By JONATHAN TILOVE
August 14, 2008
c.2008 Newhouse News Service
(UNDATED) Patty has been one in a million for Barack Obama.
Since early this year, she’s made more than 76,000 phone calls on behalf of his presidential bid and posted more than 1,300 blog entries on my.barackobama.com. Along the way, she amassed more “points” than anyone else among the million folks registered on MyBO, as the campaign Web site is known.
Then, without warning, MyBO this month eliminated its system of ranking supporters by accumulated points. In its place was a new “activity tracker” rating each member’s activism on a scale of 1 to 10.
Though upset at first, Patty was OK with the change.
But not everyone on MyBO reacted with equanimity. Many, like Lisa Holmes _ an Obama precinct captain from Grapevine, Texas, who was ranked 359 _ felt their investment in the campaign had been looted overnight.
“People say it’s not about you, it’s about Barack,” Holmes said. “But it’s not. This is our campaign. We put him where he is. We invested in him.”
The dispute is the latest evidence of tension between the realities of a top-down campaign and the aspiration, at the same time, to be a bottom-up movement.
“Obama is the first candidate to use a social networking site and the first to find out about its downside and complications,” said Kevin Wallsten, a political scientist at Cal State Long Beach, who studies online politics.
And precisely because “Obama has blurred the line between who’s in the campaign and who’s not,” Wallsten said, disputes between MyBO’s management and its masses are nettlesome.
One of the more curious developments, increasingly clear since the primaries, is the level of dissent and sniping at Obama’s expense.
“You’d think the Obama site would be the most pro-Obama site on the Internet, but you can read plenty of bloggers who are far more pro-Obama,” Wallsten said.
Case in point: !(tilde)!tu amigo from King of Prussia, Pa., who joined 1,341 of the more than 15,000 affinity groups on MyBO and climbed to the No 2 spot under the old points system, second only to Patty.
On the dashboard of each MyBO member, just below his or her name, is a space to explain “Why I support Barack Obama.”
In ! ~ !tu amigo’s case, the answer is: “I no longer do … He has thoroughly disappointed me during the Presidential Race.”
! ~ !tu amigo confirmed his disenchantment in an exchange of e-mail. “I have realized he would not be able to handle leading a nation as strong and influential as the United States of America,” he wrote.
Under the new system, ! ~ !tu amigo’s ranking went from second to an “Activity Index” of 1, the lowest. This, as Chris Hughes wrote in an Aug. 7 post explaining the changes, is because the index “is time sensitive. The more work you’ve done recently, the higher the number will be.”
Hughes, 24, one of the founders of Facebook, has been described as the Obama campaign’s “online organizing guru.” In the Aug. 7 post, he gently chided those who had gamed the old system to climb to a higher MyBO perch.
“From the start, the emphasis was on quantifying an activist’s contribution to the campaign _ not on encouraging people to rack up points for the sake of racking up points,” he wrote. “For some people, this wasn’t always clear.”
Hughes “unrolled” the points system in a Aug. 27, 2007, post, “Introducing Points.”
“At the end of the day, earning points isn’t what this campaign is about,” he wrote. “You’ve made this campaign into a grassroots movement which is clearly hungry for change and ready to get involved in the political process on behalf of Barack Obama.”
But, he continued, “Adding a points system to My.BarackObama is just a simple way to measure the impact you are having day in and day out on the campaign. You deserve credit and recognition for your involvement and this is just one way to make it clearer how much you’re doing.”
The system drew a few skeptical comments at the time. “It reminds me of my twins’ Kindergarten. I think they get points every time they wash their hands,” wrote Petra from Tucson, Ariz.
Others chided Petra for being a killjoy and an old head, out of touch with the ways of luring Internet-savvy young people to activism.
So it is perhaps surprising that the uncrowned queen of MyBO turned out to be Patty, a woman of an age that doesn’t disclose its age, who prior to joining MyBO had never blogged or even Googled.
Patty _ she prefers to maintain her privacy by using only her first name _ moved to Daniel Island, S.C., from Long Island. She is disabled, meaning she had lots of time to volunteer. And since January, she said, she has been on the phone for Obama, calling voters from lists provided through MyBO and even taping an audio tutorial on phoning for the site.
“I have given a minimum of eight hours a day, seven days a week,” she said, resting only Easter Sunday when friends advised her that her obsessive activism might invite the wrath of God. “This has been the most incredible journey I’ve ever been on,” she said.
The demise of official recognition of her standing didn’t slow Patty’s dialing. But Hanna, a Berkeley, Calif., woman whose MyBO name is Fire is Born, was infuriated.
“I HAD OVER 4,000 POINTS AND WAS IN 580 PLACE!!!!!” she wrote on her MyBO blog. “GIVE ME MY POINTS BACK!!!! THEY DO NOT BELONG TO YOU!!!!!”
In lower-cased follow-up, she explained, “sorry if i seem distressed. i am. these things really matter in any community. this is called tradition. seen FIDDLER ON THE ROOF? tradition! this is not healthy for our community.”
Hanna described herself as a poor immigrant with a debilitating health condition, who shops at the dollar store so she can tithe 10 percent of her income to the campaign. She lives and breathes her support for Obama.
“When shopping in local supermarkets, I always make sure that Obama covers are moved to the most visible spot. I reverse backward all anti-Obama covers in sensationalist magazines,” she wrote.
Her MyBO points and ranking “were my compass and my map in this territory of political activism.”
Ditto Sharon, who wrote: “I’ve turned down paid employment opportunities in order to volunteer for the campaign. … And while I never knew exactly what the points meant, I love to challenge myself to get as high as possible (my best showing was 114th place). I’m sorry to see the point system go.”
“It really unmotivates you,” Lisa Holmes said of the change.
Holmes is a business owner and advocate for disabled veterans. Her hometown of Grapevine is a conservative, mostly white community near the Dallas-Fort Worth Airport. She didn’t get any extra points for having her lawn burned and “n-lover” scrawled on her mailbox, or for defending Obama through the Rev. Jeremiah Wright controversy.
“If Obama knew how much he hurt his original supporters, he would be mad as hell,” Holmes said.
After all, “He didn’t go to Harvard and fight his way to the top of his class and not care about his ranking, his standing. He’s a guy who likes to sit on pride rock,” she observed.
“You have to have someone with that kind of ego to do what you need to do to be elected president, and you need some people with ego to help you get there