September 30, 2009
A Twitter conversation between two much-followed EU-oriented bloggers over the weekend caught my eye. I won’t identify them as you need to follow them on Twitter to see their tweets.
It started when one asked whether anyone out there “still thinks that blogging is in any way likely to have an impact … why should anyone listen to us? We stopped being regular Joes the second we got a readership.”
In reply, the other noted that even “regular” types “discuss politics, in the family, with friends, at work“, and that people “so far unable to spend time in party politics can now voice her/his opinion publicly and influence the agenda”.
This brief exchange captures something of the debate between cynics, who believe social media is just another channel for the chattering classes to pontificate on political esoteria, and those who believe that it can actually bring something new to politics, namely ‘regular Joes’ (i.e, ‘normal’ people).
What I think is missing is the emphasis on interests, and a longer time horizon.
Piercing the Brussels Bubble
After all, if someone is not interested in who is elected next President of the European Parliament, no amount of blogging and tweeting will make them interested, even if they do appreciate the importance of the role.
And for the moment, unfortunately, this is generally the only EU-related content one sees in social media. This is ‘Brussels bubble content’- even if some of the participants are not located in Brussels, that’s where their interests are, and it only interests others like them.
But more is possible.
The community gets a long tail
Let’s take a longer time horizon, and look forward to when social media is as normal for Regular Joes as mobile phones and email. It’s not long off.
Will they be taking part in social media communities focusing on the activities of EU Institutions? Of course not. What they’ll be doing is pursuing their interests.
Now everybody is interested in something. My favourite example is a butterfly lover. Maybe there’s one person per million who likes butterflies enough to chase them, paint them, study them.
In times past, that meant that most butterfly lovers were very lonely, because their community was bounded by geography. With one butterfly lover per million, there was statistically not much chance that any given village would feature two of them.
That all changed with the Web, which brought the long tail.
Now our wired-up butterfly lover has access to a worldwide community of butterfly lovers, large enough to support websites, newsletters, conferences, etc.
And their conversation is mediated by social media.
So what does this have to do with the importance of people blogging about EU affairs?
Well, when our butterfly lovers start discussing the impact of pesticides on butterfly populations, or ponder the structural difficulties preventing farmers from taking up organic farming, they’re discussing a subject that the EU touches for reasons of subsidiarity.
The EU in Community
Whether they know it or not, our regular, butterfly-loving Joes have entered the EU online space. One way or another, due to the interconnectedness of social media, they’ll realise that the EU actually does affect what they care about – in this case, butterflies. And they will learn about the EU’s role, because they care about butterflies. And they will talk about it. Maybe even get involved in something because of it.
So that’s when social media will really matter to EU policy. Not because a few impassioned bloggers write about EU affairs for each other (although that’s good too). But because people, who are engaged with each other anyway via social media, integrate the EU angle of their field of interest into their conversations.
The people, in fact, are already there, or at least well on the way. But is the EU?
Hopefully, when our Regular Joes search for information on butterflies and organic farming, they will find some context for whatever they find, which is likely to be the latest news about EU Regulation XYZ. This context needs to present a clear explanation of what, how and most of all why the EU is active in their field of interest, taking a thematic approach rather than individual explanations of individual Commission DGs, and explaining the logic of EU added value in their field.
With luck, they may even find the information they seek in an online community of practice, set up by the Commission to help national experts in different countries learn from each other on how best to stimulate organic farming. Then they will really ‘get’ how the EU adds value in areas they care about.
But now the pessimist in me takes over and I realise that the thing they’ll probably find first is a pile of misinformation from eurosceptics, who were active in social media practically before everyone else. A shame, but that’s the reality – while social media provides the EU with incredible opportunities to engage with butterfly-loving regular joes, it offers exactly the same advantages to everyone else.Mathew Lowry