When harmony is better than unison

Could Barack Obama have lived without 'ownership' of his MySpace page?

Have you noticed we're in the middle of a presidential election campaign? Never mind that we're also in the middle of a presidential term. It's that relentless quadrennial rhythm of the US presidential system: every four years, every four years. We can't pretend it sneaks up on us. If you've got a perpetual calendar you can figure out the date of the election for the year 2564, for instance – assuming the Republic lasts that long, as I fervently wish.

The result of this schedule all planned out in advance is campaigns that last longer than the average government in some places – Italy comes to mind.

This may be just fine with the pundit class, but the rest of us may wonder at this point: What do we have to fill the time but words and hot air?

I take that back. It's too early to be so cynical.

But words – slogans, messages, sometimes whole speeches, memorable sound bites – are the unsung foot soldiers of a campaign. Sometimes a well-turned phrase scores a victory like an eager sergeant scrambling up a hill to plant a flag on its summit. Remember Walter Mondale's query to Gary Hart in 1984: "Where's the beef?"

The political conversation takes different forms in successive political cycles. Over the past few cycles we've had a conjunction of politics, language, and technology. The blogosphere came into its own in 2004 – remember convention bloggers at the Democratic National Convention in Boston?

Now we're well into the MySpace era of political campaigns.

The poster child for the clash of campaigns and reality is Joseph Anthony, a Californian who, the day after the 2004 election, started promoting the idea of a presidential bid by Sen. Barack Obama (D) of Illinois. He set up a page about Obama on MySpace, the social-networking website, and soon had 160,000 "friends" signed up.

This was too wonderful for the Obama campaign to resist.

As Michael Kranish reported last month in The Boston Globe, "His campaign decided Anthony's page was too valuable to leave to an outsider and got MySpace to hand over the Web address. After initially suggesting it would pay him for his work, Anthony said, the campaign withdrew the offer, and the dispute became so heated that Obama called him last week. The Illinois senator expressed appreciation for the work, Anthony said, but explained that he had to stand by the decision of his aides."

Obama's is not the first campaign, nor will it be the last, to insist on control of the message. Campaigns want to have it both ways – they like the Internet's promise of grass-roots engagement, but they want to have the last word.

To be fair, a campaign could find itself with uncontrollable supporters it didn't seek. There's an old saw about there being nothing so embarrassing as an ally who's on your side for the wrong reasons.

But by intervening with MySpace, the Obama campaign ensured that the story about Mr. Anthony's fan page would be less about the 160,000 "friends" it drew and more about the $39,000 he wasn't paid.

A reader's comment on the Slashdot website nails it for me: "I think Obama could have lived without 'ownership' of the MySpace page, and thus resisted all headlines about his spending, or lack thereof. The page was in competent hands, and the campaign could still manipulate people using the page (they had full access)."

Harmony is a richer sound than unison. A jury will be persuaded better by several witnesses whose testimony meshes, even though each has a distinct perspective and slightly different details, than by witnesses whose stories line up so perfectly that they suggest a conspiracy.

Similarly, a campaign of supporters, each making the case for the candidate in his or her own voice, will be more persuasive than one in which everyone in the campaign stays relentlessly on message – the same message, expressed in the exact same words.

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