Netroots Nation was a blast. It’s great to meet and hang out with people you spend all year interacting with as names on emails and blog posts.
(As a side note, it’s been my experience that most people are more pleasant, interesting, and funny in "meatspace" than you would think from their online personas. I guess we should all remember that about people who drive us nuts on blogs and email — they’d probably be fun to hang with. NB: I’m a seriously happy drunk who loves everyone once I’ve got a few Jamesons in me, so this could be coloring my assessment. This is now the longest side note ever.)
Still, though, qua conference, it needs serious work. For one thing, the scheduling is completely opaque. There were large swaths of time when nothing interesting at all was happening, and then five panels at once I wanted to see. (And I’m not just saying that because my panel got scheduled against Paul Krugman and Atrios!)
Also, there was no place — at least no well-advertised place — for people to coordinate events outside the conference itself. So we had a party at the same time EDF had a party at the same time Alternet had a party. Maybe if we’d all known in advance, we could have pooled resources and put on a big ol’ humdinger that everyone could come to. Seems like the organizers could do the scheduling in a much more collaborative, transparent way.
And most of the panels (including, I fear, my own) were kind of … boring. Basically, you’re taking bloggers — people good at writing — and sticking them in front of a room to talk about exactly the same things they blog about all the time. But if we wanted that stuff, why wouldn’t we just read the blogs?
For the first couple years, it was a kick just to get people together for some celebration of their success and the sheer novelty of meeting face to face. But like I said in my first post, that novelty’s worn off a bit. If the conference wants to continue it needs some value add. It needs to be more challenging, more educational, and more entertaining. "Yay netroots!" doesn’t quite do it any more.
One idea, suggested to me by Kevin Drum, is to bring in some bona fide experts on subjects of interest to the netroots. You could have, say, a lawyer who’s intimately familiar with FISA come in and just give a quick hour-long briefing on the basics of the program. Lots of people are writing about it with only the barest familiarity with what it is. You could see the same thing for cap-and-trade, or a particular healthcare bill, or whatnot.
Another idea is to generate some heat. Have some panels that aren’t just four or five people sharing the same perspective. Get some debates going! Or mix people from different worlds — have a few foreign policy bloggers on a panel with a few green bloggers, to find areas of overlap or avenues for collaboration.
Creating the panels shouldn’t necessarily be left entirely to the bloggers themselves, who will tend to gather a few like-minded fellow bloggers and sit around agreeing. Assign someone to think of creative panel possibilities and then approach bloggers about them.
In some sense all conferences suffer from these same problems, but this one aspires to be a yearly event, so if it’s going to continue — and I heard they had trouble maxing out the 2,000 slots this year — they need to get creative about offering something worth traveling and paying for.