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Gossip Blog Gives Silicon Valley the Celebrity Treatment

Valleywag dishes rumor, innuendo and biting commentary by and for technology geeks.

April 16, 2006|Chris Gaither | Times Staff Writer

SAN FRANCISCO — 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.

"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.

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.

"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?

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