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Gossip Blog Gives Silicon Valley the Celebrity Treatment

Times Staff Writer

Nick Douglas started his journalism career at a Christian college whose founders strove to “produce young leaders ... capable of pushing civilization forward.”

“Geeks Gone Wild” probably wasn’t what they had in mind.

Douglas, 22, chronicles the lifestyles of the rich and nerdy. He dropped out of Pennsylvania’s Grove City College a semester short of graduation, moved to the musty basement of a purple Victorian here and in February began dishing dirt on the most powerful people in Silicon Valley.

Valleywag, his online “tech gossip rag,” specializes in rumor, innuendo and biting commentary on the latest technology trends and the people behind them. It dares to presume that snapshots of Google Inc. founder Larry Page cuddling with his girlfriend on a private jet are as interesting as the next killer app he dreams up.

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“You people in Silicon Valley are far too busy changing the world to care about sex, greed and hypocrisy,” reads the site’s welcome message. “But if you ever need a break, come visit us at Valleywag.”

Some techsters hope the site will undercut the image of Silicon Valley as a place filled with pocket protectors and taped-up eyeglasses, where it’s all work and no play for the people creating the next generation of gadgets and Web products.

“I don’t know if I can say it’s serving a need, other than endless human capacity for scandal and innuendo,” said reader Lane Becker, an Internet executive in San Francisco. “It’s prevalent in the political and entertainment worlds. Why not the technology world?”

Alas, Valleywag may do more to reinforce that less-than-charismatic image than to kill it.

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Page Six it ain’t. While gossip columns at the New York Post and other papers are filled with celebrity sightings and antics, Valleywag is gossip by a geek, for geeks.

The juiciest scoops include photos of a Yahoo Inc. executive’s Mauritian vacation with his fiancee and a Google founder in his bathrobe, video of Tom Cruise arm-wrestling with Yahoo Chief Executive Terry Semel during the movie star’s visit to the company’s Sunnyvale, Calif., headquarters and a news item about an Internet executive being tossed from a bar for bellowing drunkenly in a Scottish accent.

But Douglas is just as likely to post photos of shirtless, hairy, overweight bloggers or jokingly graft an executive’s head onto a buff model’s body for a poll on Silicon Valley’s hottest denizens.

“The idea of Silicon Valley people as celebrities is always going to be tough,” said Kyle Bunch, a blogger and Douglas’ pal. “I almost feel, to some level, like they’re a couple of rock stars short.”

Valleywag is backed by Nick Denton, the new-media publisher behind such Gawker Media blogs as Defamer for show business, Gawker for publishing and Wonkette for politics. If Google, Yahoo and Apple Computer Inc. are the media companies of tomorrow, why not cover them like the media companies of today?

That Valleywag even exists is a sign of the tech industry’s recovery from the dot-com bust. Silicon Valley is flush with money and energy again. Just a few years ago, there weren’t many inflated egos left to puncture.

“We are back in spades,” said Chris Nolan, a San Francisco-based blogger who wrote a business column heavy on gossip for the San Jose Mercury News during the late 1990s. “There’s a market for gossip about the personalities and foibles of the people who are doing these million- and billion-dollar deals.”

A blog that sniffs out quiet resignations, uncovers scandal and takes pompous technologists down a peg is exactly what Silicon Valley needs, several readers say.

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“Anything that keeps the players in the industry aware that we can’t go overboard is a good thing,” said Mena Trott, president of blog software maker Six Apart and wife of Ben Trott, who beat Craigslist CEO Jim Buckmaster to win the inaugural “Valleywag Hotties” contest.

But by giving software programmers, bloggers and marketers the Brad Pitt treatment, Valleywag has touched off a debate: Does Northern California need or want the same kind of gossip coverage as Los Angeles, New York and Washington? More importantly, does it warrant it?

Traffic figures suggest that Valleywag’s appeal is limited, compared with more established Gawker Media sites. Lacking a gossip rag for years, tech insiders flocked to the site early on, but traffic has plunged. Valleywag averages about 16,000 pages viewed a day. In contrast, Gawker gets 318,000 page views, Defamer 260,000 and Wonkette 89,000. Denton’s gadget blog, Gizmodo, gets 395,000.

Vineet Buch, a venture capitalist, said he was happy to learn through Valleywag that people in the tech industry have love lives. That doesn’t mean he wants to read about them.

Hollywood is built on glamour, and obsessing about Katie Holmes’ pregnancy may help some people escape their quotidian lives. But the Valley is about simplifying daily tasks like paying for an online purchase or communicating with friends. What, Buch wonders, is sexy about that?

“When Silicon Valley starts seeing itself as the glamour capital rather than Hollywood,” he said, “that’s when I think we’re taking ourselves too seriously and heading for another period of irrational exuberance.”

To run Valleywag, Denton wanted someone who had no bridges to burn, a Silicon Valley outsider. Douglas grew up in Lima, N.Y., with a population of 4,500, where the hottest thing going is the annual Crossroads Festival and a related lima-bean cook-off. His father designs fuel-injection systems; his mother works as a library clerk.

Denton and his associates call Douglas “Little Nicky,” for his slight build and boyish face. Without the thin red beard the writer sometimes sports, one friend says, “he’d look like he’s 16.” Douglas says he’s “just a kid having fun.” When discussing his choice of hand-held computers, he earnestly quotes Bill Gates’ 1995 book, “The Road Ahead.”

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While slogging through a tedious data-entry job last summer, Douglas began writing for Blogebrity, a navel-gazing blog that writes about what other blogs are writing about. Among his subjects was the long-standing public feud between Denton and Jason McCabe Calacanis, who ran rival Weblogs Inc., now owned by AOL.

Denton had long been considering a tech gossip blog in San Francisco. He liked Douglas’ style and approached him about the job. Only a few credits shy of a bachelor’s degree in English, Douglas thought the idea was nuts. But, after a visit to San Francisco, he decided to drop out of school and take the job. He won’t say how much he makes, just that it’s not much.

“It was my dream job, writing for a living,” he said.

He came out swinging. He revealed that Marissa Mayer, a much-quoted Google vice president, had dated co-founder Page until late last year. Douglas created a mock Us Weekly magazine cover of the two.

He exposed the identities of the Googlers each was then dating, posted photos from a company holiday party and let readers vote on whose date was hotter. Page’s date, Lucy Southworth, beat Mayer’s date, Dave Jeske, in a landslide, 1,405 to 1. Douglas later found the photos of Page and Southworth on the jet.

He also tackled Yahoo, even though the Internet giant distributes several Gawker Media blogs on its websites. After some Yahoo executives posted vacation photos for friends on Yahoo services but failed to secure them with a password, Douglas put some of the pictures on his site. With one, titled “Toby Coppel’s hot wife,” readers were asked to comment on her attractiveness.

Douglas typically works in his Smurf-colored room next to the coin-operated laundry machines he shares with 14 housemates. A battered dresser top holds a biography of Apple CEO Steve Jobs and a coin-filled mug whose inscription winks at the blogger’s constant quest for traffic: “Link to mine, I’ll link to yours.”

Most mornings he rolls out of bed -- a mattress on the floor -- around 7 a.m. and makes the day’s first post before getting coffee. Although his computer is an old Compaq laptop issued in his freshman year of college, one of his strengths is his ability to use the latest technology to cultivate sources and find information. Most of his tips come in via e-mail and AOL Instant Messenger -- he has 210 people on his buddy list.

In many cases, such as with the Yahoo executives’ photos, the services being created by Internet companies make it easier for Douglas to dig up dirt.

He also eschews journalistic norms and practically begs for tipsters. In a post about police activity outside the mansion of the billionaire founder of Oracle Corp., Douglas concluded with, “If Larry Ellison’s housekeeping staff is reading this, help the press out: ¿Que paso en la casa de Ellison el sabado?” (“What happened at Ellison’s house Saturday?”)

He’s required to write a dozen posts a day, so the level of scandal varies widely. Sometimes he’s content to mock a new Microsoft Corp. advertising campaign or a mainstream media story on technology. One day he trolled Craigslist for personal ads by tech-industry people and posted them, including one from a San Francisco software engineer who came up with this: “I don’t make sex; I make love.”

Douglas says he tries to check his facts before publishing. But he’s willing to post inflammatory e-mails from anonymous sources with disclaimers such as, “Today’s guest may be in the know, or they may do a great job of faking it. Your call.”

He then publishes responses sent in defense of those attacked.

Douglas’ approach has earned him some cold responses on the party and conference circuit where he goes to collect sources and rumors. At a conference in Austin, Texas, he ran into Google and Apple employees. His introduction was met with an icy reception.

“Nothing harshly adversarial, but like the high school rival football teams who bump into each other,” said his friend Bunch, who gave Douglas his first blogging gig at Blogebrity. “They’re not going to start a fight, but there was definitely some undeniable tension: chests puffed out, jaws locked.”

But some readers are pleased that Valleywag shows another side of the people behind tomorrow’s technologies.

At a party one evening in June, several employees of Adaptive Path, a San Francisco Web-design firm, ended up in a bathtub. Margaret Mason, the wife of a company executive, snapped a picture with her camera phone and posted it to a photo-sharing site. It showed three people covered to their ears in suds, a fourth sitting on the tub’s edge in swimming trunks and a bikini-clad fifth chugging champagne.

The picture sat in cyberspace obscurity until February, when someone tipped off Douglas. He posted it in the “Geeks Gone Wild” section and asked readers to “help me ID this tub full of nerds.” Every bather was soon named on the site.

“This has to be a freakish anomaly,” one reader wrote. “I’ve never seen a geek bathtub with anything less than a 5:1 male to female ratio.”

Since then, Adaptive Path executives say the photo has been mentioned at the strangest times, such as during a meeting with UC Berkeley business students who said, “Hey, we saw the bathtub photo.”

Becker, the firm’s director of new ventures and a bathtub-goer, says he and his colleagues enjoyed the attention.

“The things you make with computers and technology these days impact the entire world,” Becker said. “You’d like to think those people are more fully formed than the standard-issue geeks in button-down shirts and khaki pants. If Valleywag fills that role maybe there is some good that comes out of it. Then again, maybe it’s just a big echo chamber.”


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