Should Rupert Murdoch have learned to e-mail?
Rupert Murdoch's biographer says the media mogul doesn't use a computer and doesn't e-mail. Would learning these things have helped him understand MySpace?
Do you need to understand the sheer joy of a pink, wet bubble splatting across your face to sell bubble gum? Should you have a feel for ladies' underwear to get a feel for the retail experience in a ladies' underwear store?
These critically difficult thoughts cross my mind on hearing that MySpace isfor some unused Greek drachmas and a few hundred buttons from an alteration store in Pennsylvania.
It seems, you see, that Rupert Murdoch, the man who once paid real dollars for MySpace, might not have entirely, as we say in the creative world, felt what he was buying.
During a Bloomberg documentary last night, his biographer, Michael Wolff explained that personal technology, the gadgets through which so many live and breathe these days, just isn't Murdoch's thing.
"Rupert doesn't use a computer, doesn't get e-mail, and can't really ever get a cell phone to work," he said.
Is it that Murdoch didn't get the machines themselves? Or might it be more that he simply didn't see how these machines could fit into his own life? And if they didn't fit into his own life, why or how would they fit into anyone else's?
The odd thing is that one of Murdoch's greatest strengths always lay in his understanding of humanity's most fundamental desires.
Many laughed when he put pictures of topless women on page 3 of the UK's Sun newspaper. But what was so intuitive about it was that the chosen ladies didn't exemplify sleaze. Instead, they were simply girls next door who gave the paper's male readers a sense of a believable fantasy in the midst of what would probably be an ugly working day. (Disclosure/confession: I was, as a youth, responsible for creating ads for both Murdoch's Sun and Sunday Times.)
When Murdoch made large purchases, he usually understood not merely why he wanted those media, but why people used them and how to make those people enjoy those media more, thereby making more money.
When it came to MySpace, though, it was like a Lloyd Blankfein buying a hoodie.
To Murdoch, social networking must have seemed as pointless as eyebrow plucking. Most News Corporation entities require users to give, say, half an hour of their time in exchange for something on the borders of entertainment and light intellectual stimulation.
Suddenly, here was this thing that some people spent all day on exchanging, well, information about themselves and silly little bits of music. It must have seemed like the height of vapid, incomprehensible stupidity to someone brought up on power, politics, entertainment, and the media's role in all three.
Murdoch bought MySpace not because he wanted it, but because he thought he should have it. Somewhere in MySpace there had to be money, though I suspect if you'd asked him after the purchase where that money actually was he might not have been entirely sure.
Justin Timberlake impersonator and Facebook legend Sean Parker believes it would have been fairly simple for MySpace to have destroyed Facebook, if only it had understood what it was.
At the recent NextWork conference in New York, Parker said of MySpace: "They weren't successful in treating and evolving the product enough. It was basically this junk heap of bad design that persisted for many many years. There was a period of time where if they had just copied Facebook rapidly, they would have been Facebook."
Murdoch is usually very, very smart about developing products to please public taste. However, he lives in a world where the fittest survive, the bravest and most obstinate prosper, and the consumers love sports, power, laughter, and women (preferably topless).
So many of his greatest commercial successes have men at their core and women at their periphery. They have traditional pleasures at their core, rather than the airy-fairy, ego-stroking, self-regarding, neurotic-schizoid world of social networking.
Perhaps if he'd started to e-mail a little more, he would have understood vacuous contact better. Perhaps he would have graduated to IM. Once on IM, who knows how far Murdoch might have immersed himself in this new, very silly world. And who knows where Mark Zuckerberg would be right now. Working for Rupert Murdoch, perhaps.
Now that would have made for an interesting movie.