So who are all those people with the laptops attached to their hips, anyway?
When the fourth annual Netroots Nation conference opens today at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center, there will be plenty of familiar names from the liberal blogosphere, from President Bill Clinton to Howard Dean to Ron Reagan Jr. to "Kos," a.k.a. Markos Moulitsas Zuniga, founder of Daily Kos, the largest community blog in the country.
But there will be many more members of the netroots you may have never heard of. TexDem, Kitsap River, Mindoca, for starters -- all fellow "Kossacks" who blog on Daily Kos but use it as much more than just a platform to vent about politics. Netroots, a blending of Internet activism and grass-roots supporters, is a term coined during Mr. Dean's 2004 presidential campaign.
Mr. Clinton, Mr. Dean and Valerie Jarrett, a top adviser to President Barack Obama, will be keynote speakers at the convention, which will feature sessions on everything from "fearless campaigning" and "global solutions for global poverty" to "taking health reform online" and "writing an effective blog post."
TexDem, a.k.a. Tony Gattis, is an anti-war activist who, along with 40 others, will be making care packages for U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. Mindoca, a.k.a. Mindy Diane Feldman, works in Manhattan real-estate and will share her years of expertise in volunteer field work on a panel about rural organizing. Kitsap River, known in real life as River Curtis-Stanley, writes movingly about the world of kidney dialysis patients and her own need for a kidney transplant.
Later today, when Ms. Curtis-Stanley arrives in Pittsburgh, she will, for the first time, meet Lauren Reichelt, who blogs on Kos as TheFatLadySings and who recently e-mailed her to say she'd filed papers to donate a kidney for her.
"I was sitting there at the computer with tears running down my cheeks," said Ms. Curtis-Stanley. "Here was someone I'd only corresponded with online, had not met in person, hadn't even talked with on the phone, and who was seriously considering donating a vital internal organ to me."
Such is the power of the netroots, whose members define themselves as sharing the same progressive political values, but who have gone far beyond just blogging about politics, using the Web to build communities around individual concerns and issues.
DailyKos, the largest of the bunch with 2.5 million unique users every month and 215,000 registered users, allows just about anyone to post online diaries -- as long as they stick to the rules of civil behavior.
Other "netroots" sites, from Talking Points Memo to Huffington Post to FireDogLake, "are very large, and may focus, like TPM, on news gathering, or like FireDogLake, on activism, but have all outgrown the concept of an individual online diary," said Chris Bowers, who runs the site OpenLeft.com, a popular but much smaller political blog than Daily Kos, with about 18,000 to 19,000 page views every day.
Mr. Bowers, 33, said he entered the blogosphere "in a very grass-roots way," noting that he's since moved far beyond OpenLeft.com to become a "netroots consultant" for progressive candidates, notably U.S. Rep. Joe Sestak, who is challenging Sen. Arlen Specter in next year's Democratic primary.
These days, though, "the netroots can mean anything from Twitter to blogging to HuffPost to e-mail to texting," said Mr. Bowers. "The term blog is a smaller component of something much larger."
Still, the individual blogger remains alive and well on Kos, albeit in granular form. When Ms. Curtis-Stanley posted something recently titled, "This is What Losing Your Kidneys Looks Like," her regular readership of 40 to 50 people spiked into the hundreds -- not thousands, but no matter. "It's still a community to me, and we make waves locally, at least."
Four years ago at the first Netroots Nation convention (then called YearlyKos in honor of DailyKos) bloggers were the center of attention, being new, mysterious, and therefore newsworthy, Mr. Bowers said, recalling that the next year's event in Chicago also was widely covered by the mainstream media, "because blogging was still very new and not very well understood."
This year, it's about getting down to business, says Ms. Feldman, Mindoca on Daily Kos. She says she'll spend the next few days networking, getting educated, and sharing her knowledge with others.
"This is a special year for us, and I think people may be losing sight of that. I hope to go there and in some ways be able to celebrate the great job we did last year, which we never really got to celebrate as a community, but this year, for the first time, the convention is very focused on action, trying to figure out how to get more people mobilized and hearing updates on the best practices that came out of this cycle."
Ms. Feldman will be attending sessions on what blogging can or cannot do in political campaigns, noting that one of the biggest challenges is the "boots on the ground" component, getting people off their computers and out on the streets. Over the past year, she's worked on a training module focused on techniques to mobilize voters.
The majority of people at this convention, in fact, "are people who are actually activists on the ground, or really interested in politics from an intellectual standpoint, or progressives or liberals in the Red desert somewhere who are desperate to find other people who share their concerns and desire to make change and who can't necessarily find that where they are physically," Ms. Feldman said.
Tony Gattis, who is TexDem on Daily Kos, lives in such a place: Fayetteville, Ga., where Democrats make up only 36 percent of voters in his Congressional district. Even though Mr. Gattis is adamantly opposed to the war in Iraq, he, along with several dozen others, will be spending his time in Pittsburgh making 300 care packages for troops and raising money for them. The number of "non-familial" care packages for soldiers have dropped to near zero in recent months, he said.
"Part of what we want to do is contradict the image that we don't care about the military," he said. "There are a lot of people serving in the military who blog on Daily Kos. We're a cross section of America," he adds, noting on his "Mojo Friday" posting each week on Daily Kos, "We could be your next door neighbor. I have doctors, lawyers, accountants, housewives, businesspeople of all sorts weighing in on the topic of the day. This isn't just a bunch of guys in their pajamas."
Mackenzie Carpenter can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1949.