August 31, 2009
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.
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.Mathew Lowry