August 17, 2009

The Netroots Nation and The Other America

This weekend I attended the fourth annual Netroots Nation, a gathering of progressive bloggers, internet organizers, and sundry web-savvy advocates working towards change in America.

When they all get together in one place, things quickly get over-stimulating. Over three days, for at least four shifts a day, ten rooms hosted panels and workshops about foreign policy, the media, climate change, gender and sexuality, elections, science, the Supreme Court, and this year, would you believe it, lots of Twitter.

And yet, as’s Leigh Graham observed remotely, there is lots of talk about “economics” but relatively few mentions of “poverty.” There’s a lot of focus on labor and health care, both of critical importance to the endangered middle- and working-classes. There’s also always at least one panel about New Orleans in the aftermath of Katrina, and this time there was a well-received panel on Hip Hop and social change. But by and large the “other America” seems to be almost as obscure at Netroots Nation as it is in the mainstream media.

All this is not meant to shame Netroots Nation, its attendees or organizers (who do really great work - see Director Nolan Treadway's response in the comments below). The netroots’ agenda should be shaped by the interests of its participants. When it comes to poverty, the problem is not that the netroots don’t care; the problem is that poor folk aren’t there.

It’s not just a matter of attendance, though it can be prohibitively expensive to attend a conference like this (Democracy for America hosts a great scholarship program). There are other major events like the US Social Forum that focus more explicitly on efforts to end poverty. But I think a Venn diagram of the two circuits would reveal very little overlap.

This is symptomatic of a deeper problem: people who struggle to put food on the table are missing out on the great advances in power dynamics – both personal and collective – made possible by the Internet. There is a lot of them, more every day, and they're getting left behind.

All that said, this year’s Netroots Nation did offer some glimmers of hope for a more diverse netroots future. There was lots of talk of the potential for the Obama Administration’s broadband stimulus plan (albeit less clarity on what it will actually look like on the ground) and organizations like Free Press were present, spreading awareness of the digital divide and pointing towards opportunities to bridge it.

And there was even a panel on this very issue – entitled “Who’s Left Out? A Critical Look at Online Organizing” – one of the better attended, focused, and engaged panels that I attended.

But I also attended a panel on best blogging practices – and with those in mind, I’ll have to cut this post off here like so: more on this tomorrow.


Nolan said...

I'm the Political and Logistics Director for NN. I saw this from your twitter feed.

I appreciate your helpful criticisms. We do an open panel submission process. Perhaps next year you can submit something (or find someone who would do a great job with this topic and ask them to submit something).

And I'm not trying to put this back on you or anything, but that is the first thing that pops to my mind about how we can include more about this in the future.

Greg Bloom said...

Hi Nolan -

Thanks for reading, and responding! Actually, to be clear: this wasn't meant to be a criticism of your work or the conference itself, which (IMHO) continues to improve and even broaden in scope.

This is more the start of some broader ruminations on our behalf about the many levels of impact of the digital divide. Tomorrow (i hope) we'll have a post up about the "Who's Left Out?" #NN09 panel, which was a pretty great exploration of the matter.

Thanks again for all your hard work,