Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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July 21, 2008
By: Kevin Drum

NETROOTS NATION....Responding to this post from last week, reader VT emails with a question about Netroots Nation:

"Nothing especially bloggable?" — I note almost no comments anywhere on blogs about the substance of this weekend's conference. What to make of this? Was it a lackluster event? It would be helpful to hear your overview.

Obviously tastes differ, but I'm inclined to say that I probably wouldn't go again. Partly this is just because I'm not much of a convention person. The best part of Netroots Nation was the opportunity to meet lots of people in the flesh for the first time, but those opportunities mostly came in two varieties: (a) quick 5-minute conversations between sessions, which don't do much for me, and (b) after hours in watering holes, which are a problem because my hearing isn't good enough to follow most conversations in noisy bars. I'm pretty sure, for example, that Garance Franke-Ruta must now think I'm some kind of weird semi-sociopath, but the truth is that I could hardly make out a word she said during our short bar conversation Saturday evening, which is why I probably looked so blank the whole time.

Now, this is obviously not the fault of Netroots Nation. On the program side of things, however, there's a built-in problem with NN: the panelists are almost all bloggers whose blogs I read every day. So I know what they think already. And sure enough, in person they say pretty much the same things they say on their blogs, which can get a little dull. (This includes me, of course, although I gather that at least a few people were intrigued to hear actual bad words come out of my mouth during the obscenity panel.)

Sometimes this works out OK regardless, but as a steady diet it doesn't. My recommendation, then, would be to mix things up: have some panels, but also have some expert sessions: have Tanta do an hourlong session explaining the basics of the subprime crisis, Marty Lederman do a primer on FISA, Mike O'Hare do a session on carbon taxes vs. cap-and-trade, etc. There are plenty of common blog topics that it would be nice to get a solid grounding on from someone who's both knowledgable and a straight shooter.

In addition, David Roberts suggests that the sessions need to "generate some heat. Have some panels that aren't just four or five people sharing the same perspective." Obviously there's no reason to deliberately create a Crossfire-style atmosphere, but yes: hearing different takes on subjects would liven things up. There's not much point in having a panel if all of the panelists are saying the same thing. (Though Ezra Klein may disagree.)

So that's my take. It was fun to meet people, but the sessions tended to be a little too predictable and little too echo chambery for my taste. But your mileage may vary, so comments are open if any other attendees have something to add to this.

Kevin Drum 9:06 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (41)

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Blogger experts (i.e. experts on some particular subject, not experts at blogging) really ought to make hour long primer videos on important topics. There should then be a site, somewhat like Bloggingheads, where all these would be collected. I think that would be an immensely valuable thing.

Posted by: Bryan on July 21, 2008 at 9:17 PM | PERMALINK


I'm a long time reader and fan, and I have just one thing to say: get the damn hearing aids (they're now called Personal Hearing Devices, or PHDs). I resisted for a long time, and I know just what you're talking about when you say that you feel left out in noisy environments. The new PHDs do a remarkable job of amplifying the frequencies your hearing is not detecting and filtering out the background noise. I wish I had gotten mine years ago. They're not perfect by any means, but I'm in lot more conversations today because of them.


Don Freeman

Posted by: Don Freeman on July 21, 2008 at 9:53 PM | PERMALINK

Why was my comment removed? It seemed polite and on point. Kevin, or moderators, would you please explain?

Posted by: jerry on July 21, 2008 at 10:09 PM | PERMALINK

It sounded like a crashing bore from the git-go, but I wouldn't mind catching some blues and BBQ in Austin. I imagine that hanging with a bunch of bloggers would be like going to a Walkman dance - everyone would be so tuned into their own vibes they might as well not even be in the same room.

Posted by: The Conservative Deflator on July 21, 2008 at 10:19 PM | PERMALINK

I just got home to NJ from Netroots Nation. It was the first one that I've gone to. (I've been reading blogs since 2002). I too was disappointed with the panels. I read a lot of these bloggers every day, including you Kevin, going back to Calpundit days. There are too many people up on the platform. I'd like to limit sessions to 2 participants. This way there can be more back and forth conversation. Four or six people mean too many disjointed statements. I don't see the point of a debate. I get that from reading comments on the blogs. I read the blogs because I'm interested in what the bloggers say. I'd like to hear them in person and I think a conversation will bring out even more information. I saw you on the fuck panel and in the audience at Ezra Klein's panel.

The keynotes were excellent and worth the price of admission though the room left a lot to be desired but I guess if you want 2000 people in the room there aren't many other options. The session introducing the Netroots candidates was interesting as well.

Seeing Wes Clark, Howard Dean, Kos, Harold Ford, Don Siegelman with Sam Seder, Nancy Pelosi, Al Gore, Donna Edwards, Gavin Newsom and Van Jones was positively illuminating. Newsom and Jones on Sunday was sparsely attended compared to the others, but their environmental message was very important. Go to http://greenforall.org/ for information.

I have the same hearing problem as you do and don't do too many conversations and am not interested in going out to a bar after all the sessions. I want to be alert for the next day's sessions.

A tutorial session on certain topics sounds interesting to me.

Overall I had a great time and have already signed up for the Pittsburgh session in August 2009.

Posted by: mm on July 21, 2008 at 10:21 PM | PERMALINK

Maybe the netroots should gather not in some tourist destination but in the near vicinity of public policy being debated by policy-makers. Like, say, the first week of a congressional session, as the right-wing talk-show hosts did in January 1995. For after-hours fun and games, there are plenty of bars in D.C.

Posted by: allbetsareoff on July 21, 2008 at 10:21 PM | PERMALINK

So was Lockhart the highlight of the trip?
Maybe it was to damn hot in Austin.

Posted by: mikeel on July 21, 2008 at 10:40 PM | PERMALINK

How could I forget Lawrence Lessig's speech and also the Digby/Perlstein/Krugman/Atrios panel?

I say again that the trip is well worthwhile.

Posted by: mm on July 21, 2008 at 10:52 PM | PERMALINK

Every time I hear GFR speak I am surprised anew by how much "ya, really!" there is in her voice.

Posted by: MNPundit on July 21, 2008 at 11:30 PM | PERMALINK

Obviously tastes differ, but I'm inclined to say that I probably wouldn't go again.

It sounded like a waste of time when I read about it in your first pre-conference blog post on it.

What we need is more substantive activism, like in the '60s, not a bunch of bloggers sitting around at a conference talking about what they don't like about being a big, famous blogger.

You don't need to get some of our smartest people flown out to sit in a room together to know that the mainstream media sucks. We all know it already. We don't need Atrios and Kevin Drum sitting in a room saying it to each other's faces for us to understand it. What we need are people planning to do things about it and actually doing things about it, like activism to debunk Fox and MSM that reaches more people than those who are already on the blogs.

Posted by: Swan on July 21, 2008 at 11:38 PM | PERMALINK

Everyone in this country is waiting for the next guy to make the first move. Some of us, like me, are limited to being able to just make suggestions on blogs, so it's painful to see other people who can do a lot more just waiting for someone else to fix things.

Counting on people to just stop listening to the conservatives is a bif "if," and even in the extremely unlikely circumstances that they collectively lost interest in controlling our society so closely for a while, we have to be ready to seize the reins before they develop an interest again. Without any rein-seizing, a small window of freedom is going to be almost useless.

Posted by: Swan on July 21, 2008 at 11:42 PM | PERMALINK

Counting on people to just stop listening to the conservatives is a bif "if,"

Should be "a big 'if.'"

Posted by: Swan on July 21, 2008 at 11:44 PM | PERMALINK

Maybe a skeptical, contrarian left-liberal should have driven from Dallas.

But, having been booted from both Kos and a small group blog for exactly those reasons, Kevin. I'll tell you that most people probably wouldn't want somebody like me down there taking the occasional, or not so occasional, crap in the punchbowl.

That’s the bottom line on why I didn’t make a three-hour drive.

To quote the other blog-banner, who was down there, … “feh.”

I also think there might a pretentiousness factor down there, too, and everybody who's not on the Liberal Fortune 500 top bloggers list has b-list bloggers drooling.

In other words, Netroots Nation obliquely reminds me of the old Groucho Marx line about, "I wouldn't want to be a member of any club that wants me."

Yes, I'll post a link to my blog here time to time (and scatblogging every Friday), but even that's as much to be a contrarian at times; after all, that's the whole idea of scatblogging.

Posted by: SocraticGadfly on July 21, 2008 at 11:45 PM | PERMALINK

Kevin, if you'd read all the way through Roberts' post, to comments, you'd get this ironic zinger:

Why continue? Why would supposedly avant-garde people travel cumulative millions of miles, consume vast quantities of resources, and spew even vaster quantities of greenhouse gases that will remain in the atmosphere for centuries?

Wouldn't the NETroots be cooler if they led the way to using the NET as a viable meeting space? With so much cool and chic, surely there's a few rooters who could imagine surmounting the barriers of distance and using the technology to create meaningful sessions without the eco-damages.


Posted by: SocraticGadfly on July 21, 2008 at 11:54 PM | PERMALINK

Netroots. Is that the same group that Michelle Malkin calls the nutroots?

Posted by: Luther on July 21, 2008 at 11:56 PM | PERMALINK

Holy crap! If I'd known Gadfly wasn't going to be there I'd have walked from f@cking Manitoba.

Posted by: asthmatic barfly on July 22, 2008 at 12:03 AM | PERMALINK

Oops on my second post. Both the second and third longer grafs should have been italicized as that poster's actual comments.

Posted by: SocraticGadfly on July 22, 2008 at 12:05 AM | PERMALINK

Barfly.... would have been fun to see you dying from heatstroke about five miles south of my place.

Posted by: SocraticGadfly on July 22, 2008 at 12:07 AM | PERMALINK

In addition, David Roberts suggests that the sessions need to "generate some heat. Have some panels that aren't just four or five people sharing the same perspective."

This is not surprising. I find that people on the middle to extreme left do not want to really engage the intellectual arguments of their opponents. Much of the left builds its case by calling the other side, idiotic, inane, or stupid. I have met only a few lefties who ever really wanted to have a decent conversation with a man of the right. You can get confirmation of this just by looking at the American Universities. Very few conservative scholars are allowed to ruin the liberal love fest. I don't think this is done in a malicious manner. Its that all their lives they have gotten away with name calling and found enough people to agree with them. Its not done with evil intent, and its not the result of any coordinated conspiracy, its just sad.

Posted by: John Hansen on July 22, 2008 at 12:46 AM | PERMALINK

Kevin, I strongly second Don's hearing aid suggestion. Dad got one in his 50s, and it really renewed his enjoyment of a lot of life. As Don says, the modern ones do an amazing job of filtering unwanted noise to let you hear the stuff you want to.

Posted by: Bruce Baugh on July 22, 2008 at 12:49 AM | PERMALINK

It's some cold comfort if the conference is really interesting and informative for the people who attend but does not result in any nuts-and-bolts activism, which is what we need.

Posted by: Swan on July 22, 2008 at 1:09 AM | PERMALINK

I just flew in from Austin and man, are my arms tired!

Posted by: the wisdom of swan on July 22, 2008 at 1:11 AM | PERMALINK

Conferences are inherently nightmare conditions for introverts. After a big writers' conference I used to attend I'd always need a few days to recuperate.

Posted by: KathyF on July 22, 2008 at 3:29 AM | PERMALINK

I wasn't there but I really noticed that bloggers are so partisan they fail to get any decent political contributions out of our representatives. I mean, how can anyone get decent interviews from congressional Dems if the everyone is too busy fawning over their congress man or woman? But what is really bad is that this congress has done an abysmal job of standing up to any of Bush's criminal activities? I realized that TMP isn't actually news, it's merely a Democratic Party cheerleading team plus a Republican hate squad 24/7. Obama did this, McCain did that - all nit pick stuff. So we have these Netroot nation members follow along like loyal lapdogs. Its kind of disgusting and asinine watching the whole claptrap.

And just when the questions at the end of the panel start smoking and getting serious, the panel is quickly terminated - it's not like we, the people have any business in our government.

What is the objective of netroots nation? Is it a place where teenie boppers go to worship their Democratic politicians much like going to a rock-star concert?

Whatever it is, it's not to hold your politician accountable to the people. It's more like a Democratic Church Social. After watching the various videos, the play nice while they lie about FISA ALL OVER AGAIN, it really seems a disadvantageous fiasco. It's makes me wonder if this is how Obama is going to lose, bloggers get so protective, close off any dissenters, and dissenters go and find a third party represenative.

We could have impeached Bush over FISA, and we should have impeached him, because Bush has done far to many criminal acts to simply walk out the door like nothing happened. So I guess this Netroots Nation idea seems to be cerebrating at very solemn time. FISA is a very big wrong on this nation and it's people.

And the "Fuck" panel, please! Who thought of that? Broder is always mentioning those foul mouth liberal bloggers, so I guess somebody wanted give Broder something to complain about?

I can see why Kevin is going again. I can see why its no decent persons cup of tea.

Posted by: Me_again on July 22, 2008 at 3:41 AM | PERMALINK

er I mean,

I can see why Kevin isn't going again. I can see why its no decent persons cup of tea.

Posted by: on July 22, 2008 at 3:45 AM | PERMALINK

Kevin -

You've just described virtually every convention ever held. I've been to several hundred High Tech, Life Sciences and political conventions over the years and the number of truly interesting panels can probably be counted on two hands. If it's a topic or panel you are familiar with, odds are that you won't hear anything new since the vast majority of speakers just stay with their boiler plate presentation. The 5 minute "putting a face with a name" introductions and occasional after-hours connection is about as good as these meetings get.

The one suggestion I have is to avoid the panels in your area of expertise, go to sessions that you know nothing about the topic and maybe you will pick up something that you would not normally be exposed to.

Luckily I get to expense my trips. If people had to pay out of their own pocket the conference industry would have died a long time ago.

Posted by: The Other Ed on July 22, 2008 at 9:23 AM | PERMALINK

John Hansen wrote: "I have met only a few lefties who ever really wanted to have a decent conversation with a man of the right."

I have met only a few "men of the right" who were capable of engaging in "decent conversation", as opposed to slavishly regurgitating the lies, and inane, scripted talking points, and fake, phony pseudo-libertarian so-called "ideology" that are spoon-fed to them by Rush Limbaugh, Fox News, and the rest of the corporate-funded right-wing extremist propaganda machine.

And frankly, your comment is a fine example of the Gospel According To Rush Limbaugh: whining about poor, pitiful "conservative" victims oppressed by the Powerful Liberal Elites. It's weak-minded rubbish, and you shouldn't be surprised when it elicits derision in response.

Posted by: SecularAnimist on July 22, 2008 at 10:16 AM | PERMALINK

Hey there SocraticGadfly: so you live in Dallas, hunh? Me, too. I was a long-time Austin resident but moved to Dallas last fall (over Austin; needed to move closer to the family in Arkansas w/o, ya know, actually moving BACK to Arkansas). I noticed that in your comments earlier you referred to yourself as a "skeptical, contrarian left-liberal" and that in a comment last night on TPM you referred to yourself as "an atheist newspaper editor in suburban Dallas."

Good gracious, man. Do you live in one of the frighteningly Stepfordy places like Allen, Frisco, McKinney, etal, or one of the older, "decaying" 'burbs like Plano, Richardson, Carrollton, Farmer's Branch, etal?

If you live in any of those places AND you're a left-liberal atheist then it's no wonder you're also a contrarian. :)

Posted by: Catcher on July 22, 2008 at 10:21 AM | PERMALINK

Kevin, it's obvious! The highlight was our roadtrip to Lockheart!

Posted by: Blue Girl, Red State on July 22, 2008 at 11:16 AM | PERMALINK

What PHD's do best job of filtering? I've got ones that just seem to amplify everything. Mine are Opticons. Even with them in, bars, restaurants are very tough places. I have to concentrate so hard I'm mentally exhausted after a dinner date.

Posted by: Bookworm on July 22, 2008 at 11:32 AM | PERMALINK

Kevin, youneed to attend so we can spot you in the halls.

Posted by: Lindata on July 22, 2008 at 11:55 AM | PERMALINK

Conventions are just another way for extroverts to remind introverts who's really in charge.

Posted by: lampwick on July 22, 2008 at 11:57 AM | PERMALINK

So Kevin goes off to Netroots Nation and we all had to suffer Friday Catblogging withdrawal because he was too busy packing to take a picture of Inky and Domino prior to leaving.

And now he tells us he didn't enjoy the conference?

Posted by: optical weenie on July 22, 2008 at 12:02 PM | PERMALINK

Netroots or conservative moderate tools?

Posted by: on July 22, 2008 at 12:21 PM | PERMALINK

Hey KD,
Have you tried Acetyl l Carnitine/lipoic Acid for your hearing?
Check it out.
Scott in Calgary

Posted by: Can't Hurt Might Help on July 22, 2008 at 12:23 PM | PERMALINK

Hey KD,
Have you tried Acetyl l Carnitine/lipoic Acid for your hearing?
Check it out.
Scott in Calgary

Posted by: Can't Hurt Might Help on July 22, 2008 at 12:23 PM | PERMALINK

Geez, SA, do you ever read your own posts? Every one of them could be the product of one of those random message generators set on hate-everything-about-the-right. You're a bloody caricature of a liberal complaining about caricatures on the right.

Posted by: That's Rich on July 22, 2008 at 12:35 PM | PERMALINK

You take on NetrootsNation mirrors my feelings about dailykos in general nowadays. Very echo chambery, predictable and often in useful lacking expert analysis. Not to say there isn't some great analysis, but as dailykos' popularity rises, the percentage of insightful expert input has dropped off. I still browse the the frontpage everyday, and read posts by Kangro X, Darksyde, Devilstower, kos etc when they're telling me thinks they have expertise in. But more and more I use it as a news/blog aggregator and follow links away from dailykos, and I pretty much never waste my time in the flame wars or high-fives on the comment threads.

Posted by: kahner on July 22, 2008 at 12:40 PM | PERMALINK

I don't know if I'm hard of hearing, but I'm generally not interested in talking or listening in places where people have to yell, which seem to be a disturbingly high percentage of places where people congregate to talk and to listen. FTW.

Posted by: inkadu on July 22, 2008 at 3:30 PM | PERMALINK

I had a great time. The speakers were wonderful. I had trouble choosing between the panels. I've gone twice and will go to Pittsburg (if I can figure out how to afford it).

Agree about having a conversation in the bars, but that is true of any convention. And of course, like any other convention, the panels and breakout sessions are related to topics that the attendees want to hear.

I found my mind challenged.

Posted by: JWC on July 22, 2008 at 4:30 PM | PERMALINK

Am I the only person that thinks it would have been worth the trip to NN to hear bad words come out of Kevin's mouth? That's Man Bites Dog, that is.

Posted by: Doctor Jay on July 22, 2008 at 9:17 PM | PERMALINK
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