I attended every event at Netroots Nation 2009. Here’s what I found.

There are really two Netroots Nations. There’s the keynote series featuring big speakers like Bill Clinton and Valerie Jarrett, who turned up in Pittsburgh this weekend to reassure the liberal bloggers and activists in attendance that, yes, they do still matter and, no, Barack Obama and the Democrats have not forgotten them.

Rep. Joseph Sestak, D-Pa., right, talks with moderators Susie Madrak, left, and Ari Melber at Netroots Nation. Click image to expand.
Susie Madrak, Ari Melber, and Rep. Joseph Sestak at Netroots Nation

Then, far from the pages of the New York Times and Wall Street Journal—or even the posts of TPM Café or HaveNoLifeBecauseIBlogAboutPolitics.com—there are the panels. This year’s convention featured more than 100 events spread across three days in Pittsburgh’s 1.5-million-square-foot David L. Lawrence Convention Center. The events generally fit into four categories: debates, promotional/informational panels, training sessions, and meet-ups. These are the events where egos clashed, internecine disagreements got hashed out, and agendas got set—or at the very least deliberated. I set out to attend every single one. With only a few exceptions—I drew the line at the fifth event on “messaging”—I succeeded.

If there was an overarching theme, it was How do we hold Obama to his campaign promises? There was plenty of concern about Obama’s dedication to closing Guantanamo, abolishing indefinite detentions, shoring up gay rights, and implementing immigration reform. (Of course, between health care and climate change and fixing the economy, there are plenty of commitments the administration hasn’t backed away from.) So the fundamental disagreement among attendees was: Should we of the Netroots be fundamentally supportive of Obama or should we oppose him from the left?

That was the question before one Saturday panel titled “Transformation? Or Shock?” There, an audience member argued that the Netroots has to back the president. She was sick of people on the left yelling at Obama, claiming that he didn’t share their interests. A panelist, Digby, writer of Hullabaloo, said it’s possible to be respectful but firm. She compared it to the story about Franklin Delano Roosevelt telling Democratic Party activists, “I agree with you, I want to do it, now make me do it.” Everyone on the left wants to see Obama succeed. But they can’t expect him to have the courage of their convictions. If they want a public option, gays in the military, an end to indefinite detentions, they can’t expect him to do it on his own—they need to make him do it.

Another theme that came up over and over was What happened in 2008?—and, implicitly, How can we do it again? History is working against the Democrats in 2010. The party in control of the White House tends to lose members of Congress in its first midterm election. Yet Netroots attendees had a more optimistic take: Turnout is relatively low during midterms, so well-organized progressives have even greater influence than usual. Several panels tried to assess what went right with the Obama campaign. The answer is well-documented: trying to compete in all 50 states, working in states and regions other candidates (both Democratic and Republican) took for granted, and making voters feel like they had a voice in the campaign.

But the discussion wasn’t all victory lap. Organizers also wondered what they could do better. One panel considered how to reach rural voters. (Learn the local issues and make the effort to visit voters in person.) Another explored ways to turn red districts blue. The challenge, said one panelist, is not just to elect a conservative who might be a Democrat in name only, but also to tease out the district’s true blueness. What happens if there simply isn’t any blueness to tease out? Bad question: That’s not how an organizer thinks.

A number of meetings tackled how to get your message across quickly—”the elevator pitch,” as one panelist called it. Some strategies seemed intuitive: Keep your message simple and direct. (For example, mosquito nets to fight malaria: “Send a net. Save a life.”) Use poetic license. (“Donate $1 a day to make Norm Coleman go away!”) Make sure to include a “call to action.” (Even the simple and relatively passive “Click here to see more” qualifies.) Don’t clutter your mass e-mails with images. Other suggestions came as a surprise, such as the tip that black-and-white political fliers are more effective than ones printed in color because they look less like slick advertisements.

Perhaps the most useful meetings were the training sessions, with names like “Congress 101,” “Muckraking 101,” and “How To Be a Media Star.” “Congress 101” was basically an hourlong adult version of Schoolhouse Rock, explaining the ins and outs of committees, lobbies, and interest groups. “Muckraking 101” was a tour of all the databases you can use besides Google. The Government Accountability Office, the Securities and Exchange Commission, and pretty much every state business registry has reams of documents you can access to dig up dirt on your least favorite companies. At the jam-packed “Presence and Authenticity: The Secret to Being a Media Star,” media trainer Joel Silberman dissected physicality to show how the smallest behaviors affect onscreen performance. For example, don’t wear shirts lighter than your skin color. Keep your weight distributed evenly across your feet. If you’re staring into a camera, look at the top of the lens and pretend it’s someone you want to seduce.

Less practical but more social were the meet-ups—events where bloggers and activists could meet the like-minded (or -dressed or -skinned or -aged). Some of these, like the Latino Caucus, descended into recriminations over an esoteric blog spat. Others, like the Youth Caucus, reassured groups of their own influence. But most people just wanted to talk. Take the Second Life Caucus. While more than 1,500 people attended the convention in person, about 50 showed up on Netroots Nation Island in Second Life. (Some couldn’t make it for geographical reasons, others for social ones, such as agoraphobia.) There, they could watch streaming video of various Netroots events while conversing with their fellow attendees. One of them, Kelly Thome, is a political organizer in Second Life. It’s also where she meets friends. “People say, ‘Oh, those aren’t your real friends, they’re your Second Life friends.’ Well, they are real,” she says.

It hasn’t been all peaceful: Some Second Life events had to be shut down due to “griefing,” the practice of outsiders disrupting the proceedings by dropping self-replicating objects—1,000 beach balls, say—into the world, which can obstruct the avatars and cause slowdown. Thome, who also works security in Second Life, could not say whether the interference was politically motivated. But the griefing did not stop the Lifers from doing what they came to do. “We want to dance,” said a middle-aged woman who identified herself by her Elvin avatar name, Leondra Whiteberry.

Finally, there were the debates. Highlights included a panel of pollsters hashing out who got what right (and wrong) during the 2008 election. A discussion among religious activists challenged what they called antiquated notions about the separation of church and state. Religion does have a place in policy, said one panelist—we just need to interpret ideas like “under God” in more universal terms. A group of women bloggers debated how to better incorporate issues of race into feminism.

Thankfully, the convention didn’t produce any white papers or party platforms. But it did reaffirm what it proved at the first Netroots Nation in 2006: The liberal online community is more than the sum of its bylines.