AUSTIN, Texas—By Sunday morning, most of the speakers and bloggers attending the Netroots Nation convention had gone home. In preparation for the convention’s final key note—a plenary on "eco-equality"—volunteers in the convention center’s gaping main exhibit hall distributed leaflets against various outrages ("No Forced Vaccination" or "Put Impeachment Back on the Table.") Ed Madej, a digital cartographer who blogs on the Daily Kos under the name Ed in Montana, sat alone at one of the tables blanketed with such fliers, checking weather maps on his laptop for any possible disturbances on his way home to Helena.
Under jumbo screens featuring freeze-framed poses of panelists talking about "marketing and monetizing your blog" or taking "online engagement to offline activism," or Howard Dean lecturing in an open-collared shirt and tan jacket, Madej offered his own impression of this year’s convention.
"The first YearlyKos, it was like ‘Holy Heck, we can actually organize ourselves, this is astonishing,’" said Madej, 55, using the convention’s original name. "The second year, the candidates came and we realized we had a voice in picking the nominee." This third year, he said, had a less rollicking mood, as the bloggers, now "cautiously optimistic" that Barack Obama would win the White House, began to contemplate the burden of power. As Madej put it, "How do we govern with a Democratic majority?"
This year’s convention marked the maturation of the Netroots. Their national convention between July 17 and 20 felt more like an assembly of middle-management professionals – say, dentists or data-entry technicians—than the science-fiction forum of years past, in which activists with names like OrangeClouds reveled in their collective role as thorn in the left flank of the Democratic Party. (It should be noted that OrangeClouds, who blogs about food issues, did attend again, and managed to extract an admission from Al Gore that he eats too much meat.)
The convention attracted its share of marquee names. D.N.C. chair Howard Dean, a beloved founding father, delivered an opening keynote address and Gore, who was sustained by the Netroots support in the rough years after the 2000 election, made a surprise appearance, plugging his book, Web site and bi-partisan anti-global warming commission. House speaker Nancy Pelosi, who is unpopular with many of the bloggers because they hold her partially responsible for Congress’ inability to end the war in Iraq, sat for an uncomfortable question-and-answer session on Saturday morning in which she essentially blamed Senate Democrats for the party’s legislative shortcomings and promised that everything would be just fine if they just elected Obama. The bloggers in the crowd were asked to act like grown-ups and limit their grievance-airing to an allotted ten-second boo-hiss session before Pelosi took the stage.
"Are we going to be nice to Nancy this morning or are we going to tell her what we really think?" one blogger asked his table before she came on. Like most everyone else he politely listened to Pelosi’s remarks. (Even the anti-war Code Pink protesters, dressed up in superhero costumes with the words "Use Your Super Powers to End the War" written on their capes, were mostly quiet.)
But the main question in the days leading up to the conference was how attendees would react to Obama, who has irked the liberal bloggers with what they perceive as his centrist creep. Again, the media build-up – despite assurances beforehand from conference-goers that they really like Obama—turned out to have been vastly overdone.
Obama’s deputy campaign manager, Steve Hildebrand, was treated like a hero, with people waiting to shake his hand after a panel discussion.
Obama himself sent in a lengthy video address, in which he recognized differences in opinion on government wiretapping, but called on the bloggers to help build a "progressive movement for years to come" and rallied the attendees to concentrate their writing to the greater cause of beating John McCain in the general election. "I’m asking for your help in the fight that lies ahead," he said.
Hardly anybody refused.
The bloggers were content to focus on their workshops and panels, including "Taking the Populist Uprising to the States," "Insanely Useful Tools You Can Use to Keep Track of Congress and State Lawmakers" and "Time for Acton: How the Netroots Can Lead on Health Care Reform." They ate their lunches out of cardboard clamshells and debated whether Obama’s site was sufficiently democratic and whether they had any real impact in determining his policy platform.
At night, they also partied.
On Friday evening, the bloggers, immediately identifiable by the orange straps hanging from their necks, crowded into Champions, the bar in the lobby of the Marriott Courtyard, for a post-panel game of trivia. A man in a Phillies baseball cap acted as the M.C. and announced into a microphone the next round’s topic: "Who’s the Boss?"
"Woohoo!" was the reaction of one blogger seated in front of a bowl of nachos.
But knowledge about Angela, Danza, Mona and Alyssa would prove useless in the Netroots version of the game.
"Question one," said the man in the Phillies cap. "Who is the chairman of the House Franking Committee?"
The man in front of the nachos groaned.
Other questions included: Who is the boss of the Senate Select Committee on Aging? Who is the governor of Delaware? The mayor of Pittsburgh? Name the executive director of Emily’s List. Who is the president of the Communications Workers of America? (This prompted approving screams of "union" from a table in the corner where bloggers drank beer under a signed Nolan Ryan Astros jersey.)
As the teams filled in their answers, waiters and waitresses wearing their own orange shirts ("The two most important sports in Texas are Football and Football") delivered more ales to the bloggers, some of whom surreptitiously stole glances at their i-Phones for clues. Other bloggers stood off to the side, going about the more standard convention business of flirting with colleagues.
"I’m in the MSM of the blogosphere," said one man in glasses to a girl who leaned against the wall with a beer in her hand.
The M.C. asked for a ten-second countdown and the teams raced up to the front of the bar with their answer sheets. Looking at one of the pieces of paper, he made a Gore joke. "This card is folded," he said. "I can’t count it."
The bloggers chuckled. They had learned to laugh even about the most hurtful topics.
Later, in a restaurant called Rio Grande, The Nation magazine held a small gathering in a backroom. To make introductions more entertaining, Ari Melber, who covers the Netroots for the publication, asked people to say who they were and then who they wished they were. Over sips of salt-rimmed margaritas, one guest said she wanted to be either Arianna Huffington or Oprah. Another blogger said he wanted to be John McCain’s teleprompter. "I’m Greg Bloom and the answer is the same since I’ve been a kid. Spiderman." Zephyr Teachout, the former director of online organizing for the Dean campaign, said she’d like to be with Jeff Goldblum but be James Agee. The entrance of the New Yorker’s Hendrik Hertzberg, dressed in a white jean shirt and white jean pants, prompted a different question from Melber. "Favorite New Yorker cover." Topical!
Hertzberg ignored that question and said he’d like to be Hoagy Carmichael.
Introductions gave way to serious discussions. The hot topic among several bloggers and net activists was what Obama could do with the enormous network and database
of supporters his campaign had amassed once he became president. Could he legally send emails to those supporters from his office? Would he have to cede the list to the DNC? Could local organizers get their hands on the data to help elect state senators, public advocates, community board members? Would he hoard it all to himself or was he serious about building a lasting Democratic majority? And if the Democrats built and nourished their army of activists, where would the competition come from, the right or corporate America, who had their own massive e-mail lists and marketing savvy?
As Nation staffers sought to collect $10 from each of the guests to cover the $400 of drinks and chips consumed, some of the guests walked over to an upscale barbeque restaurant called Lamberts to a "BBQ and Booze" party thrown by GQ Magazine and the Huffington Post. GQ covers of JFK, LBJ and Obama hung on the walls. Chefs dressed in sauce-stained white aprons fed a steady stream of pulled pork sandwiches, deviled eggs and baby ribs to the guests, who spilled outside or climbed the stairs, where a DJ played records and waitress served more of the same food and poured more of the same top-shelf alcohol and imported beers.
Samantha Power, Obama’s former foreign policy adviser, made an appearance. Jonathan Tasini, who mounted a protest challenge to Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primary for Senate in 2006, danced next to the steps. A bunch of guys wore shirts that said "Crawford" to advertise their movie, which they had shown at the convention and which told the story of the administration from the point of view of people living in the president’s home town. The editor of the film, Matt Naylor, 24, said he hoped showing it here would create enough buzz for it to get onto HBO or Showtime. The Netroots Nation was now a place to get a movie optioned.
After getting their fill of brisket sliders, some of the bloggers headed downtown to the party thrown by the movement’s patriarch, Markos Moulitsas Zuniga, whose Daily Kos blog is the touchstone of the blogging left. They walked away from the expensive restaurants, past the homeless black men sleeping in front of a building with the sign "State of Texas General Land Office, No Trespassing" on the window and towards 6th street, once a farm-to-market road that now was the ATM-lined main artery of Austin night life.
The bloggers, orange straps still hanging around their necks, walked past the young women in short shorts and wet-suit-tight short skirts in front of the Thirsty Nickel. They avoided the stumbling white frat boys with their collars lopsidedly popped and the black guys in tank tops revving motorcycles. On a block with a food stand called "The Best Wurst," a souvenir store called "Midnight Cowboy Modeling and Oriental Massage," and a tattoo parlor where the sound of ink drills could be heard above the din, was Maggie Mae’s, the site of the Kos party. Inside, a video of Bill O’Reilly’s "Fuck It, We’re Doing It Live" freakout played in a loop. Bowls of sour cream, guacamole and salsa sat on a table around a sombrero filled with chips and guests drank free beer and margaritas.
Upstairs, a conga line formed behind a man playing a washboard on his chest, and snaked around Arjun Jaikumar, a contributing editor to Daily Kos, and Katherine Haenschen, an Austin-based blogger. Jaikumar, sipping form a can of Corona, wore a Hillary Clinton t-shirt, and joked that he wanted to wear it to see if he "would get any dirty looks."
On Saturday night, the last night of the convention, after the Obama video was played, the Netroots Nation executive director, Gina Cooper, called the convention the "best ever" and said "I am inspired by you." Then she announced that she would be moving on and that next year’s convention would be held in Pittsburgh. The following morning, as Madej checked his laptop for troublesome weather systems, he said he wasn’t sure if it would be worth attending the next convention.
"Pittsburgh’s my home town and I’ve been avoiding it for 25 years," he said. "It would take a lot of gumption."