Thursday, August 21, 2008

Netroots Rising Discusion Last Night at Busboys and Poets

When Lowell Feld asked me, I said I wasn’t going to blog his gig at Busboys and Poets. “Nah, I’m off duty and I’m not taking notes,” I told him and Nate Wilcox. But I changed my mind.

First of all, it’s worth noting that Adams Morgan is a great neighborhood. Jaybird’s Jottings called it “a hipster haven” and has a good write up of the entire event. Busboys and Poets also live blogged it on their site.

As for Adams Morgan, the narrow streets are always crowded with young, and not so young, people gliding in and out of shops and bistros. It has the type of energy you find in New York neighborhoods like Williamsburg and lower Manhattan.

Most NoVa bloggers would probably feel comfortable in Busboys and Poets simply because it’s computer friendly. When you walk in, there are several rows of long tables, set up almost like countertops, with people busy at their laptops, totally oblivious to the crowded nightlife around them. You know, our kind of people :).

Lowell and Nate were in a separate room with a small stage, two stools, and two mikes. It was an intimate “clubby” setting with lots of tables, some booths, etc. Think open mike night at Folk City. Only instead of breaking out the guitars and singing, they and the audience were there to discuss Lowell and Nate's new book, Netroots Rising. After the discussion, they held a book signing.

As others have pointed out, Nate Wilcox was excellent on the techie trends in sophisticated, modern political campaigns. Lowell connected with the audience and spoke about the human factor. He discussed the now well-known Webb-Allan campaign and the Maccacca affair. As he pointed out, that incident didn’t cause the meltdown so widely reported. It was really the slow accretion of stories and details about Allen that followed in the wake of the YouTube video that did in the campaign and candidate. That video merely opened the floodgate.

As Lowell explained, the actual video was serendipity. Nobody could have foreseen Allen’s gaffe in Breaks, VA. But many people had long suspected that Allen’s folksy, cowboy, Southern gentleman image was a façade. It was an open secret that under the genial veneer there was a dark side. Both those in the media and Richmond insiders knew about the Confederate flags, the potted tree with the noose hanging from it in his office, and his tendency to use the “N” word. Nobody would report it. But after Allen was caught on tape, “people came out of the woodwork,” as Lowell put it, with stories dating back to Allen’s college days. Old roommates and pals came forward with incidents they had witnessed. Then, there was Allen’s response to TV newscaster Peggy Fox’s question about his Jewish background, which generated sympathy at the live debate but played out badly in the press and on the blogs. However, as Lowell also mentioned, bloggers laid the groundwork for these revelations early in the campaign. So did the Webb campaign. And even the felicitous videotape would not have been possible had the campaign not had S.R. Siddarth out there tracking Allen.

After speaking briefly, Nate and Lowell opened it up as a general discussion, taking questions from the audience and introducing colleagues such as Annabel Park, who spoke about some of her experiences with the Webb campaign, especially her work with the Asian community.

The discussion part of the evening ended on a tentative note as the two authors discussed the future of the blogosphere. Absent a crystal ball, it’s difficult to predict where we go from here. But as they pointed out, newspapers and mainstream media are increasingly putting up their own blogs. Sites such as Huffington Post, while politically progressive, are basically corporate in structure and mainly have many very well known writers and journalists clamoring to write for them.

The place where the citizen activists and amateurs are still most strong is at the state and local level. Software like Soapblox has allowed people to start true community forums where anybody can post a diary. They’ve become the new public square where political activists can congregate.


MB said...

Software and legal structure aren't nearly as important as culture, I think. The future of online political conversation will be determined by the ability of forum providers to maintain cultures that attract users. These cultures need not necessarily be positive, either (the Freeper forums are, uh, vibrant).

That said, I think we'll be seeing a decline in the interest shown in online political discussions by the more thoughtful among us unless we can cultivate and maintain a culture in which honesty, openness, and civility are primary values.

AnonymousIsAWoman said...

I think there's some truth to that. But some of the blogs that are the most popular are also the most inflammatory at times.

I think people want drama, controversy, and compelling narrative. But they want personal politeness too. I wonder if it's possible to have it all?

MB said...

I'm not so sure they really want personal politeness. In my experience, that's only invoked as a offensive defense when they're losing an argument. Keep that in mind as you look around the VA blogs, and tell me if that isn't true.

Tis important not to conflate popularity with importance, too. The highest trafficked blogs are hardly the most informative or well written. As you note, they garner readership by appealing to those that want the "drama, controversy, and compelling narrative." Is that really what we want our political conversation to consist of, though? Not me.

Silence Dogood said...

1. MB is right. I don't know if either of you have seen the movie "Training Day," but if you have, you'll remember the scene where Denzel Washington's character is introduced reading the newspaper in a diner:

"You don't know any stories? Okay, I'll tell you a story. This is a newspaper. It's 90% bullsh*t, but it's entertaining. That's why I read it: because it entertains me. You won't let me read it, so you entertain me with your bullsh*t. Tell me a story, right now."

Some of these blogs may be 90% bullsh*t, but they're entertaining, so I read them sometimes. But one should not misconstrue that to mean that I don't recognize that it's largely without intrinsic social value beyond that. I'm not going to base my vote or my activism on what I read on a blog.

2. Does Jaybird not realize that "hipster" is a dirty word?

Busboys And Poets said...

So glad to see you that you decided to blog about the Netroots Rising event! Great post, and thanks so much for the link-back to the live blog! We are so happy to hear that our shop is welcoming and accommodating to the world of laptops and bloggers. Please come visit us again soon!


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