Obama and MySpace

Maybe you saw the news about Barack Obama taking back his MySpace profile from a volunteer. Jerome Armstrong, co-author of Crashing the Gate: Netroots, Grassroots, and the Rise of People-Powered Politics with Markos Moulitsas (the guy behind DailyKos) shared his thoughts on what this meant, and Joe Rospars, the director of Barack’s New Media operation, shared his side of the story on the official campaign blog.

While some facts are in dispute, the basic chronology is below. Note: While I was very involved in Barack’s 2004 Senate campaign (I ran the campaign weblog, and wrote many of the posts) and I know several of the team at the campaign, I have no inside information on this particular situation. This is all my opionion from the outside looking in.

  • A volunteer named Joe Anthony created a MySpace profile for Barack over 2 years ago at the MySpace URL http://www.myspace.com/barackobama.

  • Once Barack was officially a candidate, Joe Rospars and team worked with Joe Anthony to ensure that the volunteer work being done on the site complied with FEC rules (including, for instance, not working on the site during work hours), and coordinated efforts to ensure that the campaign had the ability to update the site when Joe Anthony wasn’t able to (like during work hours).

  • This relationship continued for some months, and Barack’s “friends” grew from 40,000 to well over 100,000.

  • MySpace began promoting the candidates’ MySpace profile pages, leading many Barack supporters to add themselves as friends to Barack’s page.

  • At some point, the campaign and Joe Anthony had a disagreement about how to proceed. Anthony was putting hours into the site cultivating the community, and was starting to sacrifice other commitments. I’ve been there, it’s not fun. The campaign suggested coming to Chicago, that wasn’t interesting to Anthony, so they discussed a hand-off.

  • This is where the facts are cloudy, to say the least. What we do know is that Anthony presented the campaign with an invoice of sorts, suggesting that the cost to compensate him for the community he’d built was $39,000.

It seems that the campaign saw this as an attempt to cash in on their candidate’s popularity, so rather than negotiate with Anthony, they simply went to MySpace and exercised their right to claim the “/BarackObama” URL – a URL which, according to MySpace’s Terms of Service, is rightfully theirs. MySpace complied, and now the page belongs to the Obama campaign.

If you’re looking for a good perspective on this, you should read Zephyr Teachout’s recap of the Dean campaign, which provides some useful context for how campaigns struggle with developing communities as campaigns scale.

While the debate about how to value the community is intriguing, I think it misses the point. As Mike Turk stated at Politics Online, much of the MySpace community are people who aren’t necessarily indicative of likely voters (or even possible voters). It should be noted, however, in the TechPresident thread about valuing a MySpace group, Mike had a different approach:

These are probably more comparable to the good, qualified names you would get through your own ads or through organic growth. They want to be with you, and are more likely to engage than names off a rented list….I’d guess that $4 per name is not at all unreasonable given the quality. More importantly, what is the value of all the second degree contacts in a word-of-mouth effort? Those 160k people could easily reach 10-20 times that number if you don’t piss them off by shutting their community down. The old saying in retail is if you lose one customer, you’ve really lost ten. How many did Obama just lose?

Well, OK. But of those 160k participants, how many knew or cared that Joe Anthony was behind it, and how many were on it because of Barack? The profile, which had to start from scratch, is already back up to 40,000 friends – in just a few days. I think it’s eminently reasonable to expect that most of that 160,000 will re-add themselves to Barack’s “official” profile – and those that don’t were probably less engaged in the campaign, and of less real value, as a result.

Perhaps I’m being cold, but this doesn’t really seem like a case of Barack’s team “not respecting the community”… it seems like a case of Barack’s team recognizing that the potential blowback from a bad decision – made by someone not accountable to the campaign or even legally allowed to act at certain times of the day when news cycles are measured in minutes and not days – was far worse than a hiccup in establishing ownership of something that was rightfully theirs.

Do I think MySpace will win or lose the primaries? No. Do I think it will have a measurable impact on the election? Possibly. Will it afford some people the ability to engage in a process when they might not have otherwise? Absolutely. This isn’t about “top-down” control at all… Barack’s been clear about empowering people to speak up and act, to get involved in the campaign, and to participate in the campaign in ways that most never have. (Yes, many of these ideas were tried in the Dean campaign; successful as it was, nothing in it approached the scale of what Obama’s or Edwards’ campaigns are doing so far ahead of the primaries.) So why would he want to have to deal with an intermediary – well-intentioned or otherwise – when he could get one step closer to the community, get one step closer to his supporters?

If I were in their shoes, I would have advised them to do exactly what they did. Sure, there’s potential for some blowback. But in the long run, they get control of a critical asset for mobilizing a visible segment of the population – one which can be tremendously valuable when foot soldiers, phone callers, and others are needed as the primaries draw near. A little bit of friction today is worth a lot of leverage in six months.

Update: TechPresident reports that things are resolving between Joe Anthony and the Obama campaign. Good.