Mathew Lowry

Now and then the question arises: how can we get a transnational discourse on European topics underway, or create a European online public space?

The two phrases in bold, above, both come from one of the latest posts on the topic, this time from Julien Frisch. They follow initiatives like Steffan’s Bloggingportal.eu, which aggregates Euroblog posts together and adds value to them; Ideas on europe, a joint venture by Nosemonkey and the University Association for Contemporary European Studies; the never-to-be-released Pilot Information Network Systems (myparl.eu); and plenty of others, including uncountable numbers of single-issue spaces. And, of course, the blogactiv.eu platform helped and prompted more than a few people to get started in blogging on EU affairs.

I’ve been fascinated by and thinking about this idea since the mid 1990s, but the more you try and pin this one down, the more you realise that it’s like life itself – you know instantly when you see it, but there’s just no way of defining it rigorously.

First notes

I tend to figure stuff out by writing about it, so this post – and probably a few others to come – will be about me trying to figure out how a European online community would look. So I’ll start here by just noting things down, and hopefully come up with some issues for future posts.

I know one thing – any transnational discourse on EU affairs will definitely be bottom-up. But that doesn’t have to mean chaotic. Biological life is a bottom-up phenomenon – there’s plenty of scope for self-organisation. But organising it from the top-down will smother it.

And it goes without saying that it won’t be one site, won’t run on one platform, or even one type of platform. Hell, it isn’t just online! But this creates a challenge – dispersal. Just how many places can one person track and be useful on? Can self-organisation help connect the dots separating people and ideas on different platforms, let alone when they’re published in different languages?

It’ll have to include everyone if it is to really be of much use. Of course, one could argue that this is not only a given, but that it is also just a matter of time, with the EU Institutions and MEPs slowly dipping their toes into social media. Let’s hope so. I guess the arrival of the first Commission-paid online community manager will signal something. In the meantime, NGOs, lobbyists, media and above all people are already there.

The problem of trust will probably prevent any discussion of EU affairs reach its full potential. In many ways that’s unavoidable and not unique to the online environment, but as more and more communications agencies (for the EU institutions), PR agencies and NGOs use socialmedia, I’m wondering whether some sort of code of conduct to reinforce authenticity would be useful.

It’ll definitely be a cacophony. It already is. So participants will do what they always do – select and filter to keep their personal signal-to-noise ratios high. So that’ll be self-correcting, except that filtering creates groupthink. And the worst offenders here include those in Brussels, which is why I hate the phrase Brussels Blogosphere – a bubble in serious need of a needle. Rating systems come in handy here …

And it is, and will remain to be, a Tower of Babel. I’ve been tackling multilingualism in EU online communications for almost a decade now, in both Web1.0 and Web2.0 environments, so I’ll come back to this later.

Suffice to say that tackling multilingualism in a world of user-generated content was something myparl was supposed to pilot, and that – until the web gets semantic (if it ever does) – there’s an opportunity going missing for the right organisation wanting to add value at the European level and gain some brownie points position itself as an Honest Broker in the process. I explored this in a presentation at the IABC, but am not sure lobbyists could credibly manage this.

And finally, there’s this French-accented, bright yellow voice in the back of my head saying that since almost all useful EU political discourse is refracted through national political lenses, maybe this is all simply irrelevant?

Or is that it?

Or maybe the current landscape is basically it? More and more people will join the discussion, so it’ll grow in size, but maybe it’ll simply stay the same shape: a collection of haphazardly linked conversations across an endlessly proliferating array of platforms; separated by language, geographic context and political persuasion; punctuated by isolated echo chambers populated by me-too bloggers, xenophobes, Europhiles and pyjama people; infested with bandwagon-hopping ‘social media experts‘ and PR agencies, ghost-blogging and posing as someone else?

God, I hope not.

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Comments

  1. Interesting post Mathew. Speaking as someone (one of the few) that is involved in the EU blogosphere professionally, I have to agree with your comments about dispersal and a cacophony.

    I’m supposed to be the expert, but there are so many posts and comments each day that if I followed them all, I’d never do anything else. In fact, I have to say that there are a number of people that I see so regularly that I wonder if they actually do have jobs!

    You know who you are 😉

    For now at least, you haven’t mentioned the added complexity of multiple languages. That will be another thorny beast.

    Best,

    Stuart

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  2. Hi Stuart, and thanks for the comment.

    I’d really like to hear more about how you manage the streams of information you need to follow – could you answer the survey on my previous post?
    http://mathew.blogactiv.eu/2009/08/29/toolkit-survey/

    The idea is that if we can identify a shortlist of tools that a lot of people use, it may be relatively easy to use them in a mash up.

    PS for multiple languages: see the reference to Tower of Babel, above … 😉

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  3. Tower of Babel. Oops. You didn’t ever mark me down as someone with a classical education did you? There are gaps. Lots of them…

    I wish I could say that I am really successful at following it all, but I’m not. In fact, many days I deliberately avoid looking so that I can get things done.

    Anyway, I promise to take a look at your questions.

    Cordially,

    Stuart

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  4. I completely agree with Stuart regarding the language issue. This is what makes the difference with the US. Are you assuming that English should be the sole language of this on transnational discourse on European topics?

    Another issue is how to get out of the Brussels (EU) Blogosphere? How to go local? Is discussing about EU a subject of matter reserved to an elite?

    Pierre-Antoine

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  5. Hmm, obviously when I wrote that European online community would be a ‘Tower of Babel’ I wasn’t clear enough that it would be multilingual, because both Pierre-Antoine and Stuart missed it … I’d put it down to language, but Stuart’s more English than I am.

    As for piercing the Brussels bubble, I couldn’t agree more, which is why i described it as something “in serious need of a needle“.

    Needles pop bubbles, you see. But that’s a metaphor, and metaphors do NOT work well when writing for people who are reading in their non-native language. My bad, as Americans would say.

    All of this shows that when building a multilingual conversation around EU affairs, people have to either find an infinite number of translators, or write plainly, without artifice.

    As for the ‘elite’ … I wrote: “It’ll have to include everyone if it is to really be of much use …

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  6. Just for the record before I comment: I do have a job (even several ones actually) 🙂

    On the languages: It might sound simple, but the only possible answer can be TRANSLATION – human and machin-based one. Try running the French version of Blogactiv through Google translate and you will see that it’s doing a relatively good job.

    For readers interested in the topic of EU online communities, please see also my comments over here.

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  7. On machine translation – yes, it’s getting better, but nothing beats a human being – I wonder how translation engines would have coped with the literary metaphors I used in this post, and which tripped up two readers (see comment V, above)?

    But machine translation has to be part of the solution. One way I explored for the myparl project was to combine SaaS machine translation with human translators, as follows:
    – people first see a machine-generated translation of the title and abstract, just to get a gist of the content
    – from that, they request a machine-generated translation of the full article by simply clicking on a ‘more’ link in their language
    – once they read the machien translation, they can then request a human translation. If enough people ask for it, it goes to the top of the ‘translate me’ pile.

    In this way the (limited) resources to where people want them.

    We looked at paid SaaS solutions because they provide EU-focused translation libraries.

    I’ll probably post something on online multilingualism at some point this month – it’s one of my pet subjects.

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  8. Your 3-level translation workflow implies that somebody would be paying for the translation. I don’t think that this is a real option.

    The EU itself – sofar – only supports literary translation (of fiction and poetry books).

    I ran your story through Google Translate (EN > DE) and have to admit that while you certainly understand 70-80 % of the text the exact phrasing is often a bit bumpy. Your tower of babel, however, is nicely translated, while not replacing “classical education” 🙂

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  9. the model I mentioned was for the ec-funded myparl.eu project, so there was some budget, although the original specs foresaw it, if i recall correctly, principally for the background docs rather than the user generated content. Without budget, we’re talking volunteer translators – the model still applies, but the scale drops.

    The point is that machine translation works well for most cases, particularly if the original content is written with this in mind, and the humans are there for the high priority stuff. Moreover, they can work from the machine translations.

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  10. Even with human translation, the problem remains that translation is yet another lens placed between the original writer and the final reader. Even between people with the same mother tongue, e.g., a US native of Palo Alto, California, a UK native of Edinburgh and a Jamaica native of Kingston, the problem of understanding can be immense. When a translator, perhaps raised in Berlin, Germany and trained in Cork, Ireland, must interpret the Jamaican’s words for a reader living in south-eastern Poland, accurate communication becomes that much harder to achieve. Think of the added complexity when you move out of the Indo-European language group. And what happens when the translator’s translation gets translated to Ukrainian?

    We love our multicultural, multilingual heritage for the variety and the sense of group identification it provides. Yet we can revile it as well, for it causes misunderstandings that help foster Us versus the Other world viewpoints. If we wish a fully integrated Europe, if we wish a fully integrated Earth – which we surely need to survive the growing population size and the growing technological kit – then we’ll have to accept a single common language sooner or later.

    Personally, I’m willing to accept its choice by random. Put all the well-documented languages in a hat and pick one. Start learning it. It can be Mandarin, Manx, Masaba, Mi’kmaq, Mongolian or, for that matter, Klingon. And I say this, by the way, as a totally useless student of languages.

    It’s easy to think of a milder way, one that doesn’t include cultural bullying, to move toward an agreed single official language. I admit that requires the bullies to stand down – a big expectation – but if we cling to a multilingual Earth, we are doomed to long and very expensive communications problems at the least, and “clashes of civilization” as a very high probability. I propose we encourage the use of a single common language, not reject it in the name of backward looking social standards.

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  11. Hi Clayton, nice to hear from you.

    I agree with your diagnosis (see preceding comments about writing for non-native speakers), but not your solution! Vive la difference!

    I’m an Australian, and barely heard a non-English word spoken before showing up in Europe in my mid-twenties. I’m rubbish at languages – always will be. But I love the linguistic diversity of Europe, and by extension the world.

    I’ve learnt that a language is not just another dictionary and vocabulary on a bookshelf – each language holds ways of seeing and communicating things which are unique, and cannot be thought in another language.

    Imposing a single agreed language would accelerate the disappearance of so many languages, robbing the world of unique ways of thinking, and massive amounts of cultural heritage.

    If we are to rise to the global challenges this world faces, we’re going to need to be very creative. Agreeing on a common language would amount to an auto-lobotomy on a global scale. A cure which is surely worse than the disease?

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  12. Clayton, I prefer much more the EU’s approach to languages: make everybody learn at least two foreign languages. As a side-effect this also improves other skills and the ability to express yourself in your native language.

    And above all: I’d like to have a large European Online Community BEFORE we agree on one single world language 🙂

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