Social Media Conservatives Find Their Voice At Right Online

This June I had the incredible opportunity to cover both the progressive and conservative bloggers’ conventions, Netroots Nation and Right Online, which were held on back to back weekends in Providence, RI and Las Vegas, NV., respectively.

Right Online was created in 2008 in response to Netroots and, before this year, had always been held in the same city at the same time as the Left’s conference. Progressives often refer to Right Online as the ‘copy-cat’ Netroots.

Rumor has it that this year, Netroots organizers worked out a non-compete agreement with the liberal-leaning city of Providence, forcing conservatives to hold their conference elsewhere. (Although conservatives still got their kicks by holding a summit on the future of journalism and the first-ever Breitbart Awards in the city that same weekend.)

Getting kept out of Rhode Island was perhaps the best thing that could have happened to the conservative conference, which has began to make a name for itself in it’s own right. It is now the Left that is disorganized and feuding over the reasons its movement is off message.

Right Online, created by then-Americans for Prosperity employee Erik Telford (now Vice President of Strategic Initiatives & Outreach at The Franklin Center for Public Integrity), was created when new media was still in it’s infancy. Twitter had just been created and Facebook was in its first years of prominence. Few politicos and journalists could have predicted the impact that passionate no-name ‘just a blogger’ Americans would have on the country.

And as social media has evolved, so too has the conservative movement. In 2008, liberals were seen as the digitally savvy political movement, while conservatives were still struggling to navigate this new fangled creation called microblogging.

Now conservatives are dominating Twitter, beating liberals at every game they try start, and making hashtags created by liberals trend for all the wrong reasons.

This year at Right Online, conservatives were discussing how work together to help fellow conservative bloggers publicize the issues important to them and defend each other when attacked by liberal trolls.

Meanwhile, at Netroots Nation, progressives were still boo-hooing about their recent loss in the Wisconsin recall and playing the blame game over who was responsible for the loss. (They finally settled on the Koch brothers.)

It’s not to say that Netroots was without interesting, social media focused panels. I truly wish I’d had enough time outside of the panels I needed to cover for Red Alert to attend the Netroots panel about getting the most out of Google analytics.

However, while Right Online was focused on teaching conservatives young and old how to further develop their new media skills, Netroots Nation seemed to have lost it’s luster.

As the Washington Examiner’s Charlie Spiering quipped to me during the Netroots’ Friday keynote address featuring Darcy Burner, a candidate for Congress in Washington, Rep. Mazie Hirono (D-HI) and Elizabeth Warren, a former Obama administration official who is running for the U.S. Senate in Massachusetts against Scott  Brown, “Where’s Hilary? Where’s Obama? Remember when they were he keynotes for Netroots?”

The biggest name the Left was able to bring in was former Obama green energy czar and Color of Change founder Van Jones. Snooze.

President Obama did address the conference via a lame pre-recorded video, which was more than he did for Democratic Wisconsin recall candidate Tom Barrett earlier in the week, but that’s not saying much.

Republican Presidential nominee Mitt Romney did not address the Right’s conference either, to be fair. Instead, conservative hero and former Vice-Presidential candidate Sarah Palin served as the conference’s keynote speaker. But the difference between Right Online and Netroots is that it would have seemed out of place if political candidates were speaking at the Right’s conference because it’s supposed to be a conference for bloggers, not a place where candidates give canned speeches and ask people who don’t live in their state to volunteer for their campaign. (Yes, that actually happened multiple times during Netroots).

At Right Online, Palin, who is no longer a candidate or elected official, thanked conservative bloggers for their hard work and for holding the mainstream media accountable. Her only references to President Obama were to recognize that conservative bloggers had vetted him the way the old media refused to. The speech on the lamestream was by all accounts a speech on the power of conservative bloggers given in true Sarah Palin fashion.

At Netroots, Van Jones’ speech had little or nothing to do with social media and instead served as an opportunity for the former Obama official to drum up support for the President. Because even though Obama’s doing a terrible job, he’s better than the Tea Party, which Jones claimed was trying to destroy America.

The liberal response to this piece will undoubtedly be that Right Online is still of little consequence because Netroots had nearly four times as many participants as Right Online.

The President of Netroots told me on twitter that 2,800 seats were set for the conference’s War on Women keynote featuring Warren. However, I can personally attest that maybe half, if not less, of those seats were full. That still puts the number of attendees well above the number in the room for Palin’s speech, but Right Online organizers told me attendance to the conference was capped at 600 people this year.

Furthermore, roughly the same number of people showed up to see Van Jones at Netroots as Palin, and attendance was not capped for his audience.

And it’s not that conservatives couldn’t have drawn more attendees. I know a number of conservative new media gurus who were not at the conference. Not everyone can afford to jet-set across the country to conferences a couple times a year when they’re not privileged enough to have a trust fund or be living on mommy and daddy’s dime.

Likewise, many conservatives, even new media savvy ones, reserve their vacation time for the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) held in DC each year by the American Conservative Union (ACU). Conservatives have been gathering in DC for CPAC since 1973, also known as ‘before most of us were born.’

This year Netroots shifted from its core focus on new media and attempted to mirror CPAC, with the addition of gender, age and race specific caucuses so that people like Elizabeth Warren could meet more people like themselves. (I still want to know why you didn’t attend the American Indian caucus, Elizabeth. Call me.)

Don’t jump for joy quite yet, liberals, that I’ve compared your conference with the likes of CPAC – it’s not. It’s merely a comparison of the types of content, not prestige. You held your biggest conference yet this year. Congrats. You’re still 9,000 people and a few presidential candidates away from being as important as CPAC.

In fact, the same weekend liberals were holding their copy-cat CPAC, 2,100 conservatives were in Chicago for the second-ever regional CPAC, listening to folks like Herman Cain and Rick Santorum announce plans to grow the conservative movement through the formation of new grassroots groups.

I’ve often complained about the lack of focus at traditional conservative conferences on new media and youth. This has undoubtedly lead to new media savvy conservatives branching out and creating their own, unique conferences like Americans for Prosperity’s Right Online and FreedomWorks/Franklin Center’s BlogCon. With and without the help of legacy, conservative organizations, social media conservatives have plunged the movement into the 21st  century.

Now, the conservative movement as a whole is beating the Left on nearly every front, online and offline, despite having started out with such a lofty handicap.

So to the conservatives who understood that the role social media would play in the the grassroots movement long before myself and most others, I tip my hat to you. The Right has come a long way in very short amount of time and it has you to thank. Conservatives still have a long way to go in certain areas if the movement wants to catch up to its opponents on the Left, but because of your hard work, it certainly can be achieved.

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