"They took it ... they just took it from me."
That was how Joe Anthony described what happened this week when the campaign of Democratic presidential hopeful Barack
Obama took control of the unofficial MySpace page Anthony set up in Obama's name in November 2004.
Granted, though clearly labeled as unofficial, the site has the valuable URL www.MySpace.com/barackobama and when the Obama camp approached Anthony in March to discuss working with them, the conversations were initially cordial.
But in an interview with MTV News — one of only two he's given this week — Anthony described how things quickly fell apart and he was left on the sidelines as the Obama campaign took over the site he estimates he spent five to 10 hours a day building up.
"After [asking] my consent [to turn over the page], they originally threatened to delete the profile, but they did say that they needed my consent for MySpace to take the profile from me. I said in clear language ... [that] MySpace does not have my consent to take this profile," Anthony explained on Wednesday. "And of course they did it, and that's why we're here. It's not about the money, it's not about anything else. They took this profile without my consent."
The situation has grown so contentious that Obama personally tried to smooth things over late on Wednesday, according to CBS.
Anthony, who works as a paralegal in Los Angeles, said he had been maintaining the site on his own since 2004, building it up to the point where it had 100,000 friends and incubating a lively debate about all things Obama. He began working with the campaign in March, but the relationship grew rocky and when, according to him, MySpace began having Obama's profile randomly pop up as a "Cool New Person" last month. The number of friends jumped to 160,000 within a matter of weeks, drastically increasing Anthony's workload.
"We'd previously spoke about an agreement, and at that time there was no money involved — I wasn't asking for any money," Anthony said. "[But] our relationship started to go south because of it — namely because they did this [deal] with MySpace without even telling me or warning me. And even when I asked them about it they weren't too straightforward with me."
So one night, at the peak of his frustration, Anthony said he e-mailed the campaign and said he couldn't continue working on the site unless he was paid. "Not because I wanted money, but [because] I had a full-time job and I have a very active life and this took over all of that," he explained. "It was affecting my job, my ability to focus on my work. I had no personal life. You know, it seemed absolutely reasonable."
"The campaign should be in charge of that and that's cool. They suggested the one-time fee [but] at that point I didn't want to just turn the profile over to them. I didn't agree with their approach and I just didn't feel comfortable turning it over to them just for nothing ... I just didn't feel they were appreciating my work and really didn't understand what was happening in this community."
In a lengthy response on the official Obama page's blog, the campaign's head of new media, Joe Rospars, explained Wednesday night that the dust-up is partly due to the speed with which the online presence for the senator from Illinois has developed.
"Our campaign started quickly," he wrote. "People around here say this has been like building an airplane in mid-air, having already taken off. This is especially true of the new-media operation."
Rospars said the campaign decided to take a leap of faith and combine the campaign's official outreach with "organic" grassroots efforts such as Anthony's, and invited him to work with the campaign. He said Anthony handed over his password and an exchange of content began, including a vetting of everything on the site to make sure everyone contacting the MySpace account got an official response.
Talks began to "formalize" Anthony's arrangement and, in the meantime, MySpace launched the "New Friend" campaign on its own, with the Obama camp allowing the traffic to be directed to Anthony's site because there was no other official Obama MySpace presence. Anthony was offered a full-time position with the campaign, according to Rospars, but he preferred to continue as a part-time volunteer with help from the campaign to make sure the site followed official campaigning rules.
According to Rospars, when the number of friends began to skyrocket, Anthony changed his password and did not share it with the campaign, which made Obama's staff "uncomfortable." When asked what was needed to restore access, Rospars said Anthony sent an "itemized financial request."
Though he said he was not comfortable with the one-time proposal, Anthony said he took a long walk and arrived at what he thought would be a "reasonable" fee, around $39,000 for the time and effort he'd put into the site to date, plus an additional $10,000 for the amount he'd paid to maintain the site since 2004. A meeting to discuss the transfer was postponed several times and then on Monday of this week, Anthony said he was told that there was no money to cut the deal — even though the Obama campaign has publicly announced that it raised in excess of $25 million in the first quarter of 2007 and has paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to campaign consultants to date.
"Of course it surprises me," Anthony said of the campaign's plea of poverty. "I really thought we were going to work it out ... it's largely symbolic [because] I don't need the money. ... They knew that I was working on this profile this whole time ... on a voluntary basis and I was happy to do it. ... They could've stepped in at any time early on [and] started their own profile. They knew about it since 2004 and they never did anything about it, never contacted me until it started getting all of this media coverage and people started talking about Obama reaching out to the netroots community."
When asked to respond to Anthony's account, the Obama campaign deferred to the Rospars posting as its official statement.
Because, according to Rospars, MySpace rules state that public figures have the right to their own name, the Obama campaign asked MySpace for the URL to ensure that any official correspondence came from a new profile they created.
On Wednesday, Anthony said the current deal with the campaign would return his profile and 160,000 friends to him at a URL of his choosing — which he wasn't pleased about because the campaign is currently using the MySpace URL to redirect traffic to the official Obama site. "I think it's wrong and I'm not happy with this," said Anthony, adding that he denies Web chatter that he was a cybersquatter.
"Barack Obama is public domain ... he's a political figure. And there's nothing on the terms of service that would prevent that. It's a fan site. Everybody recognized that and the entire time I had a disclaimer that disclosed that ... this was a community and I just kind of manage the profile. Eventually they came to me with questions ... I answered every one of these questions for two and a half years, and I think it's that personal attention to the page that built it into what it is today, and the campaign just doesn't understand that. The only people that do [understand] are in the community, and that's why they're standing up for me now."
The many comments to Rospars' letter on the Obama site are mixed in terms of their support for Anthony, but Rospars said the whole situation is part of the learning curve.
"At the end of the day, this is all new for everyone — this Joe, that Joe, and everyone participating or commenting on it," Rospars wrote. "We're flying by the seat of our pants, and establishing new ways of doing things every day. We're going to try new things, and sometimes it's going to work, and sometimes it's not going to work. That's the cost and that's the risk of experimenting."