Perry Bacon writes this week in Time Magazine that the netroots have reached their limits and are, "paradoxically," now going offline. I like Perry (I rode the Dean press bus with him briefly), and it’s a fine article, but it misses the point that the earliest efforts that got attention for being "netroots" — MoveOn and Dean, just as examples — were profoundly offline.
Unlike the reigning online organizing at the time (GOPProgress), Moveon connected people in the same neighborhood to each other through marches and vigils, and the single most important use the Dean campaign made of the Internet was Meetup, a website that allows for monthly offline meetings. After Meetup, the second most important form was local listservs (over 1,000) that talked online about meeting offline. And Perry should know this, having ridden the Dean bus.
Two years ago, groups like Downhill Battle (now Participatory Culture Foundation) were organizing massive call-your-Congressman efforts, and they were measured by how effective they were, not by how novel they were. They were already routine. Pew studies have shown that online influentials are offline influentials as well.
What is implicit and interesting here, then, is not that the "netroots" (I’ve never understood that word exactly, though I think it often is used as shorthand for the strongest voices in the political blogosphere, a group whose members are less than a full chess set) are going offline — they always have — but that the Internet creates new opportunities for persistent voluntary associations, associations that are more distributed and more engaged with their memberships than the intensely heirarchical forms of the post-modern unions "membership" organizations. That those new forms are not yet worked out is not new. That they are growing is clear, and that the coalescensce of power often precedes the effective ability to flex that power effectively is a truth far older than Shakespeare.
All that said, this is a worthwhile article, if for nothing more than a reminder that the netroots, like the "telephone-roots", does not describe a bunch of folks hanging out in Second Life or Worlds of Warcraft … which is where you’d actually go if you were interested in people who are not canvassing their neighborhood.