Editor’s Note: The YearlyKos convention in Chicago this past weekend was a major milestone in the history of the liberal blogosphere. The event confirmed the ascendancy of bloggers as a serious political force — all seven of the Democratic Party candidates attended in an attempt to woo progressive voters. As part of our ongoing effort to bring Medialoper readers the latest news about the increasing influence new media is having on the American political process, we sent the head of our National Affairs Desk, Ronin Kurosawa, to report on the event. Due to certain budgetary constraints we were not able to send Ronin to Chicago. Instead, he reports from Second Life.

Network Neutrality

Friday Morning, 8:40 am
Sears Tower in Second Life I’ve been to more conferences than I can remember and this is the first time I’ve ever arrived at one without either jet lag or a hangover. The problem with virtual conferences is that the open bars just don’t compare to real life. The technology is improving rapidly, but I suspect this problem will persist for decades to come.

I’m hovering two floors above ground level just outside of the Sears Tower. I’m not nearly caffeinated enough to attempt entering the faux building to ride the faux elevator up to the faux conference room. No, it really is easier to float in space and watch the Network Neutrality panel through the window.

I’ve missed the introductions, but I can hear the panelists discussing all of the major issues related to network neutrality, and beyond. Universal broadband – check. Personal data privacy – check. They’re discussing important issues that will shape the future of the net, and, by extension, the future of our country.

For what it’s worth, some of my fellow conference attendees seem to be equally sleep deprived. Through the window I can see a half dozen avatars spread around the room, several of whom are clearly slumped over like they missed their morning Starbucks fix. This realization leads to my first moment of bonding with this community — apparently none of us are morning people.

Finally, I fly to the top of the Sears Tower to listen to the remainder of the session from the antenna tower. I’m tired of answering questions from passers by who somehow think I work here. At this point no one knows less about this event than I do. Six more cups of coffee and then we’ll talk.

Howard Dean So Gets It

Howard Dean keynote at YKos in Second Life I should mention that I managed to catch Howard Dean’s keynote speech last night. It was probably as close as you’ll get to a religious revival in Second Life. Throughout the speech the fangirls were shouting “hallelujah!” and chanting “He gets it! He so gets it!!”.

Forget the video of the Dean meltdown that Fox News will play until eternity. Dean still has it. As a party leader the Dems probably couldn’t do any better right now. Dean understands the challenges facing his party, he understands what they need to do to win, and most importantly, he understands that a major shift in power is taking place and that new media is behind the shift.

At one point during his speech Dean noted “without YouTube we wouldn’t have a Democratic majority in the U.S. Senate”. It seems like I’ve heard that somewhere else before.

It was an optimistic group and Dean was clearly preaching to the choir — but that doesn’t change the fact that he was good. Surprisingly good. And I suspect the fangirls were right. He really does seem to get it.

Blogs and the Mainstream Media

Friday morning, 11:50 am
I’m sitting in on the Blogs and the Mainstream Media session. Mike Allen from Politico has just explained why it took so long for mainstream media outlets to recognize the importance of bloggers. Apparently, when bloggers arrived on the scene they were “like the new kid at high school”. Which is to say that they were “geeky and dressed funny”. Mind you, he’s saying this to a room full of people in Chicago. If he thinks bloggers dress funny he should spend some time in Second Life. As excuses go, this one is a head scratcher.

While the media has been playing up the fact that all of the Dem candidates are here this weekend, the real story is that there are a lot of mainstream media people are here as well. Traditional journalists are finally coming to terms with the fact that political bloggers aren’t going away.

In the past print journalists have blasted bloggers as amateurs in pajamas (an insult that has often made me wonder if Journalism schools are secretly offering “Dress for Success” courses as part of their curriculum).

Friday afternoon, 12:20 pm
Real life has intruded on my virtual conference experience. A possibly rabid beagle cornered the mailman in my front yard causing me to miss the last 10 minutes of the Blog vs. MSM panel. This might be the way they do things at USPS conferences, but it’s not what I was expecting from YKos.

A Break from the Action

Cow Wrestling at the YearlyKos in Second Life One of the advantages of attending an event like this in Second Life vs. watching the web video is that you have a chance to meet fellow conference attendees and interact with them in real-time. With that in mind I fly over to the registration center where organizers have setup an area for socializing.

Almost immediately I notice that a man is floating about 20 feet above a dance floor where he appears to be wrestling with a cow. The red laser dance lights are shooting through the cow giving the appearance that the guy is really doing some damage. I begin to wonder if maybe a YearlyKos BBQ is planned for later.

I ask a nearby attendee if I’m seeing what I think I’m seeing — she confirms.

Finally I determine that it’s a good thing. If we don’t fight the cows in Second Life, we’ll fight them here at home.

I attempt to make small talk briefly, but as luck would have it I’m just not very good at small talk. Finally I decide I’m through for the day. It’s time to get something I can’t find in Second Life. A real beer.

Hillary Clinton Breakout Session

Saturday morning, 10:24 am
Hillary Clinton Breakout Session in Second Life Late again. For some reason I’m not getting the schedule updates in a timely manner.

Hillary looks surprisingly relaxed as she takes questions from a room full of people in Chicago. The Second Life crowd is clearly receptive as she talks about national transportation policy, universal health care, and universal broadband. This may be the most likable I’ve ever seen her.

The most curious aspect of this session is that none of the Hillary Clinton Second Life group organizers are in attendance. It’s odd considering the fact that bringing Hillary into Second Life is the group’s holy grail, and here she is simulcasting an event in SL. Organizers have even setup microphones that deliver questions from Second Life directly to the sessions in Chicago. You’d think that group leaders Padlurowncanoe Dibou and King Zuhal would be all over this event. If for no other reason because it’s a perfect opportunity to reach SL users who simply aren’t aware that Clinton has an in world group of supporters.

I try IM’ing Dibou and Zuhal and get no response. They are apparently still unhappy about my reporting that their group is probably in violation of FEC regulations. I can’t help but think they’ve missed a huge opportunity here.

Presidential Leadership Forum

Saturday morning, 11am
The Presidential Leadership Forum is clearly the main event. It’s the YearlyKos version of a Democratic candidate debate, except that instead of taking questions from YouTube the questions are coming from bloggers. All seven of the Democratic candidates are on stage fielding questions in front of an extremely vocal crowd.

When asked if they would appoint an official White House blogger, only two candidates are willing to commit. Edwards indicates he’d hire his wife Elizabeth, and Gravel says he’d do the job himself.

Gravel asks, “Why shouldn’t a president write his own blog?”. Well, given the current officeholder I can probably come up with dozens of reasons.

It’s all going well for most of the candidates until Hillary floats her “lobbyists are people too” trial balloon. Needless to say, her comment is not well received. The audience boos loudly, then Edwards and Obama take turns pouncing.

Hillary Clinton at the National Leadership Forum in Second Life Shortly after Hillary’s lobbyist gaffe the video feed cuts out in Second Life. There’s some chatter at Netroots Stadium about the reliability of Second Life, then the video feed returns. Strangely, Hillary seems to be hanging upside down like a bat! Up to this point there had been some grumbling amongst Second Life attendees that the real life conference has hardly acknowledged the virtual conference. I wonder if Clinton is trying to cover for her mistake by playing to the Second Life crowd. Or maybe she’s planning on using the old “I didn’t know what I was saying, all the blood rushed to my head” excuse. Regardless, we’re all startled to see Hillary take such an extreme position.

Eventually it becomes apparent that Obama is hanging upside down too. Could this be an indication that the two have finally created some sort of alliance? But wait, even Mike Gravel is hanging upside down. That’s when it becomes clear that there’s some sort of technical problem with the feed. There’s no way that Gravel would ever share a common position with either Obama or Clinton.

I finish watching the upside down debate. It’s somewhat dizzying. At one point I try to turn upside down myself, without any luck.

Candidate Breakout Sessions

Saturday afternoon, 1pm
Immediately following the debate the breakout sessions continue for the remaining candidates. A technical glitch at the event brings down most of the feeds in world. As a result, only the Edwards session is broadcast. I alternate between watching the Edwards session in SL and the Obama session on the web. Both candidates do well at their respective sessions, but the multi-tasking between competing video feeds leaves me wondering who said what.

One thing I notice while watching the Obama simulcast is that the level of comment on the open website is clearly inferior to the commentary that’s been going on in world throughout the Second Life event. I attribute this to the fact that the Second Life event not only costs money, but also requires a substantial amount of effort to attend. Even a troll with $25 to burn isn’t likely to jump through the hoops involved in creating a Second Life account for an opportunity to be an ass at a virtual convention. There are far easier and cheaper ways to be an ass on the web.

Hungry, I break for lunch.

Kos’s Closing Keynote

Saturday evening, 5:00 pm
The turnout for Markos’s closing keynote is good. Most of the attendees in Second Life are enthusiastic about their experience and the chance to interact with like minded people.

A few newcomers indicate that they’ve had more than their share of challenges learning the ropes in Second Life. We all agree that Second Life can have a steep learning curve and I suspect that might be a big barrier to mainstream acceptance of virtual conferences.

The program fails to start on time and the crowd, left to their own devices, begins making Bill O’Reilly jokes. You would be amazed at how many Bill O’Reilly jokes there are. Ok, maybe you wouldn’t be.

Finally the program starts, but instead of Markos we’re treated to the routines of a couple of liberal comedians. The crowd in Chicago seems to find them amusing (or maybe it’s a laugh track), but they don’t play well in Second Life. I can already hear comedians of the future lamenting to each other, “they loved my act in Chicago, but I bombed in Second Life”.

Markos closing keynote Finally, Markos takes the stage and it’s like a religious revival all over again. He thanks the crowd, thanks the community, and pays his respects to a couple of community leaders who passed away this past year. Markos then spends some time recounting the tremendous impact the community has had on the political process over the past couple of years.

Then Markos drops the bombshell — this last YearlyKos convention ever. Next year’s event will be called Netroots Nation. The name change is intended to reflect the fact that the movement has grown well beyond the DailyKos website.

Regardless of what they call the event or the movement I suspect there’s no turning back — for either the media or the candidates. As Dean noted in his keynote, new media is having a substantial and permanent impact on the political process in America. As Terrance McKenna would say, “business as usual is no longer on the menu”.