Mathew Lowry

So Joe has a good summary of the euroblog meet-up (“Herding Cats“), with a more detailed followup on the way.

There are a lot of competing ideas, which is exactly what we need – the main point is that this discussion is finally underway, with ideas flowing across Europe via blogs, Google Wave, Twitter and email. Following Wave, in particular, is a challenge.

Many of these ideas are also contradictory – for example, some want the focus to be on parties, others remember previous experiences where partisan nonsense mucked things up. I suspect both are right.

But I’m not going to try to summarise and comment on everything here. Instead, I want this post to clarify a couple of things about the ideas I’m throwing into the mix. So apologies in advance for the length. You should be used to it by now.

Centralisation, or the lack thereof

For quite some time I’ve been advocating the use of decentralised Web2.0 tools to knit the conversation together:

I thought I’d kick off with a quick survey of the tools used by those of us interested both in social media and EU affairs … Such tools are the building blocks of a European public sphere
Survey: What’s in your toolkit?

As I said in last week’s post, I gave up on that survey because we’re still too loose and unfunded, a sentiment echoed by Nosemonkey during the chat. But last week’s post did resurrect the idea of using tools to

transfer content from national debates … to each other via some sort of platform (bloggingportal, a twibe? whatever).

Note that I wasn’t advocating a major centralised effort – creating a Twibe is hardly revolutionary – and, not for the first time, I mentioned bloggingportal as a potential platform for helping content find its way between national debates.

Nevertheless, it was suggested that I was trying to organise content centrally, and that a “(semi-)professional platform that organises / aggregates relevant discussion threads to give an overview”, would be a less centralised approach than what I was advocating.

Funnily enough, such an approach would be more centralised and ambitious than I was thinking (my emphases):

The entire world of social media is based on the technologies which would make ‘organising content’ possible without much work. I briefly explored Posterous, Twitter/Twibes, etc. And of course bloggingportal is there already. No ‘work-centric’ central platform is strictly needed.

and that

[the use of] some quite basic tagging/aggregation tools … creating an irregularly updated, utterly distributed library of ‘views from across Europe’

And still, Ralf Grahn is now telling me that we don’t need any dazzling new projects.

Sigh. So, sorry for quoting from my own comments, but I’m a little fed up with the accusation that I’m trying to create some ‘dazzling new platform’ when all I’m suggesting is that we use the standard suite of Web2.0 technologies already out there, and perhaps bloggingportal if anything centralised proves necessary.

I obviously wasn’t clear enough – hence this post’s focus on clarifying some of my ideas, currently spread out over several posts and comments, here and elsewhere, Google Wave, etc.

In other words, I need to herd my own cats. Which, ironically, illustrates just how difficult it is to follow a conversation distributed across so many places.

Multilingualism: the network effect

This was the focus of the chat and a lot of really good ideas came out.

In Ralf’s post, he gives some language post stats from bloggingportal:

A very rough indication of the blog posts now is about 60 per cent in English, 20 in French and 20 shared between the rest of the languages.

I’m not surprised that so many blogs are in EN. When I was launching blogactiv a couple of years ago, we just couldn’t get French or German-speaking bloggers to blog in their own language. In the chat, for example, Julien Frisch mentioned that he tried to blog in English and German, but couldn’t make it sustainable.

This is the network effect – it’s much more valuable to be part of a bigger network than a smaller one, as the value of the network is proportional to the square of its members (in this case, community and audience).

Right now the ‘European blogosphere’, roughly speaking, is divided into separate linguistic spheres. So people choose the biggest one, which accordingly grows faster, becoming more valuable. A recipe for a vicious circle. Julien chose to continue in English, not German.

One solution here is to look at it from another perspective – rather than build a multilingual European blogosphere, think more about bringing the EU policy debates into the national blogospheres, in national languages, and then build language bridges between debates on the same subject.

Along the long tail

Why?

This may be hard for people obsessing about EU affairs to understand, but – as Nosemonkey mentioned in the chat – EU affairs are dull. Only EU geeks care about EU affairs for their own sake. They can have their EU-Geek-O-Sphere, of course, but it’ll just be another online group.

Some suggested that we should all blog in such a way as to make EU affairs sexier. Well, you can take a cow around the world, but in the end you’ll still have a cow.

But everyone cares about something (see When does EU blogging matter?). So rather than try to make EU affairs interesting for its own sake, let’s join the debates at national level and show how decisions being taken at the EU level are relevant to them …

Building language bridges

… and then build language bridges between those debates, using decentralised tools and (perhaps) a central platform like bloggingportal.

That way, not only would national debates learn more about – and contribute to – relevant EU-level discussions and programmes, but could learn from each other directly.

Imagine, for example, if members of a network, or club, posted summaries of national blogging conversations (“glosses”) in a lingua franca (English, Esperanto, whatever), summarising and pointing to one or more individual posts (still in the national languages. Once again, sorry but I’m going to quote myself:

Imagine one blogger in Country X, regularly posting (and commenting elsewhere) on national affairs in the national language. The difference is that s/he often refers to the relevant EU policy developments, best practices in other countries, and the ideas being discussed in other countries.

Presto, the EU enters the national debates, and people learn from experiences in other countries.

How does this happen over the language barrier? Because our blogger is using a pipe of content from bloggers who regularly gloss the debate in their country, using a lingua franca (English? Esperanto?) and/or machine translation.

Moreover, because they use some quite basic tagging/aggregation tools, all of this content is easily found, creating an irregularly updated, utterly distributed library of ‘views from across Europe’ that our blogger can tap into when composing his nationally-oriented posts.

Machine translation

A centralised platform comes in handy when managing translations, particularly machine-assisted. For example, it could allow the above network to manage a ‘machine translation budget’ and a ‘human translation budget’.

With google translation, the machine translation budget is infinite, but there are companies out there claiming to do a better job, feeding their systems with specialised content so that they translate on a certain issue better than Google. They are paid on a subscription model. So this could be sponsored by the private or public sector, or indeed the translation service supplier.

Users, having read a gloss, decide they would like a translation of a specific post highlighted by the gloss, or perhaps the gloss itself.

They first request a machine translation out of the machine translation budget. If this budget is limited, a controller has to decide, so we’re looking at a voting/rating system here.

If/when the machine translations are published, users can then either volunteer to improve the translation, or ask for a professional translation out of the human translation budget, if it exists.

So all of this is entirely possible on zero translation budget, as Joe is going to explore with Transposh (Google + volunteers-via-wiki).

My hunch is that the best path is to build a zero translation-budget system as a proof-of-concept, but build it with the idea that financed translations (human and/or machine) could be added if/when a sponsor wants to get on board.

Self-consistency

Finally, when building a jigsaw puzzle, it helps to have some idea of the final picture before you start drawing and cutting the individual pieces.

When looking at these problems, the key is to develop integrated, self-consistent solutions: i.e., ideas which successfully tackle the interrelated issues of content, audience, translation resources, technology, centralised/federal network, user-friendliness, quality, relevance, timeliness and more, all together.

Of course, nothing like that is ever going to see the light of day. But it’s fun to aim high. 😉

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Comments

  1. Mathew, I think you are building up a conflict where—while potentially presenting a dilemma of choice on individual level—none exists. You write:

    “Rather than build a multilingual European blogosphere, think more about bringing the EU policy debates into the national blogospheres, in national languages, and then build language bridges between debates on the same subject.”

    But it’s not either or, nor rather this or rather that. Both approaches have value and relevance!

    You have eloquently made the case for enriching national discourses with European aspects, and I wholeheartedly agree with you. But there is also no denying that some of the economic, political and military powers of nation states have shifted to European and global levels.

    As of yet, there is no public space to accompany—some would even say: control—these new power structures, and mechanisms of democratic authority are largely absent or dysfunctional.

    At the same time, identity formation of at least some people has begun to be transformed already – in particular young people may feel more European than German, or more of a Berlinerish European than a Berlinerish German; whichever the particular order, in Europe an element of European identity has been added to the mix.

    As important as informed national debates, I would therefore argue, is the creation of trans­national spaces of dialogue and exchange, of criticism and control. And to my mind, the main value of such spaces goes far beyond informing national contexts.

    If that were the case—if the main value of blogging about European issues were to be of national relevance—and if we continue to argue that, we shouldn’t be astonished that people have little motivation to follow and write about European issues.

  2. Hi Andreas, and thanks for your comment. Good points, both on general and specific levels.

    Generally, you’re absolutely right to say that it is not either/or. Actually, I implied this (EU geeks “can have their EU-Geek-O-Sphere … but it’ll just be another online group”), but I can see how my post could look a little dogmatic. ;-(

    What I wanted to do with this post was just to “clarify a couple of things about the ideas I’m throwing into the mix”, not impose them on anyone.

    In the end, it’s all about idea exchange. These are just some ideas for discussion, that’s all.

    More specifically, you’re also right that identity is a lot more porous that ‘either European or national’. I am Australian, British, Belgian and European.

    However, I would point out that Eurobloggers are more likely to ‘feel European’ than your typical citizen of an EU Member State.

    When looking at the issue of using social media to widen awareness and discussion of EU affairs (which is my focus), it’s vital to not assume that our own profiles and attitudes are shared by the wider population. That’s a common mistake by many people in the EU bubble – it’s why the EU is so disconnected from most Europeans.

  3. Mathew, I really enjoy throwing ideas around on your blog – I am myself a big fan of strongly formulated—sometimes considered dogmatic—statements and opinions. It takes sharp arguments to look at different aspects of an issue, doesn’t it?

    I totally agree that Eurobloggers are more likely to feel European, but I suppose such bigger shifts of identity are not necessarily limited to people blogging about their European experience – isn’t it much more people having a positive European experience, whether they blog about it or not?

    Right there also lies one of the challenges of our times, which we Europhiles tend to overlook – there is a drift between parts of younger generations, namely those who have access to European possibilities, and those who do not.

    I share your concern about the Union’s disconnection, but the disconnection exists even between many people who do feel European and the institutions – simply because the EU still assumes that being European means to love its institutional framework.

    Research has shown, for example, that the appreciation of the EU has not grown among young people benefiting from the Union’s Youth Programmes; which could well be an expression of the phenomenon we are describing here, and utterly beyond the grasp of many people inside the EU bubble.

  4. It is exactly “about people having a positive European experience, whether they blog about it or not”.

    Which is why it’s useful that when they are blogging about what interests them (organic farming? technology? development? climate?), in a national or transnational conversation, they come across someone who can tell them about relevant EU policy developments, how other countries are handling an issue, etc.

    I need a word or phrase for this. EU-national outreach?

    Thanks for your comments, btw – totally agree that one has to both make one’s own thoughts loud and clear, and listen to everyone elses’ with respect and an open mind.

  5. I would extend your argument a little: it’s useful if people are expressing themselves beyond their personal circle of friends – be it through blogging, photography, podcasts, videos – whatever medium they chose, really.

    And yes, through doing so, over time, a European dimension will become a more natural, or at least more easily available and accessible, aspect of conversations – be they local or national, transnational or global!

  6. It’s exactly that ‘network effect’ that social media offers.

    Few people believe anything any Institution tells them.

    But if they hear about a relevant EC policy development, programme or project from a friend, via social media, that changes everything.

    Sharing content entirely sidesteps people’e inbuilt scepticism. They trust their peer network – their friends, and their friends.

    This is one of the most fundamental aspects of communications and social media, yet many people don’t show much sign of having grasped how important it is to the EU.

  7. ABSOLUTELY!

    Optimistic as I am, I would also hope though that people do trust personal accounts, which is the assumption leading me to the idea I voiced over at Grahnlaw about a portal with one article a day, by a different insider about their personal experience; no politics, no institutional babbly.

  8. “Yet another feature request for bloggingportal?”

    Nope — too centralised 🙂

    Seriously, I think this is functionality and purpose overload.

    Nono, a small cute own little thing: adayineurope.org or so.

    Standing in its own right, but well connected to the rest 🙂

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