Gelf Magazine - Looking over the overlooked

Internet | Politics

May 22, 2007

Between Barack and a MySpace

Obama campaign staffers bungled their candidate's social networking strategy by staging a hostile takeover of Joe Anthony's popular fan site for the senator.

Vincent Valk

MySpace.com is where you're most likely to go if you want to show off—to tell the world that you do, in fact, have 297 friends, and, what's more, they all think you're awesome and you guys party, like, all the time. You post all this publicly on the internet in the hopes of gaining—well, publicity, we suppose, and maybe 297 more friends to party with.

Joe Anthony (minus his head, for anonymity)
"The Obama campaign is protecting their image at my expense. I've taken a series of low blows from this campaign, and they're not getting any more support from me."

Joe Anthony (minus his head, for anonymity)

So it should come as no surprise that MySpace (and its slightly less-softcore-porn-filled cousin, Facebook) have become quite popular with those eternal publicity hounds, the 2008 presidential candidates. Many candidates have a number of fan pages, from Swedes for Obama to Rudy Giuliani is God. (The Giuliani for President of 9/11 page hasn't yet materialized.) In addition to the fan pages, most candidates have official MySpace presences, run by the campaigns, which tend to be fairly sober affairs, by MySpace standards. Hillary Clinton's MySpace page, for example, contains campaign-approved blog entries and video of the Senator's appearances, in addition to user comments like, "WATTS-UP MY NINJA!!!????" Barack Obama's official MySpace page is pretty similar, except that it was the subject of a recent controversy that hints at what could happen when social media and a major presidential campaign collide.

Joe Anthony, a 29-year-old paralegal from Los Angeles, started a Barack Obama MySpace fan page in 2004, using the obvious URL, www.myspace.com/barackobama. "I was initially inspired by Obama's keynote address at the DNC [2004 Democratic National Convention]," Anthony tells Gelf. "I admired that he was one of the few speaking out against the war from early on. I thought he was an extraordinary and inspiring speaker." The profile, Anthony says, was "initially a bit of a novelty," but as Obama continued to gain support, his MySpace page grew to the point where it had thousands of friends. Anthony started spending more time on the profile and included news articles and background information about the junior senator from Illinois. By the time Obama announced his intention to run for president, Anthony's profile had about 40,000 friends, making Obama's the largest candidate MySpace presence by far.

"Campaigns should join the online conversation. It doesn't mean they get to dominate it, though."—Micah Sifry, editor of TechPresident.com
Shortly thereafter, the Obama campaign contacted Anthony in the hopes of gaining a hand in the operation of the massive profile. Here is where the campaign staff began to mishandle social media, according to Micah Sifry, co-founder and executive editor of Personal Democracy Forum and TechPresident and a political science professor at the City University of New York Graduate Center. "They have to either definitively take it over or definitively let it go," Sifry says. "This hybrid approach to a popular MySpace page was untenable." The hybrid approach meant that, for a time, the campaign seemed content to work with Joe Anthony. But when the profile had upwards of 160,000 friends, both sides became unhappy with the arrangement.

Here, the story diverges—Joe Rospars, Obama's new media director, stated in a blog post that Anthony submitted an unsolicited "list of itemized financial requests" after the campaign indicated its wish to obtain complete control of the profile. Anthony, however, tells Gelf that the campaign "suggested a one-time fee for transfer of the profile," and it was only in response that Anthony submitted his proposal (which amounted to $39,000, plus any fees that the campaign reportedly paid to MySpace while Anthony was still managing the page). The campaign balked, and then went around Anthony—directly to the higher ups at MySpace—to take control of his URL. (No one at the Obama campagin replied to Gelf's requests for comment.)

The network of 160,000 friends is still technically Anthony's, but if he wants to keep them, he must find a new URL for the community. Anthony currently has no interest in doing anything with the network, and says the campaign "virtually accused me of blackmail" and is "protecting their image at my expense."

"I've taken a series of low blows from this campaign, and they're not getting any more support from me," Anthony tells Gelf.

Obama's MySpace Page

Anthony's former URL is now the campaign's official Myspace presence.

The campaign probably had the right to behave as it did. MySpace's Terms of Use Agreement prohibit "attempting to impersonate another Member or person." While Anthony was always clear about the fact that he was not affiliated with Barack Obama or the Obama campaign, this clause has been construed to mean that public figures have the right to their own name in their MySpace URL. But just because they could do it, doesn’t mean that they should have, says Sifry. "This stuff about them needing to have that URL is kind of bogus," he tells Gelf. Joe Biden and Bill Richardson both use their last names and the phrase "for president" in their respective official MySpace URLs. (Type in Biden's name and you'll get a profile apparently about him but barely used; type in Richardson's and you'll get some guy from Michigan.)

So what should the big-time presidential campaign have done? In an age where an embarrassing YouTube video can lead to a change in control of the US Senate, how does a campaign manage its message in cyberspace? Should it even try? According to Sifry, "Campaigns have to understand they no longer have perfect control of their message, if they ever did. If people on YouTube are sharing a video attacking you, you can't get YouTube to take it down, that would be silly. But you can post a response. Join the conversation. [Ed. note: In the non-Hillary Clinton sense of the phrase, we presume.] It doesn't mean you get to dominate it, though."

Sifry thinks that the Obama campaign should have let Anthony keep his URL and then started its own official one. (www.myspace.com/obamaforpresident would be a likely candidate, though it currently seems to be populated by an infamous photo from Abu Ghraib.)

"They [the Obama campaign staffers] were trying to have their cake and eat it, too," Sifry says.

Instead, Obama's camp had its Streisand moment. In their haste to control their online presence, the Obama campaign created a PR disaster that alienated a large and supportive community and detracted from Obama's fresh-faced image. Furthermore, Anthony tells Gelf that he would have welcomed many suggestions from the Obama campaign, including a lower counter-offer or the creation of a parallel official community. If he thought the campaign was treating him with respect, he claims he would have given them his URL for free. Instead, the Obama campaign caused a mini-media shit storm—generating finger-wagging articles in the Washington Post, MTV.com, and Slashdot—and has probably lost an influential supporter.

Of course, plenty of mistakes will be made as campaigns wade into this new technology. And that's fine, according to Sifry, so long as campaigns are willing to admit it. (Obama's camp has, as of yet, offered no apology to Anthony.) New media, social networking, whatever you want to call it (so long as you please avoid the term "Web 2.0"), is not only letting the world know that we ought to lay off the Jose Cuervo; it's also changing the way we select our leaders.

Vincent Valk

Vincent Valk is online editor for Chemical Week magazine.







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- Internet
- posted on May 24, 07
~another average joe

Thanks for the article about "MySpaceGate." You ran into the same "no reply/comment" that many Senator Obama supporters are getting trying to get to the bottom of this mishandled event. It's very unfortunate that it happened in the first place when it could've been handled so easily in a positive manner. As your article clearly points out that there are many others out there that understand that a HTML link to barackobama can just as easily gone to barackobama08 or some other available URL at the time. It was not a wise decision to use the ego card and take the original URL from a person that was once one of Senator Obamas strongest supporters and leave a community of people wondering why it had to be done in the first place.

This was done from what I understand by a campaign staff person named Joe Rospars and is the person who posted the blog that started the needless firestorm. This person was hired by TeamObama supposedly for his Internet knowledge, I'm thinking at this point in time that's not going to look to highly on his future resume. If this person was hired because of his knowledge, how is it that he could not understand that another free MySpace URL could have been created in a few short minutes and then work with Joe Anthony? Imagine for a moment if you will; that Senator Obama had two MySpace campaign sites with over 160,000 friends on both of them, instead of one with 80,000 which is where they are currently at? (just an FYI the original “unofficial” site that Joe Anthony created and managed which was taken away and then returned a week later without any content was deleted)

How simple could this have been done? One (1) bulletin sent out of the existing “unofficial” barackobama site that read something like the following:

“Hello all my friends that support Senator Obama. I have some great news for everyone! The senator has decided to make an “official” page here on MySpace and I would hope that all of you will click this add me link to join that site! I look forward to moving ahead stronger than ever and will continue to supply everyone with any information that I receive. Thanks again, Joe Moderator”

In a very short period of time there could have been an “official” site setup with 160,000 friends on board and at least one very supportive Joe.

I personally am still looking for a response from TeamObama pertaining to the defamatory blog that was posted by Joe Rospars over 3 weeks ago now. I want to give my vote to someone that has Integrity & Accountability and hopefully that can be Senator Obama?

More information pertaining to MySpaceGate can be found over at www.myspace.com/dotherightthingbarack

~another average joe

- Internet
- posted on May 25, 07
Vincent Valk

Another Average Joe,

Thanks for your thoughtful comment. I took a quick look at your myspace page-you were right, the interview with Anthony did take place last week, though I kept up an e-mail correspondence with him for until publication. At some point, I'll have to poke around your community some more and maybe see about any late-breaking developments in this story. Never too late to post a follow-up, even if it's just a blog post.

The more I think about this, the more it seems Obama campaign knew they could get away with this, and that's why they did it. I think they wanted to come to an amicable settlement with Joe Anthony, but they probably thought he would ask for $500 or $1,000 and be done with it. When that didn't come to pass, they knew they could circumvent the guy and few people would hold them accountable, which is exactly what happened. Even on MySpace they're back at the number one spot, with 83,000 friends. They got a small amount of bad publicity and moved on.

I don't know if this particular story is really going anywhere, but I think we'll hear of more stuff like this as the campaign progresses. It's just too easy for a big campaign to roll over a guy like Anthony. At the same time, campaigns to have a justifiable interest in controlling their message; yet, with the Internet, so much of your message is spread by uncontrollable word-of-mouth. How do you reconcile these seemingly contradictory impulses-message control, and the need for a positive, independent, buzz-without rolling over the little guy? If anything, the Obama campaign has provided a good illustration of what not to do, though the price for screwing up is not yet high enough.

- Internet
- posted on May 26, 07
~another average joe

Vincent, thank you for taking a quick look at the page and I welcome you back at anytime. I am just a contributor to that community page as are the others, but we are hoping to still have the original issue addressed. Like all grassroots communities, you start at the bottom and your cause takes you in the appropriate direction.

I believe that your observation that they thought they could get away with it is probably a viable one. The reason for the ”Do the Right Thing” website though is because we believe that he shouldn’t be able to. I think that there are very few people today from any political party that want to have to put up with “business as usual” in the Whitehouse. The parties on all sides of the road have spoken quite clearly that there needs to be a substantial change in how we represent ourselves to the rest of the world.

I would not discount a “few people” as to not being able to make a change though. The articles now number a couple of dozen that have been written about the MySpaceGate incident and people are adding to our site quicker than I thought. There are over 1800 on Joes personal page that were simpatico with him and thought he got the raw end of the deal and found out about it before the page was deleted. The DtRTB site is up to about 600. I know that may seem small compared to the current total on the now official Barack Obama page; but I like to say, “you may see a number in total but that does not mean it’s the total number.” I believe there are many individuals waiting for Barack to still put this issue to rest one way or another. The number of friends that you quoted is correct and is about 4K more than the Hillary Clinton site, but was about 120K more than her pre-takeover.

In today’s world of Internet technology with archiving that takes milliseconds to bring up on Google and the popularity of You Tube, I believe it’s not wise to make any such negative moves. They are after all, just a click away. I don’t think anyone has the power to bury it deep enough once it hits the Internet community. Bad publicity now is bad publicity later; we’ve seen that used in that last election process.

The ability to control ones message is important and I believe from what I know of this incident, that was a non-issue since TeamObama was in communication with Joe Anthony via email and telephone and were able have any changes made that they felt were needed. I will be working on a timeline as to what took place and when, for people to have a better visual understanding of the incident. I have requested information many times to no avail from TeamObama as you also experienced. I will send it to the moderator of the DtRTB page for him to post if he chooses to. I won’t take up anymore of your time or space and thank you for the original article. Feel free to drop by in the future and get a feel for the current climate.


Article by Vincent Valk

Vincent Valk is online editor for Chemical Week magazine.

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