The Obama campaign, which has previously done an impressive job courting the netroots and using online social networking to its advantage, may have screwed the pooch with MySpace. It’s an amateurish mistake, by which I mean it’s precisely the sort of error you’d expect from a highly professional organization trying to deal with intelligent, well-organized amateurs.

The campaign’s MySpace presence began with an unoffical page by a Los Angeles paralegal who launched it after Obama was elected to the Senate, a page that got tens of thousands of “friends.” The Obama presidential campaign got involved, and the page became essentially a volunteer effort getting guidance from the campaign (steering it around FEC regulations, sharing content). In March MySpace promoted the page, and it got up to 160,000 friends, according to techPresident.

The article says Joe Anthony, who started the page and was devoting his mornings, evenings, and lunch breaks to it, requested payment. The campaign offered to buy it off him, he asked for $39,000 plus a cut of any fees paid to MySpace, and the campaign went to MySpace and effectively had him kicked off the page he started.

So who’s in the right? Damned if I know. Anthony cites the fee as recompense for all the time he’s spent on the page since January 1. That’s 123 days ago. Assuming an average of six hours a day at $50 an hour, I get $36,900. If I’m at least in the ballpark about his hours, $39,000 isn’t totally insane, particularly as a kick-off to negotiations. It’s also in the realm as fees paid to consultants for skills that are much harder to quantify, such as the $15,000 a month that went to feminist writer Naomi Wolf for her work on framing Al Gore’s campaign. She’s a famous person, but . . . so what? That’s old-media thinking.

TechPresident goes overboard by calling the list “160,000 rabid activists,” which makes me a bit skeptical about the article generally. Hell, I belong to a Facebook group called “I support Saxby Chambliss in everyway,” a Facebook group of unclear seriousness for the conservative Georgia senator, because I think it’s funny. I’m also part of the official Obama campaign’s social networking site, not because I’ve made up my mind on the senator but because I wanted to poke around and see how it worked. People join these things for different reasons. Who knows how many of those 160,000 are actually useful to the campaign?

I can see where MySpace would want to dissuade cybersquatters — people who stake a claim to URLs for the sole purpose of squeezing money out of celebrities — so I don’t fault the company in this. But the campaign screwed up by first treating Anthony as part of the team and then branding him as a cybersquatter (which he was, having taken the URL, even if his heart was in the right place) because they didn’t want to pony up $40K.

We’re in somewhat uncharted ethical territory here, which means the most important response will come from the court of public opinion. The story’s already on DailyKos, MyDD, and Atrios, with words like “cheap” and “hostility” being applied to the campaign, though some commenters are making the arguably valid point that Anthony originally did it for the love and that’s what he should get for it.

Because there’s no ethical framework in place for this sort of transaction, it’s going to have to be measured on the open market, and we’ll just have to see if they’ve done $40,000 worth of damage by pissing off — fairly or not — three of the biggest left-wing blog communities, with perhaps more to come.