MySpace, YourSpace and Politics 2.0

(cross-posted from my Globe and Mail blog)

Politicians love to show how hip and “with it” they are, by using all those cool Interweb tools like MySpace and Facebook, uploading their videos to YouTube, and even inviting bloggers onto their campaign tours, as John Edwards did with uber-blogger Robert Scoble (although Edwards had a somewhat less pleasant experience involving two bloggers he hired to work for him, who got roasted by conservative Catholics for things they had written on their personal blogs).

snipshot_e4188ixfjpuf.jpgBut it seems that at least some of the cogs in the traditional political machine in both Canada and the U.S. didn’t get the memo about the new openness and being part of the “conversation.” The Ontario government has reportedly blocked Facebook from all of its employees, arguing that the social nature of the site isn’t appropriate for staff when they are at work — in the same way that employers used to remove Minesweeper from PCs because they thought people would spend all day playing it. Now lots of places block web-based email for the same reason, or “entertainment”-related websites.

Meanwhile, south of the border, the Barack Obama campaign is currently embroiled in a battle with a former Obama supporter over the presidential hopeful’s MySpace site. A 29-year-old paralegal named Joe Anthony set up the page in 2004 as a personal project, and managed to build it up to the point where the U.S. senator had over 160,000 MySpace “friends” — more than all of the other candidates combined.

According to Anthony’s version of events, the Obama campaign machine made it clear they wanted to start running the site, and although he tried to remain involved (and by his own admission asked about potential compensation for the unpaid work he had put into it) the site was eventually taken over by Obama and he was blocked from having access. He says:

“The campaign got involved in February and although at first it was very exciting, it quickly became clear that they just had no interest in me or my involvement. They only wanted to take control of the profile and get on with it… they quickly went from passive aggressive, to aggressive, and then eventually just rotten and dishonest.”

In addition to not making friends with Anthony due to their approach, Obama’s campaign also lost about 90 per cent of the “friends” they had built up on MySpace, dropping to about 12,000 from 160,000. And hundreds of commenters on Anthony’s blog — and their own blogs — said they had lost faith in the presidential candidate, or that they were convinced he was “all hype and no substance.” Not great marketing, needless to say.

There’s more on the story — including some response from the Obama campaign about why they did it — at TechPresident.com, where Micah Sifry was the first to get the full story. An Obama campaign worker has also posted a long discussion of the events on the candidate’s official website.

In an update on Wednesday, Anthony said that he had received a phone called from Barack Obama, and that

“I assured him that this is just a horrible thing that happened and obviously he wasn’t responsible and shouldn’t be held responsible. It’s his campaign that perhaps mismanaged this whole thing. He of course stands by his campaign, but again. . . much to be learned by all.”

In the end, he said, “It’s not right what they did to me and this profile, but it’s also wrong to let this change your views of Barack Obama as a candidate.” Problem solved? Perhaps. But Barack Obama likely won’t be the last candidate to get a rude awakening from social networks like MySpace and Facebook. They aren’t just platforms for marketing spin and electioneering — that whole “two-way conversation” thing is for real, and it can bite you in a tender place if you’re not careful.

Update:

Micah Sifry at TechPresident.com has a great follow-up post in which he tries to get to the bottom of how much work Joe Anthony put into the Obama MySpace pages, and what that might be worth — and therefore whether Anthony was justified in asking for a little monetary consideration (reportedly $39,000).

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