The blogosphere is abuzz with news of a falling out between the campaign of Senator Barack Obama and Joe Anthony, an unpaid volunteer who created and maintained an unofficial fan page that has evolved into the candidate's most popular site on MySpace, with more than 160,000 friends.
The conflict has been brewing for some time now, but ended messily on Tuesday when MySpace agreed to transfer the URL to Obama.
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.
Something like this was bound to happen this year as top-down campaign structures have begun to collide with the new bottom-up energy of social networking and content sharing on the Web. Obama's campaign strove for a hybrid model -- Anthony retained control of the MySpace page, but Obama's campaign also had access, and promoted the site. The advantages were obvious: free labor, a sense from the grassroots that they matter, and a populist PR spin. Then the campaign lost faith in Anthony and turned everything on its head. Yesterday, the campaign finally addressed the incident on Obama's blog, but from the looks of the comments, he still has a long way to go to win back the trust of many would-be "friends."
Joe Trippi, the manager of Howard Dean's 2004 presidential race, who revolutionized political campaigning by embracing the internet, joined the campaign of Senator John Edwards today. He will serve as a media advisor to a campaign that is already distinguishing itself as one of the most tech savvy in the field: the Edwards website features an interactive blog and 23 different social networking tools; Edwards sends text messages to supporters via the geek-chic site Twitter; and he maintains (an occasionally raucous) virtual campaign office in Second Life. Trippi told me the Dean campaign is already looking like ancient history. Since 2004, the number of blogs on the Internet has grown by a factor of 50 and the launch of Facebook, MySpace, and YouTube has popularized social networking and Web video. "By the end of 2008, I think people will look back at the Dean campaign and say, 'Wow, it was so primitive, it was so yesterday,'" Trippi said. "I still think any of these campaigns are capable of just blowing the doors off and transforming our politics, and that's really likely to happen in 2008."
The campaign landscape on the Web has become much more competitive since 2004, when Dean had the virtual space mostly to himself, but also more volatile in ways that dark horse candidates can harness for quick and dramatic gain, Trippi asserted. "I really believe this: I think we are in a situation where one of these candidates could say something in a debate, or in a major address, or in a response to something that President Bush says, and all of a sudden, on that day, a million Americans decide, 'I'm going to sign up for him.'" He added: "That never would have happened in 2004; (the Web) wasn't mature enough."
Trippi said he's working for Edwards because he likes his stances on poverty, his work on global warming issues, and his position on the war, though, he noted, "it would be maybe a tough call between Obama and him on that issue, but they are both closer to where I am." He's also impressed by Edwards' effort to build a community of voters that would offer policy feedback and support well after Edwards is electedsomething Dean was also interested in, he said, but never got to implement.
Abidingly speaking from a commuter train this afternoon, where his cell phone dropped our call probably 20 times and his voice mail quickly filled up, Trippi also pointed out an interesting parallel between his early political life and that of Edwards' wife, Elizabeth. Years ago, Trippi was drawn to the Web through the first bulletin boards on sites such as Prodigy and Motley Fool, and as a lurker and occasional contributor to blogs. "The same with her," he said. "I read her book, and I didn't realize that basically, when her son Wade had died, she was on the Web, and on greeting boards, boards where people came together and talked about what they were going through and the loved one they had lost, kind of consoled and talked to each other, and she had been a part of that community on the web for a long time before Edwards had decided to run for president. And like me, she started hanging out on political boards later in her life, when he was running. And that's why she is doing what she is doing today. But you don't see it in any of the other campaigns"--which Trippi believes have been slow to reach out to the blogs--"It came to her naturally, because of what she's been through."
Over at Techpresident, a group blog on web politics, blogger Joshua Levy is making an interesting case that something's amiss. Obama's YouTube channel has 2,700,000 views--35 times as many as the second most-popular political site, that of Hillary Clinton. While people trolling for the 1984 video may have skewed web traffic to a degree, that's still a huge disparity. "There are a few reasons why the high number of channel views looks fishy," Levy says:
First, the total number of views of Obama's individual videos is nowhere near the total number of channel views. When you first load the channel, a video automatically plays, which may or may not contribute to that video's total views (the relationship between channel and video views is sketchy, though we're told by sources at YouTube it should be cleared up soon). But if we take the total number of video views as accurate this means that only about 24% of visitors to his video-sharing web site are actually watching videos, while over 2 million people are visiting the channel but not watching any videos.
Second, it appears that there's a way to game the system. Last fall a social networking news site called Mashable published a post about "Gaming YouTube for Fun and Profit," in which they described how to artificially increase the number of video views on YouTube. Essentially, if you set your browser to auto-refresh a YouTube page (a Firefox extension does it), every time the browser refreshes the video has a new view added to it.
(To test this idea, Levy made a video of himself discussing the problem, uploaded it to YouTube, and set his browser to auto-refresh every ten seconds for 12 hours. The strategy yielded 1200 views).
Third, Levy notes the Obama channel's unusually small number of viewers compared to subscribers. See his post for the cagey response from YouTube.
If gaming is indeed at play, it wouldn't be a first for Web 2.0, nor would it be all that surprising. Elliot Schrage, Google VP of Global Communications, recently predicted the advent of political spyware in this year's election and wondered whether people will attempt to track candidates using GIS chips in their cell phones. As David Weinberg of Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet and Society put it to me today: "Anything that you can imagine happening online, eventually, probably will."
Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility has posted a draft of a proposal by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to eviscerate the Endangered Species Act. The proposed changes would accomplish administratively much of what the Bush Administration may have hoped to push through Congress before the Republicans were ousted in November. The 117-page document is likely the brainchild of Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne, who, Salon writes, "has been an outspoken critic of the act.
The proposed draft is littered with language lifted directly from both Kempthorne's 1998 legislation as well as from a contentious bill by former Rep. Richard Pombo, R-Calif. (which was also shot down by Congress). It's "a wish list of regulations that the administration and its industry allies have been talking about for years," says [Kieran] Suckling [of the Center for Biological Diversity]. . . .
One change would significantly limit the number of species eligible for endangered status. Currently, if a species is likely to become extinct in "the foreseeable future" -- a species-specific timeframe that can stretch up to 300 years -- it's a candidate for act protections. However, the new rules scale back that timeline to mean either 20 years or 10 generations (the agency can choose which timeline). For certain species with long life spans, such as killer whales, grizzly bears or wolves, two decades isn't even one generation. So even if they might be in danger of extinction, they would not make the endangered species list because they'd be unlikely to die out in two decades. . .
Perhaps the most significant proposed change gives state governors the opportunity and funding to take over virtually every aspect of the act from the federal government. This includes not only the right to create species-recovery plans and the power to veto the reintroduction of endangered species within state boundaries, but even the authority to determine what plants and animals get protection. For plants and animals in Western states, that's bad news: State politicians throughout the region howled in opposition to the reintroduction of the Mexican gray wolf into Arizona and the Northern Rockies wolf into Yellowstone National Park.
By last week, as MoJo blogger Jen Phillips wrote about here, Interior had already launched a salvo against the ESA, announcing a proposal to stop protecting species based on their historical range and use their current range instead. That would mean that if a species of salmon is extinct in nine of 10 streams, but doing fine in the 10th stream, then the Fish and Wildlife Service would see no problem.
When I met with the folks at Earthjustice last week, we discussed what attacking the ESA might do to Bush's already-weak political capital. It's an interesting question. The move would probably hurt Bush with the nation at large, but endear him to his base, or at least certain parts of his base, like ranchers and developers. But it could also exacerbate a split in other parts of his base, such as between conservative evangelicals and those who are now embracing "creation care." Looks like that's gamble Bush is willing to make.
A staffer with the environmental public interest law firm, Earthjustice, has seen a draft of the Supreme Court's latest guidance on wetlands development and tells me "it will be confusing as hell." That's probably bad news for some 20 million acres of the nation's wetlands--20 percent of the total--which in 2003 were opened to development by the Bush Administration. The court's guidance might lead to more protections, but it could very likely open the floodgates even wider to developers. This is what we know:
One group of four judges led by Justice Antonin Scalia wants to protect--and I'm quoting Earthjustice's paraphrase here--"continuously flowing waterways and waters with a continuously flowing connection to navigable waters." That could rule out some 60 percent of America's wetlands, Earthjustice estimates. The other judges, led by Justice Anthony Kennedy, are proposing a "significant nexus test," which would be broader, and would require that protected wetlands be connected to navigable waters in some way that might be chemical, physical or biological. But he hasn't specified how the nexus would be measured, which might leave the Bush EPA with a lot of leeway.
What all of this means, in short, is that saving America's wetlands will probably fall to Congress, where next month Democrats plan to introduce a bill called the Clean Water Authority Restoration Act, which languished last year under the Republicans. It would restore wetland protections to the way they were before a 2001 Supreme Court gave Bush's Army Corps of Engineers an excuse to dramatically scale back protections. The question, of course, is whether Bush will veto it.
Back in 2003, you might recall, Bush planned to gut wetland protections in the Clean Water Act, but pulled back after meeting with the NRA, Ducks Unlimited and Pheasants Forever. Since then, the alliance between hunters and greens has only strengthened as sportsmen have seen their stomping grounds ravaged by oil drilling in the mountain west. So in my view a Bush veto is somewhat unlikely. Look at it this way: it pays to have people with guns on your side.