Is MySpace always mine or can it belong to someone else? At the cost of losing 160,000 friends, Democrat Barack Obama's presidential campaign has taken over control of the MySpace page listed under his name on the popular social networking site.
The case highlights the struggle between campaigns' desire to control their message versus the power of voter-generated material. And it shows how one person - in this case Los Angeles paralegal Joe Anthony - can become an influence on presidential politics through the power of the Internet.
The dispute between the Obama campaign and Anthony, a one-time supporter who started the Obama MySpace page, became such a concern for the Illinois senator that he personally tried to smooth things over Wednesday night.
Campaign cooperation at first
Anthony felt he was mistreated by the campaign after he spent the past 2 1/2 years running the MySpace page as an enthusiastic volunteer. At first, that arrangement was fine with the Obama team, which worked with Anthony on the content, promoted the link and even had the password to make changes.
But as the site exploded in popularity in recent months, the campaign became concerned about an outsider controlling the content and responses going out under Obama's name. It told Anthony it wanted him to turn it over.
In this new frontier of online campaigning, it's hard to determine the value of 160,000 MySpace friends - about four times what any other official campaign MySpace page had amassed. But the Obama campaign decided they wouldn't pay $39,000, which is what Anthony said he proposed for his extensive work on the site, plus some additional fees up to $10,000.
MySpace reluctantly stepped in to settle the dispute and decided that Obama should have the rights to control http://www.myspace.com/barackobama as of Monday night. Anthony had the right to take all the friends who signed up while he was in control, and that includes the right to tell them how he feels about the Obama campaign - although he said he was still locked out of the page with his contacts as of Wednesday.
A personal call
Anthony wrote on his MySpace blog that he was heartbroken that the Obama campaign was "bullying" him out of the page he built. He initially said the candidate lost his vote, but Obama may have begun to win it back after a Wednesday evening phone call that Anthony called a great honor. Anthony said he was so nervous that he doesn't remember exactly what Obama said, but the candidate expressed his appreciation and they agreed everyone learned a lesson in this case.
"I assured him that this is just a horrible thing that happened and obviously he wasn't responsible," Anthony said in a blog post. "It'll take time for me to work this out and decide if I will personally continue to support Obama, regardless of how I feel about his campaign's handling of this situation."
Meanwhile, the Obama campaign was trying to rebuild his friends network from scratch and was up to more than 20,000 by Wednesday evening.
Joe Rospars, Obama's director of new media, wrote in a blog post that the campaign "decided to take a leap" in teaming up with an outside organizer on MySpace. He said the arrangement worked at first, but campaign officials became uncomfortable when Anthony changed the password to prevent them from working on the site and made his financial requests.
"We're going to try new things, and sometimes it's going to work, and sometimes it's not going to work," Rospars wrote. "That's the cost and that's the risk of experimenting."
The campaign's fight drew widespread criticism among leading liberal bloggers who question why they would treat a volunteer like Anthony with such disregard. But Obama has some online defenders who say volunteer work should remain that way and not be held up for payment.
Advocacy Inc. CEO Roger Alan Stone collects and sells contact information to Democratic campaigns, lawmakers and advocacy groups, but says he isn't working for any of the current White House candidates. He says e-mail addresses collected for such a cause can go for $1 each, so in that sense the price Anthony was asking was low.
But Stone comes down on the side of the Obama campaign in this dispute.
"As something that was done on a volunteer basis that you want to charge for after the fact, that is ridiculous," Stone said.