WASHINGTON – 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 raises questions about the campaigns' desire to control their message versus the power of voter-generated material, especially for a candidate such as Obama who has sparked unsolicited excitement on the Web.
For the past 2 1/2 years, the Obama MySpace page has been run by an Obama supporter from Los Angeles named Joe Anthony. 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.
Anthony referred The Associated Press to his MySpace blog, where he has written that he is heartbroken that the Obama campaign was "bullying" him out of the page he built. He said the candidate has lost his vote.
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 the campaign 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 has sparked 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.
The campaign said it doesn't think its donors would appreciate it spending contributions on Anthony's fee when it could use that money to pay for a couple of organizers in Iowa, for example. Part of those organizers' jobs would be to collect valuable contact information of supporters.
The Obama campaign paid $65,000 for a list of voter contact information from the South Carolina Democratic Party. That information is considered more valuable because it includes names and addresses of 300,000 people who voted in the last presidential primary in an important early state.
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.
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