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The Battle to Control Obama's Myspace

BY Micah L. Sifry | Tuesday, May 1 2007

In November 2004, Joe Anthony, a paralegal living in Los Angeles, started a unofficial fan page for then-newly-elected Senator Barack Obama (D-IL) on MySpace.com. Inspired by Obama's keynote address at that summer's Democratic convention, Anthony had never been politically active before. "I was just blown away," he told me. He put time into the site every day, answering emails from people wanting to "friend" the page, pointing them to voter registration information, and, once Obama threw his hat into the ring, telling them where to find out more detailed positions of the candidate.

By the time of Obama's official campaign announcement in late January, Anthony's Obama profile--which had the valuable url of myspace.com/barackobama--already had more than 30,000 friends, well more than the other contenders. Over the following weeks, it continued to grow at a rapid pace, generating lots of headlines about Obama winning the "MySpace primary." Yesterday, the profile had just over 160,000 friends. Today, that url has only about 12,000. And it's under new ownership. Joe Anthony, one of the super volunteers of the Connected Age, has lost control of the page he started to the professionals on Obama's staff.

How all this happened is a complicated tale that is still unfolding, and none of the parties involved--Anthony, the Obama online team, and the MySpace political operation--emerge from this story unscathed. Speaking on background, Obama campaign staffers are spreading word that Anthony just wanted a "big payday." Anthony in turn has posted a missive on his blog (that was originally sent to me as an email) accusing the Obama team of "bullying...[and] rotten and dishonest" behavior. However one parses those accusations (more below), the Obama campaign's reputation as the most net-savvy of 2008 has taken a big hit. And MySpace executives have been forced to take extraordinary action to resolve a dispute between two high-profile users of their invaluable site, one a passionate volunteer with a huge network of friends and the other a frontrunning presidential candidate who has helped make MySpace a new factor in the 2008 contest.

The Barocket Takes Off

At first, all was rosy between Anthony and the Obama campaign. Chris Hughes, one of the campaign's first internet staffers (and a co-founder of Facebook.com), emailed Anthony through the MySpace page and both sides were pleased to connect with each other. For several weeks, they collaborated on a daily basis, with the Obama campaign offering advice to Anthony on how to improve the site, sharing content with him, helping him place a fundraising widget on the site, etc. He in turn gave the campaign password access to the profile in case they wanted to tweak it quickly, but they made little use of it and relied mainly on Anthony to maintain the site.

It was a labor of love for him. Here at TechPresident, we started getting emails from Anthony every now and then, making sure our own tracking of Obama's MySpace friends was up-to-date, and pointing us to his progress elsewhere in the campaign. "I'm working on [the site] in the mornings, lunch breaks, and for a couple of hours every night," he wrote me on March 1st. "Nearly 10,000 friend requests this past week, and all are unsolicited!" he added "This profile has evolved into quite a large community and I'm glad that it seems to be mobilizing people."

But sometime in the middle of March things began to go awry. On March 17, MySpace announced the creation of the "Impact Channel," which aimed to focused attention on the presidential race, and the Obama campaign had them use Anthony's Obama profile as the site the Impact Channel pointed to. As you can see from TechPresident's tracking page, Obama started gaining friends on MySpace at a much faster pace, hitting 80,000 a few days later. Anthony's workload began to grow. A few weeks later, when Obama's picture was featured on MySpace's "Cool New People" box on its home page (Hillary Clinton is there now), everything exploded. Obama's friend total barocketed from 100,000 to 140,000 in a week. Meanwhile, Chris Hughes had handed the MySpace portfolio to a new campaign hire, Scott Goodstein, who came to Chicago with tons of experience running social network-focused efforts for an impressive array of progressive groups and causes.

It's around this point that the informal working relationship between Anthony and the Obama campaign went sour. The exact chronology of events is in dispute but the general trajectory is clear. As his volunteer workload grew to all hours, Anthony decided to email the Obama campaign asking to be paid in some way for his time. This set off discussions within the campaign about what to do, and ultimately they decided they had to control the page. Unfortunately for all concerned, the negotiations on how to do that were a disaster. Anthony says:

For the past few weeks, the campaign decided it would be better if they just took control of the profile and we decided to try to come to some agreement. By this time, I didn't have quite as much respect for the campaign guys, and frankly felt like I was just being used. They knew about this profile the entire time, and really just waited until it got enough media coverage and friends request so they could step in and bully me out of it.

The last few weeks were just insane. They kept scheduling phone conferences with me, I would wake up early that day after barely sleeping the night before, I'd take time off work, etc. and each after another would be postponed at the last minute. This went on for weeks.

It got to the point where I didn't feel comfortable turning the profile over to the campaign unless they paid for it. This was largely symbolic. The same campaign that inspired me to work so hard to build this community, the same campaign whose underlying message stresses "the power of the individual to have an impact on politics", was constantly downplaying my role in this, bullying me, and a couple of other things that were just rotten and dishonest (specifically in connection with Myspace, and the campaign quashing a recent NPR interview about the profile).

Crash and Burn

Obama insiders see things very differently. They agree that at first all was copacetic, and that Anthony was only helping the Obama campaign with his site. But as attention grew to MySpace, they started to worry about a potential train wreck. A Newsweek story noting that Anthony had some minor facts wrong about Obama's biography made them nervous. And while he complied with every request they made about content on the site--keeping a prominent disclaimer stating that it was an unofficial page, removing a link to Obama's Senate podcasts because it might be an FEC violation, culling a "friend" from a Larry Flynt profile page--they chafed nonetheless.

Coordination with a volunteer they had never met, who lived far from campaign HQ, and who controlled an asset of increasing value to their effort, was just not as seamless as they would like. Who knows who he is actually emailing, they worried. How do we know if the answers he is giving people are the right ones? Welcome to the age of voter-generated media, where a super-volunteer using popular online tools and sites can become as important as big donor or a top campaign surrogate.

Anthony's request to be compensated for all the work he was putting into Obama's Myspace page--anywhere from five to ten hours a day--was the final straw, apparently. After kicking around various ideas including hiring him or making him a consultant, the Obama people asked Anthony to propose a one-time consulting fee. In exchange he would give them control of the page, with credit for the work he had put into it.

"I went for a four mile walk to think about it," he told me, continuing:

I considered the time I had put into it from January 1st of this year, not counting the previous two years. It was about $39,000. Plus I asked that if any fees were to be paid to MySpace by the campaign up to that point in time, those should be shared with me, up to $10,000. There was no counter-offer. They said they didn't have any money.

Indeed, it appears the Obama internet team was shocked by the size of Anthony's proposal and argued to themselves that it was proof that he was just in it for the money, even though campaigns like theirs regularly give tens of thousands of dollars to highpriced media consultants who would give their eye-teeth to deliver 160,000 rabid activists to a campaign. Instead to them, Anthony's bid was all the more reason to get control of the site. Obama's staffers are now spreading the word that Anthony wanted a big payday, including a huge percentage of any ad buys on MySpace. I have a copy of Anthony's email proposal, however, and it contradicts that claim.

Of course, no one really knows how to value the creation of a popular political website with tens of thousands of members. Big sites like Flickr.com and Weblogs.com have earned their owners somewhere between $20 and $40 per member. Care2, the massive progressive email list vendor, charges about $1 per email address that they generate for a campaign. But it would be silly to suggest that Anthony generated 160,000 MySpace friends for Obama on his own--if he wasn't plugging a very charismatic candidate like Obama he'd never have grown such a large site.

Whatever the case, at this point it appears the Obama people simply decided that they would get control of the myspace.com/barackobama url by going around Anthony and getting MySpace to lock down his access to it. In their view, Anthony was violating MySpace's terms of service by falsely representing himself as Obama, and thus they didn't have to pay him anything. The worst that would happen, they reasoned, is that they would have to rebuild the candidate's network of friends.

And this is indeed what is happening now. At the request of the Obama campaign, the url myspace.com/barackobama has been taken away from Joe Anthony and put in their hands. Jen Psaki, the deputy press director for Obama, says:

There is an incredible amount of support for Obama's candidacy on MySpace and our goal is to ensure that we are being as responsive as possible to the community. Because MySpace and the community treated the work as official and due to sheer volume, our campaign staff wanted make sure users had direct access to the campaign. We support the MySpace communty, and look forward to building our relationship.

Was this action fair to Joe Anthony? MySpace itself has come up with a positively Solomonic solution to that question, promising to restore Anthony's network of 160,000 friends as soon as he picks a new url for whatever unofficial Obama fan page he may care to create. Says Jeff Berman, MySpace's senior vice president for public affairs and general manager of video:

We are firmly committed to empowering our users and protecting their rights. The situation with Senator Obama's profile became an unfortunate instance where a user gave a campaign functional control of a profile and the relationship between the two broke down. We felt under the circumstances that Senator Obama had the right to the URL containing his name and to the official campaign content that was provided, but that the user should retain the basic elements of the profile, including the friends who had been accumulated. Now that each Presidential candidate controls his/her own MySpace page, we don't expect this to be a problem again.

And indeed, for MySpace this probably will never be a problem again, for in the future it's likely that political campaigns will always make sure to build and maintain their own official presences there.

But this latest episode in the evolving interaction between voter-generated media and campaign-controlled content raises several unsettled issues:

*If it weren't for the hundreds of hours put into sites like MySpace by passionate volunteers like Joe Anthony, would the folks at MySpace even have anything like an Impact Channel? The only reason campaigns and advertisers are taking sites like MySpace seriously is because they have millions of users; shouldn't the volunteers who help draw the crowds to these new online town halls get some kind of compensation beyond a little modest recognition from political professionals now and then?

*Is it true that once a voter-generated site gets major traction, the campaign affected has to control it? Can a front-running presidential campaign--even one as devoted to empowering supporters to take their own initiatives and connect to each other through social network tools as the Obama campaign--afford a major site run by a campaign volunteer outside their control? Is such control even possible?

*Why couldn't the Obama people find the money to work out an amicable arrangement with Anthony? What are they spending the $26 million they raised last quarter on?

The most intriguing thing about this whole mess is this is the first time I can think of where the grass-roots activist at the bottom of the pile has a megaphone as big as the folks who tried to boss him around. Right now Joe Anthony is lying on his sofa, trying to gather his thoughts as he wonders what happens to all the sweat and passion he put into the last two and a half years for Barack Obama. As best as I can tell, he really doesn't know what he should do, because he's never been in these shoes, and he's as bewildered as anyone could be about how it all came crashing to the ground. But unlike every activist who's ever been crushed by events beyond his control, he can do something that just might give him a clue as to what comes next. He can ask his 160,000 friends for help.