October 15, 2008
By my reckoning, Blogactiv had its first birthday today. Time for a brief trip down memory lane.
There were plenty of posts before October 15, 2007, of course, but on that day we saw our first post by a bona fide, external blogger (thanks, Stanley!).
I’ve heard some people say (rather snidely, it must be said), that Blogactiv’s success was a certainty, but I can tell you it didn’t feel like that at the time. Around a year ago, we ran some seminars to introduce the ‘alpha phase’ site and get a feeling of what the non-technophiles in Brussels thought of blogging, and I’ve never seen so many blank looks when I tried to explain what a tag cloud was.
And then there was the November presentation at the European Parliament, where they didn’t give us access to their (perfectly functional) wifi network. Have you ever tried showing off a site without actually showing it? It ain’t easy. Still, it did give me a rather apt illustration of the EU’s use of the Internet.
But what really sticks in my memory was the eurosceptics. It led to an interesting experiment in handling certain types of online debate. So let me break one of my own blogging rules (the one about post length) and take you on a Memory Lane tour of what a friend of mine calls The Pyjama People.
Their immediate assumption was that Blogactiv was an EU-funded front company, a CIA-style operation for spewing EU falsehoods into the blogosphere where, presumably, the ever-credulous Common Folk would Believe the Lies until democracy as we know it is dead, and/or the blogosphere would somehow be ‘taken over’ (my emphases):
The real agenda, however, was the launch of the EurActiv blogger “platform” – its blogactiv site, its commission-sponsored effort to corral bloggers into a central, controllable niche. Like civil society, bloggers too must be “organised”. … the race is on to control the blogosphere, yet more “stakeholders” to be enlisted to support the great European “project”.
The E.U. Parliament got together this week to decide how best to ’sell’ the concept of the E.U. to the people of Europe (think propagandize). They decided that they would enlist the help of bloggers. OK, so now the role of bloggers is to speak for the government? Smacks a little of a Stalinist vision for harmony…. this basically means that blogging will come under a nice, tightly controlled little group of E.U. approved yes-men. And if you don’t fit that description, you will face the consequences.
Now if the Commission or the Parliament had offered to sponsor Blogactiv, we would have given it some serious thought. After all, it’s an advertising- and sponsor-driven business, and it’s not easy to attract advertisers to a blogging platform before there are hardly any bloggers on it, as was the case last October.
But they didn’t, and moreover there was never any evidence that they did. The above authors just assumed it. Which shows that describing them as sceptics could not be more inaccurate – they’re operating on faith and dogma.
And as for controlling bloggers … you can’t fault them for lack of imagination. How is Blogactiv supposed to do that? Mind control? At gunpoint?
The other assumption automatically made was that Blogactiv would censor anything anti-EU posted to the site. Far from it – I had every interest to get eurosceptics posting on Blogactiv, so I thought it would be interesting to try and set the record straight (e.g., on EU Referendum and Midnight Sun).
That wasn’t always easy, faced with more paranoid, conspiracy theory …
I’m waiting for them to try and find a suitably subtle way to bribe you. …
… the Stalinists be damned. It’ll be a cold day in hell before I take notice of what any government tells me to say or not say. …
… red-blooded passion …
I d love to hold the stake, that is driven through their black heart.
and sheer unalloyed hatred …
Mathew, I’ve checked out your nice little EU sanctioned site and quite frankly you and everything you’re doing disgusts me. It reminds me of having a pro-Hitler forum … I despise everything the EU stands for and nothing will convince me otherwise and anyone who can be persuaded by your site that everything is all above board is a tool and deserves the prison state they’re going to find themselves in.
… from people I’ve never met, some of whom freely admitted that they hadn’t actually visited the site.
Taking the conspiracy thing even further, Devil’s Kitchen put 2 and 2 together and got 7, imagining that John Worth, who was moving to Brussels at the time, was in fact doing so to join Blogactiv.
We thought inviting John around for coffee was an interesting idea, if only so that we could email a big ThankYou! to DevKitch for giving us the idea of hiring him, but John’s too busy doing his own thing.
Friends of the Earth just posted something criticising the European Business Summit. They posted this on the EBS’ own blog, hosted on Blogactiv.
EurActiv (Blogactiv’s parent company) is a media partner for EBS. But we pushed the post to the Blogactiv home page, which gives it extra visibility on EurActiv.
If Blogactiv or EurActiv ever intended censoring critical voices – as many here and elsewhere automatically assumed – we would never have given such publicity to the EBS’ critics.
But we did.
To date, no reply. Make of that what you will. They probably didn’t notice.
Some pearls in the mud (slinging)
But it wasn’t all foaming at the mouth. I did get some reasoned arguments and useful comments. For example, when I challenged them to try posting on the Guest Blog to test whether Blogactiv would censor them, RAENorth made some valid points about how Blogactiv frames the discussion:
The essential stance we take here is that the European Union is a malign organisation that should not exist and, if it does, that the UK should not be a part of it. … Discussing EU policy, therefore – the merits or otherwise – within the framework that you suggest is therefore to accept the premises that the EU should exist, or that we should be part of it. In other words, to take part in your “debate” is to abandon our own premise.
Another good example was Bagua , pointing out how the sections we had at site launch undermined my argument that it was a neutral platform for debate (I thanked him and updated them to make them neutral while I cleaned the egg off my face).
And many of them made valid points about the possibility of EU-level democracy – see, for example, ELF:
If you have read back through postings by many of us, you will be familiar with the argument that establishing democracy within the EU is not just “challenging” but fundamentally impossible, due to the lack of a “demos” with sufficient shared values
Valid, but debatable, of course. How shared must those values be, I wonder, and who decides this? And who measures these cultural differences? Xenophobes?
Finally, someone named pondering started by suggesting that Blogactiv was a corporate conspiracy more than an EC one:
It’s not so much the Commission paying to be heard there, I’m afraid. Seems to me this Blogactiv scheme is more about legitimizing via the ‘blogosphere’ the lobbying efforts of the above corporates that often come through loud and clear in the ‘mother’ publication.
S/He and Aurora then had a nice little conversation about the corruptness of the media in general and EurActiv in particular, until I asked the obvious question:
… can you tell me *how* you think a sponsor could affect the content on Blogactiv?
I’m sincerely curious, because there is no such thing as ‘Blogactiv content’ … The content is by the bloggers on Blogactiv. If a corporation or lobbyist wants to blog on Blogactiv, they’re as welcome as anyone else … Would you deny them the freedom to publish that you enjoy? And how could a sponsor actually affect the content of a site composed purely of blogs? I just don’t see how that’d be possible. They can advertise, but an ad is an ad, nothing insidious about it.
… any content-based organisation which gets a reputation for letting advertisers call the tune of their content is *screwed*. If EurActiv really had “a reputation for spectacularly and shamelessly confusing journalism with advocacy”, as you claim, noone would visit it, and they do (CIM figures).
And to his credit he seemed to concede the point – about Blogactiv, if not EurActiv. Aurora didn’t reply.
So, yes, it is possible to get your point across, and maybe even get someone to see your point of view, in the most virulent online environments. But not very often. And you need pretty thick skin.
In any case, given that they had immediately assumed blogactiv was an EC-funded conspiracy, I never really expected to convince any of them that it wasn’t. As Aurora wrote, with immense pride, “nothing will convince me otherwise“. Clearly she knew what she was talking about there! So why did I bother trying?
Well, there are more people out there reading blogs than commenting on them. By not attempting to put the record straight, you leave the field unchallenged. As a result, anyone else stumbling across their content will only get their (very biased) side of the picture. Bad for business. But also bad for me personally. I didn’t like being portrayed as a liar.
Which made responding to the venom and word-twisting with calm restraint extremely difficult. My aim was to not stoop to their style of debate, remain courteous and respectful of their views, and allow other readers to compare and draw their own conclusions. If you want to judge how well I managed, remember that the above quotations are just a sample of the ~60 comments posted on the two sites.
The other thing I took away from all of this was an appreciation of the power of groupthink. Put similarly-minded people in the same environment (gated suburb, online community, religious school, whatever) for long enough, and watch extremism rise as all members reinforce each other’s worldview and raise the volume higher and higher in order to be heard.
So I’ll probably explore groupthink via this blog, among other things, because I don’t think for a moment that eurosceptics like these are the only ones prone to it. Go into any cafe within shouting distance of the Berlaymont here in Brussels, after all, and you’ll find yourself in a large group of similarly-minded people, most of whom have been in the same environment for a very long time …
Is the EU suffering from groupthink? Is the Pope Catholic? What can be done about it?
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