservative politics and his most significant invention, Fox News. Wolff would know better than most whether Murdoch “shares the feelings about Fox News regularly reflected in the liberal apoplexy.” But, Wolff acknowledges, Fox News head Roger Ailes remains the one person in News Corp. that Murdoch “will not cross.” And hanging out with Bono, the Google guys, and David Geffen is scarcely evidence that he’s “well, almost a liberal.”

Wolff labels, libels, and laughs at just about everyone and anyone who enters his narrative. Consider Rich Zannino, a man who went to night school and worked his way up to become Dow Jones Corp.’s CEO: Wolff puts him down as “a longtime climb-the-ladder company man, a man very pleased with his own chance elevation to the top spot, a quiet, eager-to-be-liked, eager-to-be-respected, eager-to-live-in Greenwich man…”

And in the end, though Murdoch gets the Wall Street Journal, the Wolff doesn’t capture his prey. Contrary to Wolff’s premise that Dow Jones is the pirate’s last voyage, the old man who dyes his own hair is off to the next deal. Unlike Ted Turner, his one-time rival and fellow buccaneer, Rupert isn’t likely to tell his own story. He’ll keep giving liberals fits andVanity Fair (and Unbalanced) some savory tidbits for a long time to come.

Huffington Post - "Neutrality in Thought and Greed"

Neutrality in Thought and Greed” – by Kevin Morris and Glenn Altschuler

Review of The Moguls and The Dictators: Hollywood and the Coming of World War II, by David Welky. The Johns Hopkins University Press.

How much does Hollywood influence politics? That is the fundamental question raised in David Welky’s new book, The Moguls and The Dictators: Hollywood and the Coming of World War II .

An assistant professor of history at the University of Central Arkansas, Welky examines the making of American films in the 1930s and early 1940s and the struggle of the studios to balance the forces of commercialism, ideology and prevailing public opinion.

Welky focuses upon four major themes: Hollywood’s association with the federal government; its subservience to domestic and foreign markets; the rise of anti-fascist organizations in the film community; and the interventionist content of mainstream movies during the run-up to the Second World War.

The book is well-researched, but contains few surprises for anyone familiar with the subject. We know the cast of characters. The dictators: Mussolini, Hitler, and Francisco Franco. The moguls: Harry Warner, the dour, patriotic penny-pincher in New York, and his brother Jack, the parsimonious profiteer in Hollywood; Harry Cohn at Columbia, Louis B. Mayer at MGM, and Mr. Malaprop, Sam Goldwyn. Daryl F. Zanuck, at Fox, the one non-Jew, is a smidge late to the party, and therefore freer to take shots at the Nazis.

Welky’s argument, though never clearly articulated, boils down to the claim that the late 30s and early 40s were a crucible through which Hollywood “became a mature industry, comfortable, to some extent, voicing its opinions on affairs that did not directly pertain to it.” The movie business, he maintains, pushed for American intervention in the war. Isolationists like Senator Gerald Nye of North Dakota were no match for it: “Far from pure entertainment, movies played an indelible role in creating tastes, spreading ideas, and characterizing people….Hollywood’s interventionism – both on and off the screen – practically guaranteed that isolationists’ position would not win out. Nye knew this and he hated it.”

This conclusion is contradicted by most of Welky’s evidence. Throughout the 1930s – as Welky points out – Hollywood was preoccupied with commercial interests at home and abroad, fighting anti-trust action by the Roosevelt Administration and working diligently to keep the German, Italian and British markets open to its pictures. While “the Nazis were on the rampage,” Zanuck remembered, the moguls spewed “pious crap” about “giving the public what they wanted in these troublous times–which was entertainment pure and simple.”

When war broke out in Europe, a few overtly political pictures (most of them “B” movies) did get made. But they tended to be anti-fascist, with virtually no references to Jews nor intervention — and therefore relatively safe. Ads and trailers downplayed political content in favor of romantic themes. Since President Roosevelt never advised Americans, as Woodrow Wilson had, to be “neutral in thought as well as deed,” releasing Confessions of a Nazi Spyin April, 1939, was hardly a profile in courage for Warner Brothers. And, Welky admits, “the rest of Hollywood stuck to safer genres such as service-pictures and flag-waving explorations of United States history.”

Interventionist films, it is important to note, came after fascist countries had closed their markets to American films. Almost without exception, moreover, as in The Mark of Zorroand Brigham Young, they took the form of parables or allegories. Sergeant York, of course, is about World War I. And Casablanca, the most famously interventionist movie of them all, with its signature line – “I bet they’re asleep in New York. I bet they’re asleep all over America” – was not released until 1942!

So, despite all of the myths about communist-agitating actors, writers and directors, on the one hand, and mongering moguls in military uniforms, on the other, in the late 1930s and early 1940s, caution and commerce trumped ideology. When Hollywood finally began to address issues of the day, it was reflecting (and not shaping) the views of the Roosevelt Administration and an emerging consensus among the American people.

Which begs the question: has Hollywood become more comfortable carrying the banner for one side or the other in political arguments in the decades after World War II?

Not when you look at the movies. With a few notable exceptions – Chaplin, Oliver Stone, and Michael Moore come to mind – commercial imperatives, the structure of the studios, and the tendency of filmmakers to choose entertainments over agitprop, have kept the ideological inclinations of movie-makers largely in check.

And certainly at bay. The most significant anti-Vietnam War films, for example, came well after U.S. forces were defeated: Coming Home, 1978; The Deer Hunter, 1978; Apocalypse Now, 1979; Platoon, 1986. Ditto with the war in Iraq. In 2008, when fewer than 30% of Americans approved of George Bush’s handling of his job, and a solid majority endorsed a withdrawal of American troops from the Middle East, the industry’s major releases remotely challenging the War in Iraq: In the Valley of Elah;RedactedThe KingdomRendition;Lions for Lambs; and Home of the Brave waited until 2006 and 2007 and were box office dust, not gold. And Stone’s W in 2008, was hardly an anti-war picture.

So, the next time someone on Fox News or talk radio blasts “liberal Hollywood” be a bit more skeptical. On American politics (though maybe not on American culture), for ill and for good, mainstream movies follow green lights, not red lights.