Obama Stumbles into Social Media

by Chris Kenton on May 2, 2007

The netroots are on fire this morning after a major theatrical event in the world of social media and politics. As I’ve said many times, politics is the most important analog to business when it comes to social media evolution. What is happening there is a vision of the future for social media in business. And this debacle with Obama is an object lesson.

The story is that some time ago an Obama fan set up a MySpace site devoted to the presidential candidate and his campaign. He secured the MySpace Url www.myspace.com/barackobama, and started building a clearly labeled "unofficial" site for the campaign. Obviously the Obama brand has some legs, and the site started to build a large network of MySpace friends. Eventually the campaign connected with the grassroots fan, and made some requests of him to fix up the site, edit some content and nix some of the "friends" in the MySpace network that might be embarassing to the campaign. The site owner agreed, and thus started a closer working relationship between the site owner and the campaign. Such a close working relationship, in fact, that it quickly became a second demanding job to keep up with the growth of the site and the campaign’s momentum.

140,000 MySpace friends later, the campaign started getting nervous about having such a prominent outpost on the Web run by someone not associated with the campaign. And they started seeing greater value for the site as MySpace began creating more political content and promotions to spotlight MySpace members like Obama and Hillary. So dialog began between the two parties about how to transition control of the site to the campaign. A lot of he-said, she-said arises now, but the apparent picture is that the campaign asked the site owner for a price to take over the site, and he asked for $39,000, plus a cut of advertising revenue from the traffic he had built. Up to now, this was all work he done as a fan, but it was a substantial amount of work–and in the world of high-priced campaigns, building a social network of 140,000 isn’t trivial, even if Obama has a lot pull-through.

The campaign allegedly responded without a counter-offer–only the claim that they didn’t have any money. Hard to believe given their record campaign contributions, and somewhat odd since they had asked for a price. What followed became an ugly use of power. The campaign decided they could take control without payment, simply by pressuring MySpace and claiming that someone was squatting on a URL they had the rights to–the URL after all was ~/barackobama . So MySpace blocked access to the site’s creater, and handed it over the Obama campaign, no questions asked.

Now it is a PR and social media nightmare for Obama. Much of his support in the blogosphere is screaming foul, and comparing the campaign’s tactics to Karl Rove’s–not a kind comparison for a liberal Democrat.

You can read more about the whole debacle here. Suffice it to say, whatever the site was worth, the PR problem would certainly have been worth $39k to avoid, and points out one more shining example of how the fundamentals have changed. This is precisely the kind of tactic that social media has evolved to spotlight and spread like the Bubonic Plague. And it’s incredibly ironic that the campaign was not able to see the obvious consequences–it wasn’t only the kind of strong-arming that lights a fire in the world of social media, it was carried out *in* the social media environment. Talk about stepping on a rake…

Take note, businesses. These kinds of PR crises can be avoided. 

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Curmudgeon May 2, 2007 at 12:31 pm

An interesting story! I think this ‘campaign’ year [which is, as we know much longer than twelve months], is going to be quite a year for ‘candidates stumbling around the social networks’; just as they continue to stumble around the internet in general.

As this story foretells, I think we’re in for a lot of hamfisted responses to relatively trivial incidents – look no further than the Anti-Hillary/Apple Ad Tweak.

I’m wondering if this might be the year when someone asks: “So, just who owns YOUR social network?”

adampasz May 3, 2007 at 8:23 am

It doesn’t sound like we’re getting the whole story here. Maybe the guy was negotiating on the level, and maybe he wasn’t, but the bottom line is he took Obama’s name and identity and used it for his personal advantage. If he didn’t have a contract with the campaign, the amount of work he put into the site is irrelevant. The guy was cyber-squatting, and probably violating My Space’s terms of service. Maybe somebody on the Obama campaign just got fed up. P.R. is one thing — and you can certainly fault the Obama campaign for not spinning this correctly — but do you really want a president who would let himself get pushed around by some dweeb?

Chris May 25, 2007 at 3:52 pm

As far as the public story went, which the Obama campaign didn’t dispute, the guy started out as a cyber-squatter, but when the Obama campaign finally realized the value of the myspace account, he cooperated with them in bringing the content in line with their wishes. For whatever reason, the Obama campaign continued that relationship for quite some time, keeping it at arms length and letting the guy operate it with oversite. It was apparently the success of the site that led to the negotiations to take the site over. The campaign instructed the guy to make an offer, and then aborted the negotiations when that offer came in rather than counter offer, and started to use the MySpace terms of service to take the site over. That’s the part that annoys me. If they didn’t like the offer, they should have countered and negotiated. But that’s neither here nor there in terms of PR and Social Media. Whatever their strategy–whether dubious or above board–they carried it out in a way that became a media crisis. That doesn’t bode well for the maturity of their campaign.

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