Mathew Lowry

Caught up with Julien Frisch last week (his account here), and was struck by how refreshing it is to talk to people involved in EU affairs and social media but who are not actually in Brussels, and also to talk to them face to face.

It’s easy to underestimate the importance of face to face in this era of blogs, comments and tweets. Most communities of practice, in fact, need the occasional physical event to keep them going.

I’m actually writing this from Stockholm, where the Commission is bringing together all the members of the Enterprise Europe Network for an annual get-together (disclosure: my day job occasionally brings me to events like this, but not to blog about them – i.e., I’m not being paid to write about this. So would I have passed the FCC disclosure regulations?).

Anyway, there are a lot of people in this EC-funded network of business support organisations, who often find themselves helping businesses in one EU country do business in another one. The idea is that the nodes in the network work together, creating a sort of ad hoc transnational business support network to solve the company’s problems.

The network has extranet tools to help them work together, of course, but they tell me that they are not enough on their own – events like this one are generally needed, because there is nothing more efficient than a personal connection, underpinned by trust. And that, of course, is why we have a Brussels bubble.

The bubble is not formed by any desire to keep people out – it’s more like the way water molecules collect together due to their electrostatic affinity for each other, creating a meniscus, or skin. And skin is, of course, a barrier. It’s not as thick as it looks: Julien appears quite surprised how easy it was to pass through it, but then he is a blogging guru.

The importance of this physical dimension has implications for the development of the European online public space. As I’ve suggested in various posts, the European online public space is a conversation which must extend and intermingle national conversations, which means it has to involve people located in the Member States, separated geographically.

Yet a good community of practice really benefits from at least occasional face-to-face contact, and really becomes powerful when the events create powerful incentives to contribute online, so that the event and the site are two sides of the same community coin.

Fortunately, specialised EU-level events happen every day, bringing together specialists from across the EU to have a conversation on issues as diverse as research priorities and gender policy.

Unfortunately, with very few exceptions, these are generally one-sided coins – an event, where the only online component is a static, top-down, utterly inactive website. The only people participating are the invited specialists at the event, and the conversation lasts no longer than the actual event itself.

Supporting each and every such event with community-oriented websites, and opening up those sites to allow a wider audience to join in, would thus link national and EU policy discussions together in ongoing, transnational conversations on the topic at hand. Such event sites could be a verry important building block of the European online public space, and so should be the rule, not the exception.

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