Leaving Las Vegas: Notes on YearlyKos 2006

Leaving Las Vegas: Notes on YearlyKos 2006

BY Micah L. Sifry | Monday, June 12 2006

Congratulations are in order to Gina Cooper and her team of volunteers, as well as Markos Moulitsas and his various lieutenants, for putting together what will undoubtedly be remembered as the first major netroots political convention--but not the last. There is something happening here, though what it is still isn't exactly clear. Here are my notes and observations:

1. YearlyKos was definitely different from every other political gathering I've been to; though it was not nearly as much about lateral conversation and networking as I would have liked. I was impressed that Markos didn't insist on controlling every panel; can you imagine the leader of a major labor union or environmental group allowing his activist-members to organize an official conference without wanting control of every aspect of the day?
On the other hand, with the exception of the workshops and caucuses, all the sessions were pretty top-down, with the audience relegated to lining up at banks of microphones hoping to get a word in. For a technology-savvy group, this was hardly innovative or inclusive. And many of the speakers largely agreed with each other, which made for some fairly dull sessions.

2. The "blogosphere" wasn't in Las Vegas, yet too many people talked like it was. I don't know whether this is the fault of the Big Media in attendance or the Kossacks, but it seemed really presumptuous whenever anyone referred to the gathering as representing the blogosphere. One thousand Kossacks does not equal forty million bloggers. DailyKos and its satellite sister sites like MyDD.com, FireDogLake, and Swing State Project may draw millions of page views a month, but they are not the entire political blogosphere--not even the entire liberal political blogosphere (especially when you consider that sites like TalkingPointsMemo, Democratic Underground, Alternet, and TalkLeft weren't represented, as far as I know, at the event, let alone other hubs for political conversation online).

3. DailyKos is THE incubator for some very sophisticated theory and practice on how one builds and sustains a political community online. The site not only attracts about a half million daily unique visitors, it has about 90,000 registered users. On any given day, Kos diarists post about 250,000 words, of which only about 2,000 are written by Markos. Regardless of your political slant, it's worth paying very close attention to what people like Markos, Chris Bowers, Matt Stoller, and site editors like SusanG, Hunter and McJoan say about the care and feeding of the blog. Here are some highlights, most of them taken from the "Meta Kos" panel, which was my favorite of the whole weekend:

-"The blogosphere and DailyKos are more than media buzz centers. This is a developing community that has a real heart to it. Understanding the 'meta' is not navel-gazing, it's about building further community, understanding the social norms, adding humanity. A real way to be connected at an emotional level helps strengthen political action." (Bowers)

-"We can encourage talent, even if we can't pay for it," said SusanG on her invention of the practice of "diary rescue," whereby she and other site editors read the hundreds of diaries that are posted on the site every day and write up a detailed summary of the best ones, to guide some attention their way. "People come to DailyKos for recognition," she said, acknowledging the most important reward in open-source practice. "I look for originality, research and humor," she said, sounding exactly like a magazine editor scouring the manuscripts that come in over the transom. "The ideal is everybody gets an audience."

-"This is a new town hall--which we don't have at the local level anymore. In a community like this, we can't know everyone either, but we're all interested in the same thing, which is to get stuff done....We need to continue to find ways for the cream to rise to the top. It's tough to pull things out of the big orange rabbit hole." (Hunter)

-Markos has a rule of ten: "Ten percent of the people who look at the site register; ten percent of those comment, and ten percent of those write a diary."

4. There's an inherent tension between between political hacks and idealists that cuts across the liberal blogosphere represented at YearlyKos. For example, near the end of my stay at the conference, I asked a bunch of top bloggers, including Bowers and Stoller, if they "believed in spin," which I defined as "manipulating the facts to market a message to an audience." Bowers essentially said that any blogger who didn't write honestly, in their authentic voice, would lose credibility. Stoller admitted that it was "a difficult question," noting that the political discourse was already so sick that spin was needed to fight back. Tim Tagaris, who is now working for the Ned Lamont campaign, said "I wish we lived in a no spin zone," but also said "it's certainly necessary." Matt deBergalis of ActBlue said, "If it's a technique that works and persuades people, and it's them that's doing it and we aren't, I don't want to fall on my sword. Spin yes, lies no."
You could see this tension play out in the varied responses to Mark Warner's expensive bash, which I blogged about previously. A lot of attendees appeared a bit non-plussed by the extravagance on display, prompting Dave Johnson to write a post claiming the party was "brilliant," which Markos then highlighted on his home page. The extensive comments that followed show just how differently Kossacks view the prospect of being wooed with free champagne and sushi. Some see it as a sign they've arrived; others fear (rightly, I think) that they are being corrupted and co-opted. As the 2008 presidential contest heats up among Democrats, and as more politicians in general try to woo this corner of the political blogosphere, I expect to see a lot more rancor surfacing on DailyKos--far more than appeared in 2002-03.

5. One of the beauties of DailyKos is that it contains multitudes. And because so many people are participating in it, it makes sense to stay on the site and play in their sandbox, even if you aren't in the majority on an issue. Thus, , for example, today, you can find a fascinating post from leading labor blogger Nathan Newman, who complains that the labor movement sent many top people to YearlyKos and helped subsidize the event, and the labor biggies were miffed that none of their sessions drew more than forty attendees. He criticizes the Kossacks for not valuing organized labor more, and his diary entry was recommended and got hundreds of fervent comments. Markos's defense of the Warner party got hundreds of comments, few of them aligned with his sentiments. As long as the site remains this fluid and open, with Markos and his site editors doing their best to share attention with lots of different voices, this centripetal force should continue to hold it together.

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