Netroots Nation recap

I know it’s been a week since I got back from Netroots Nation, so this is a rather belated report, but I have a good excuse. I was on the road for 4 weeks before NrN, and it’s taken me a little while to get caught up again.

Netroots Nation was awesome. It’ll be in Las Vegas next year, and should be even better. It’ll be the 5th year, returning to the scene of the first convention, back when it was called YearlyKos. They put on a great conference, and it’s a great time. Next year it’s the weekend before my birthday, which should be extra-fun.

This year was more subdued than last year, reflecting the greater difficulty of governing compared to campaigning. We could all be excited about the possibilities of a Democratic White House and large Democratic majorities in the Congress. There were more people than last year, but I think because of the more compact meeting area, it felt smaller.

There was also less science content. The closest it came to science other than my panel was a lot of sessions on climate change. Nothing on H1N1 flu, nothing on space, nothing on open access and technology policy, even. The biggest focus was on healthcare reform, and a lot of attention was paid to beating back the birthers and the deathers and the screamers at town hall meetings.

That’s all well and good, but I worry that that focus was too immediate. It made sense for Organizing for America to be setting up calling parties to help activate the grassroots in key states, but one panel shifted its focus from digging through the funding streams of right-wing activists to a panel on how to beat the screamers. One hopes that the screamers won’t matter once congress is back in session, and Netroots Nation could have prepared a lot of people to be better at responding to – and defusing – the next iteration of that attack.

It was great seeing Amanda Marcotte and Lindsay Beyerstein, and seeing how blogging has evolved over the years. Lindsay, for instance, started blogging as a philosopher with an interest in primatology, and is now an award-winning investigative journalist and photojournalist. She ran a session on investigative techniques alongside a journalism professor and the founder of TheSmokingGun.com.

It’s a remarkable shift, and one that is not uncommon at Netroots Nation. Duncan Black is a former economics professor who now blogs full-time and works for Media Matters for America, a media watchdog. I started as a bored biology grad student, and am now hobnobbing with DC policymakers and top scientists for NCSE. Bora Zivkovic started blogging as a bored grad student also, and is now the glue binding together the science blogosphere, a macher at Public Library of Science, and founder of an awesome series of conferences on science in the online world. Heck, when we started blogging, PLoS was just a dream, and now it gets as many headline-grabbing articles as anyone else, and is poised to revolutionize scientific publishing, especially by integrating the interactive features of blogs into the scientific publication itself.

I’ve seen various people noodling about whether the blogosphere has changed in the last few years. Since TfK just had its 5th blogiversary, it’s a fair time to take that question up, and it’s a theme I’ll return to tomorrow. For now, I’ll just say that the increasing professionalization of blogs has affected Netroots Nation to a degree, but because the professional bloggers don’t come from a homogeneous background, the change is not in any obvious direction. It wasn’t an election year, so we didn’t have bigshot candidates palling around with attendees, as happened in 2007, but we saw the first debate of the 2010 Senate races, got to ask questions of Valerie Jarrett, among the President’s closest advisors, and got to hear from Bill Clinton shortly after his return from North Korea.

The blogosphere is coming to be its own establishment, calcifying in some ways. That may be good, and it may be bad, but I think it strengthens Netroots Nation as an event. It means that serious people, people bloggers want to hear from – and those they ought to hear from – are willing to attend and to participate in the discussion. And slowly, we may just force other cultures to change in response, opening up the workings of legislatures, the courts, and the executive agencies at the federal and state levels. So long as Netroots Nation keeps that focus it will remain a powerful and necessary part of our democracy.

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