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Sunday 6 May 2007

The Battle to Control Obama's Myspace

Bit of history, which won't repeat, being made over Barack Obama's MySpace page.

In November 2004, Joe Anthony, a paralegal living in Los Angeles, started a unofficial fan page for then-newly-elected Senator Barack Obama, inspired by Obama's keynote address at that summer's Democratic convention.

By the time of Obama's official campaign announcement in late January, Anthony's Obama profile - which had the valuable url of - 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."

For several weeks, he collaborated on a daily basis, with the Obama campaign offering advice 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.

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.

Obama's friend total rocketed from 100,000 to 140,000 in a week — a huge asset for the campaign. The 'lifetime value' of the page has been estimated now as in the millions:

"Another way of looking at it ... if only 10% of these names were fundraising responsive, they might generate $200 each during the course of the campaign = $3.2 million gross."

The marketing industry charges anything from $1-$3 just for one email address. When Rupert Murdoch bought MySpace, he paid approximately $31.35 per user

Meanwhile, the campaign had just hired some new staff very experienced at running social network-focused efforts for progressive groups and causes.

It's around this point that the informal working relationship between Anthony and the Obama campaign went sour.

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 — how this then happened hasn't done the campaign any good.
  • Although he'd let the Campaign have access to the profile, the fact that they didn't have complete control began to freak out the staffers. They become concerned about the currency and accuracy of information on the site. They saw a disaster waiting to happen
  • Anthony was overworked and suggested that they should make him a consultant.
  • They said they would rather have a one-time transfer payment, and he should name a price.
  • He picked a number. They said no and went to MySpace management for resolution.
  • MySpace came up with an equitable solution. Anthony was given no choice and the URL transferred to the campaign. But he has been given the opportunity to build the site again with a different URL and full transfer of his friends list.
Being naive, Anthony had asked for $40k, and this has led many to label him an opportunist.

The way it was dealt with has led him to label the Campaign a 'bully', generating masses of negative media for a Campaign which has presented itself as 'web-friendly'. Plus, this comes not long after the fiasco of the anti-Hilary video, which was a huge hit on YouTube but again wasn't the product of the actual campaign.

The coverage of the fiasco led Obama to ring Anthony himself:

"He said he really appreciates the work I've done. We both agreed that this is new to everyone but there's a lot to be learned. I don't think he actually apologized. He said he stood by his campaign and everything. He was very nice. Exactly what anybody would expect."

MySpace's said:

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.
So this won't happen again.

But it puts future presidential volunteer efforts into a new context.

Other campaigns have tried much looser structures, especially the famous Howard Dean campaign in 2004.

Joe Trippi talks about why in his book, The Revolution Will Not Be Televised: Democracy, the Internet, and the Overthrow of Everything.

One of his followers commented in the wake of this battle:

The Dean campaign gave us simple instructions, "Speak for yourself. Don't speak for the campaign. But talk about why you're here, why YOU support Dean."

A local cable access channel was hosting a talk show on the candidates. They invited representatives from the various local campaign volunteer groups. I went for the Dean Meetup group in my county. There was a very articulate former reporter representing Clark supporters, and that was it. The Kerry group had agreed to send somebody, but had first checked with the campaign. The campaign said the volunteer would first have to drive 2 hours for a full day of media training before appearing on this small local TV show. The Dean campaign sent me an email telling me how to get local press coverage before I went to Iowa, while I was there, and when I got back. That was all the training I got. I never thought to ask the campaign for permission to be on TV. This was our campaign, and we all felt that.

I went on TV before, during, and after Iowa. When the talk show moderator asked about Dean's positions, I either replied with things I'd read in campaign literature, things I'd heard him say, or my own opinions--clearly stated as such.

Dean supporters started Meetup groups, websites, blogs, and listservs. They held visibility and other events and invited the media. Today I'm sure they would have started pages on MySpace and Facebook. As so many things did in that campaign, they belonged to us, and the campaign brought us in as fast as they could.

Only now, after more campaign experience with other candidates, do I realize how rare it was for a campaign to escape the clutches of the true chattering class, the political consultants.

1 comment:

  1. Politics 2.0 Hears Today From Joe Anthony - Twice. Joe: "There isn't really a way to resolve anything between me and the campaign, and these guys certainly have more power than I do!"

    Joe Anthony: My comments on the campaign's official blog on (by Joe Rospars) - Joe Anthony MySpace Post

    Alex Hammer
    Politics 2.0