Pharyngula

YearlyKos wrapup

I’ve been off at the big meeting, and it’s been a long and tiring weekend in Las Vegas. It’s been strange, too: we’re surrounded by slot machines and show girls, and our crowd hardly notices them; I took a moment to step outside, and I had to tell my wife, “the sunshine…it hurts…” and we went back in. We were intense, nerdly aliens in a neon world.

It was a good weekend, though. I’ll dump a few of my impressions below the fold.

  • Blogophiles are a diverse bunch. Every age from teenagers to geezers was represented, some were in t-shirts, others in suits. Whatever your stereotype of the rabid left might be, forget it: there are people you’d never imagine being Kossacks here.
  • Ask not where all the women bloggers are, because they’re doing a lot of the heavy lifting at Daily Kos. Meeting face to face, you learn quickly that not all those people with gender-neutral handles are fueled by testosterone.
  • Perhaps the sole common feature is the laptop. They’re everywhere. People are plopping down wherever and typing away. Wireless coverage wasn’t bad, but with this many net addicts in place, I think the capacity was overwhelmed, and sometimes access was uselessly slow.
  • Oh, another similarity: people were enthusiastic questioners, but terrible at asking questions. Even the most lightly attended session would trigger lines of people at the microphones, waiting their turn to ask a question…and often, when people got up there, it was like they were writing a blog entry rather than asking something. They’d ramble on with their opinions before saying something anyone on the panel could address. It drove me nuts. People, good questions go right to the point; they are not exercises in showing off.
  • Mark Warner‘s party was teh awesome. Packed full with people having a good time, and so many stations for food and drink that you never had to wait in line for a Blogarita. Best of all: free sushi. Infinite quantities of free sushi.
  • Warner has more virtues than the ability to throw a good party, though. His talk the next day was excellent, and he hit all the points I care about: he spoke strongly in favor of science and education and healthcare and the obligation to take care of the least advantaged as well as the wealthy, he definitely understands the importance of technology, and he was very much against the war. I’ll definitely be looking deeper into his vita when the election gets nearer.
  • Speaking of candidates, Wes Clark and Tom Vilsack get brownie points for participating in panel discussions (science and education, respectively, and they earn more points from me for their choice of panels). I guess I like that they didn’t put on the rockstar aura, but seemed more like people ready to get together and work towards a goal with us lesser beings. Bill Richardson should perhaps get even more credit for just showing up and sticking up a hand-lettered sign, but I unfortunately missed the session with him.
  • Howard Dean is a rockstar. His keynote drew more than one standing ovation with his passion and his clearly stated goals. He shoulda been president.
  • Rockstar bloggers? Not so much. Those big name bloggers who came were not so interesting as the breadth of the networkers here. Markos asked in one of his many appearances on the projection screens if we were getting tired of him…and, nothing personal and nothing against him at all, I was. It’s actually too bad the conference is called “Yearly Kos” rather than something more universal, like “Netroots” or whatever.
  • I think the session I found most informative was the one organized by Teacher Ken on education, that had Jamie Vollmer and Tom Vilsack as speakers. Good passionate arguments about how to reform the public schools that do not involve destroying them first are good to hear.
  • I think the food they served at the keynote dinner and the blogger’s brunch was commissioned by the right wing: piles of bacon, eggs benedict, cheese, rich desserts, etc.—we’re all gonna die.
  • I’ve met lots of people: Barbara O’Brien (who wasn’t too mad about my criticisms),
    LBBP,
    Skippy (who gave me an official Skippy T-shirt!),
    Lindsay,
    and of course, DarkSyde. Most of my contacts were too brief, though—a few words, then you bounce off into the mob again.

I’m going to presume way too much and make some suggestions for the next Yearly Kos (will there be a next one? Oh, yes, there must be a next one, which will be even bigger and more essential.) I have no complaints about the organizers—it went incredibly smoothly all the way and at every point, which is impressive work for an all-volunteer group—but of course it could be made better.

  • After seeing some of the other panels, I wasn’t entirely satisfied with the science panel—too general, not practical enough, and the time was unevenly distributed. Next time, how about a science panel that focuses on a set of hot science issues and tries to get across to an audience of activists a set of sound bites and short working explanations to communicate the scientific position? This would be the kind of stuff that would arm attendees with practical responses when confronted with a creationist or a global warming or HIV skeptic.
  • In conversations with others, we discovered that there were more than just bloggers there, and they were neglected. How about a roundtable for lurkers and commenters, and one for blog widows and widowers? Or even a panel: put those guys up front, and have the bloggers sit in the audience and listen to them. (I’ll even volunteer my wife to work for a blog widows session.)
  • I know we’re a bunch of nerds, but scientists are even bigger nerds, and when we have conferences at places like this, the schedule always has one large block of time each day with nothing scheduled. Yearly Kos had stuff throughout the day, with smaller, scattered blocks of free time. Consolidate! Tighten the schedules and enforce them! It’s better for schmoozing or escaping to a show.
  • Superstar panels are boring and do not promote the netroots. Duncan + Jane + John + Markos = celebrity wanking. Duncan plus, for instance, a lesser known set of economics bloggers would have helped introduce new (to me) blogs and would grow the field. If Yearly Kos wants to use these high-profile bloggers well, give them a panel and tell them to recruit three other bloggers they think are up-and-coming and interesting, and put them into a themed discussion of their choice.
  • Badges must be better. These are people who have never met and know each other only by an online handle, and the badges all had our names in too-small type in a field of white space, and we’re all wandering around squinting. Make ‘em BIG. Color code them so we know who has a blog we might have heard of, who is a commenter whose name we might recognize, and who is a lurker (so we know to engage them and tell them to speak up more.
  • Where was the message board? At other conferences I’ve been to, there is often a big board or even a set of mailboxes for informal networking. You know, notices like, “Graduates of the Jones lab—meet at the entrance at 5 for dinner,” or “Oregon Alumni meet & greet in the lobby, noon!” This is a wired group, so it would have been even easier to put up something on the web for casual announcements. It would have been a better way to connect up than wandering around squinting at badges.