I had the honor of speaking at last weekend's Yearly Kos blog conference in Las Vegas, on a panel about foreign policy panel and online activism with Arianna and other writers, so I'd like to share my thoughts on the conference and the netroots. Looking over the recent coverage, it's clear that covering the conference has been challenging for journalists and bloggers alike. Reporters are supposed to avoid becoming part of the story, but that is virtually impossible at an event that often focused on media criticism and invited journalists on stage to discuss their craft. Most bloggers believe in disclosing conflicts of interest, but the entire act of analyzing the conference presents a conflict -- at least for bloggers who hope Yearly Kos will further empower Democratic activists online. (Count me in.)
On top of that, Yearly Kos was complicated because it was basically a gathering of writers who often write about each other: bloggers critiquing reporters; reporters covering the blogosphere; bloggers analyzing politicians; politicians courting (and blogging about) the netroots; and of course, bloggers writing about bloggers. It may sound chaotically incestuous. Sometimes it was, with insiders interviewing each other about each other. The New York Times picked up on this theme, observing that while bloggers may think they are rebels, the success of Yearly Kos showed they are becoming "part of the American establishment."
Yet even if that is happening, it is not business as usual. Many of the activists are new insiders who got noticed more for ideas and attitude than connections. The top bloggers also have an ongoing dialogue with thousands of people, providing an instant, public reality check through online comments. (Typical political insiders do not face such accountability once they enter pundit orbit.) As Salon's Peter Daou emphasized this weekend, they can cross-pollinate with the media without being coopted, because "the blogosphere is a new power base, a stand-alone entity with its own ethos."
Sterling Newberry, a business consultant, writer and blogger at BOPNews, told me the conference's blogger-reporter discussions are one example of a broader phenomenon: the blurring of the line between consumers and producers in our economy. He argues that as technology enables people to generate their own content - be it writing, images, music or movies - they cease to be defined solely as consumers. The recent success of user-generated sites like MySpace and YouTube show this trend beyond political blogs. (By providing profile pages created by millions of its consumers, MySpace broke into the top ten most popular sites on the Internet this year, which are mostly top-down content providers like Yahoo!, MSN and MapQuest. MySpace is also the top social networking site, according to Nielsen/NetRatings, followed by Blogger.)
The evolution is simply happening faster in politics because the netroots have an immediate impact on politicians and reporters, while most consumers don't have that kind of impact on companies. I think that influence stems from the netroots triple threat: issue advocacy, voters and money. All three were on display.
THE TRIPLE THREAT
Many reporters covering Yearly Kos asked about netroots "endorsements," but that's not what politicians want most from bloggers. They want the triple threat deployed on their side, usually starting with issues advocacy. As Senator Harry Reid said in his keynote address on Saturday, one of the things that impressed him most about the Internet was the power and impact of bloggers "to spread information" and foster a "revolution in communications." He credited the blogosphere with successfully advanced messages to defend Social Security and expose the administration's lies in outing CIA agent Valarie Plame.
Mark Warner, the former Virginia Governor and potential presidential candidate, came to the conference for voters - and not only the roughly one thousand voters in attendance. He recognizes that bloggers influence many more people, including millions of rank and file Democrats who don't regularly read blogs, but are receptive to advocacy for a more aggressive, confrontational party across all 50 states. What happens in Vegas may stay in Vegas, but what happens on the top blogs rarely stays there. Chris Bowers, a MyDD blogger who has polled and studied the netroots, provided a great example during a survey presentation this weekend. He declared that Senator Joe Lieberman is currently learning exactly how bloggers can influence the broader Democratic electorate, as he faces a mounting primary challenge from businessman Ned Lamont.
The seeds of that challenge were planted years ago by a handful of bloggers, including Connecticut activist Keith Crane, who created DumpJoe.com to highlight Lieberman's shortcomings and recruit a primary challenger. Bloggers bird-dogged Lieberman's unique ability to step up for President Bush when he needed it most, from parroting fanciful talking points about progress in Iraq to undermining Democratic efforts to stop extreme Supreme Court nominees. Nevertheless, in 2005 Lieberman still "laugh[ed] off talk of a challenge," according to the New York Times. The netroots changed that in a hurry; today Lieberman is in a close race. The most recent independent poll found the three-term incumbent's lead cut nearly in half, which the Hartford Courant described as a "dramatic tightening" that shows Democrats increasingly see Lamont "as a credible challenger." The Lieberman campaign is trying to catch up with this reality. In addition to running personal attack ads, Lieberman campaign manager Sean Smith recently assured me that the "Republican President and Congress have the country headed in the wrong direction, and Senator Lieberman is as angry and as frustrated as Connecticut voters are." Judging by the number of Lamont stickers dotting the convention halls in Las Vegas, Yearly Kos attendees are not buying it. They see Lieberman as a disloyal enabler of President Bush's policies; they will keep making that case across the country and in Connecticut.
Then there is the money, of course. It first poured in during the 2004 presidential campaign, but grassroots donations online have changed races large and small. Kerry raised $57 million through netroots donations in 2004, compared to Bush's $9 million online, while hundreds of thousands of dollars can dramatically alter congressional races. Jon Tester's primary victory in Montanna was a hot topic at Yearly Kos; his campaign received donations from the "Netroots Candidates" page at ActBlue, which has raised $200,000 overall.
Throughout the weekend, the blogger who lent his name to the conference championed the attendees' power more than his own. But on Sunday he passed yet another insider power threshold. Markos Moulitsas appeared on Meet The Press - the most coveted, Beltway bully pulpit - to explain the netroots. As Markos is the first to acknowledge, his writing and ideas got him far, but the netroots community took DailyKos to the next level. And this weekend's gathering helped put more faces on the netroots' triple threat, which apparently caught Tim Russert's attention more than any online commentary.
YearlyKos was a success for helping the mainstream media see hundreds of bloggers as real people for perhaps the first time, just as many of the bloggers were meeting one another for the first time. Now the question is whether the bloggers and activists will be even more effective as they get to know one another better.
Click here to see this entire piece in The Nation.
Click here for Kos' take on conference coverage.