Last week, top-down campaigning collided with bottom-up netroots organizing when Barack Obama’s web team wrested control of an unofficial Obama MySpace page from its diligent proprietor. The power play resulted in the loss of 160,000 MySpace friends for the presidential candidate and one very disillusioned organizer. Twenty-nine-year-old Obama enthusiast Joe Anthony, a Los Angeles paralegal, created MySpace.com/BarackObama long before Obama’s presidential bid began, and maintained it—with the campaign’s knowledge and encouragement, he says—for more than two years. But as Obama’s popularity grew, so did his MySpace profile, and as the page neared 200,000 members, the campaign became increasingly uneasy about having an unknown volunteer in charge of a significant outreach project. The clash illuminates what will likely be a recurring tension between campaigns and their unpaid supporters in the 2008 election cycle as presidential candidates strive to harness the power of the net.
The Obama campaign says it had no choice but to take control of Anthony’s profile when it became apparent that the Los Angeles paralegal was after “a big payday”; Anthony acknowledges that, when the campaign asked him to turn the profile over, he asked for $39,000. The campaign also says the profile contained misinformation about Obama, a claim Anthony disputes.
Anthony spoke with Mother Jones about how campaigns can effectively take advantage of supporter-generated communities without suppressing voter-rallying enthusiasts, his disappointment with the campaign’s handling of the MySpace meltdown, and why he thinks Edwards “gets it a little bit more.”
Mother Jones: Did you ever envision that this page would get so huge?
Joe Anthony: Never. Even before the campaign got involved, it kept exceeding my expectations. When it crossed 1,000 friends, I thought that was so cool. When it crossed 10,000, I thought it was amazing. And then it started picking up more and more.
MJ: Did you ever think the Obama campaign would try to take control of the site?
JA: Not at first. I thought we were just working together and that they just wanted to make sure everything was accurate. They really didn’t do much on the page.
MJ: How long did you have a working relationship with the Obama campaign?
JA: It wasn’t for very long, maybe two months. I was never an official volunteer. I gave them the password a couple of times, but I changed the password every couple of days, for security reasons.
MJ: Do you think the campaign had plans to take control of the page from the beginning?
JA: I think they were trying to make their decision as they went along. At first they were passive, then they were passive aggressive, then aggressive. They threatened to delete the profile. I told them it was a stupid idea and that there were 160,000 people on the page and a lot of my hard work.
MJ: There is a lot buzz around Obama’s web campaign. People think his is the most innovative because it provides supporters with the tools to organize and then more or less gives them free reign. What do you think about this?
JA: I think it’s probably why they wanted the profile. Long before the campaign even got involved, I read blogs and news articles that said it was so great how Obama’s campaign was reaching out to places like MySpace and that it was the reason he was gathering so much support from young people. But it wasn’t the campaign. It was volunteers, people like me. And when this page started getting so big and started getting media attention, that is when they wanted it.
I think that if I hadn’t gone public, nobody ever would’ve known that I had anything to do with it. People would have thought that it was an official profile the whole time. That is dishonest. And I think it sends a more powerful message anyway that it wasn’t organized by the campaign — that it was netroots.
MJ: Which candidate is the most innovative in using online tools?
JA: I really kept a close eye on the other candidates’ MySpace profiles. I think maybe John Edwards gets it a little bit more. Early on, he took advantage of third-party widgets like Twitter. Edwards would send messages like, “getting on the plane, long day,” something like that. And that’s really cool. It’s a way for the supporters to relate to the candidate. I had firsthand contact with all these supporters for two and a half years. They were always making suggestions like that, and I implemented them whenever I could.
Hillary Clinton started an official MySpace profile. There was already an unofficial Hillary page. I was aware of this one, because it was always the second biggest unofficial page. I kept an eye on it. The campaign started an official page, but left up the unofficial page and then linked them to each other. It looks like it worked out really well for both of them. That is a very positive alternative. I would have been grateful to do that.
MJ: Zephyr Teachout, a member of Dean’s web team in ’04, wrote on techPresident.com about “centers of gravity” — supporters who generate communities. She said that a campaign legally could either have complete control over the volunteers or no contact at all. How do you think campaigns should handle “centers of gravity”?
JA: They should be left alone. The idea of an official MySpace page profile is ridiculous, anyway. They know it’s not Barack Obama working on it.
MJ: When did you ask for compensation?
JA: Literally by February and March, it had taken over my life. I enjoyed doing it very much and I knew that it was helping, but I have a full-time job. When they decided that they wanted to take over the profile, I decided that since from the very beginning, they had nothing to do with it, if they wanted to take it over from me, that if this was to become an official profile I should be paid. I should be paid.
MJ: Generally speaking, do you think volunteers should be compensated in some way?
JA: No. If I were to continue doing this on my own, I would never have asked to be compensated. I did this for 2.5 years. I obviously didn’t do it for the money.
MJ: What’s happening with the profile?
JA: I deleted it. There were a lot of suggestions as to what I should do with it. In the end, I thought it best to start over. There were 140,000 people left and nobody was going to agree. I invited some of them to join my personal profile and 2,000 of them did in one day. I might start something new, but it is not going to endorse a single candidate.
MJ: Do you see more of this happening down the road as campaigns and supporters struggle to find their way in the new universe?
JA: That is one of the positive things that came out of this. The situation has started a broader debate about the clash of netroots and political campaigning. Maybe it will set some sort of precedent in the future and these things will work a little more smoothly.