Mathew Lowry

This is the first edition of what I hope will be a series of annual Review Posts, published as part of the My Europe blogging carnival, looking back at the ideas I’ve explored in this blog over the past 12 months.

The main reason for doing this review was to test whether these ideas, which emerge chronologically without any sort of plan, can be placed into some sort of coherent, overarching structure. It’ll also be interesting to me to have an annual record summarising my ideas every May, and should help ensure I develop new ideas, rather than repeating myself in the year to come.

It may also be a useful starting point for newcomers to this blog. And by the time I finish I may even have an answer to the My Europe Week question: What Europe do you want?

And just to make it interesting, I thought I'd do it as a Prezi, which I've been wanting to use since discovering it last summer. It probably won't make much sense stand-alone, so I've added a guide, below. To read both simultaneously you may want to open the Prezi in a separate window.

Introduction

My posts are too long, and the above Prezi is no exception. Sue me - the development of a European online public space is a complex subject. So rather than explain the ideas of my posts in any sort of detail, this Review will try to simply set them into some sort of structure and link to them.

The idea is that watching the Prezi is like following a map in search of the European Online Public Space (EOPS?) - defined briefly as social media conversations about EU policies and programmes by people who care about them.

It starts with my own personal EOPS - or, at least, the places where I go to discuss it: the IABC's Ning Community, Blogactiv.eu (obviously) and BloggingPortal.eu, which is (so far) an aggregator rather than a community, but is run by most of the highest profile Eurobloggers across Europe.

The point I wanted to make here will recur again and again in this post - the overlaps between these and the other spaces like it are minimal. Most people inhabit one tiny bubble. And as many don't seem to have gotten to grips with RSS readers yet, the only people they interact with are members of their own community, at best.

So is that the European online public space?

Pyjama People & Intelligent Scepticism

Well, no, because the EU is also discussed - vigorously - by the eurosceptics.

It really is a shame that we can't get any interaction between those who want to improve the EU and those who want to destroy it - my experience wasn't fun, but I learnt that the EOPS needs 'intelligent scepticism' (a concept I hope to explore more) as otherwise the EOPS will an echo chamber as riddled with groupthink as any eurosceptic forum.

So is that it? God, no. So far, we've just explored the EU bubble, and it's tiny.

National Conversations, National Bubbles

The majority of EU policy discussions online take place within national contexts.

Don't believe me? When French people discuss national environment policy, they're discussing a policy with a EU dimension. When Bulgarians discuss energy policy, same thing. As for Brits discussing foreign policy, or Germans on economic policy.

EU policy should be affected by these national discussions, because EU policy certainly affects national policy.

But these national conversations are separated from Brussels and from each other. Even if they weren't divided by barriers of language, they are divided by barriers of context - even if I spoke German, I doubt I'd be able to follow or contribute to an Austrian debate without knowing a lot about the country - the parties, the news, the Ministries, the history ...

Similarly, an Austrian interested in biodiversity, who doesn't know what or why the EU is involved in environmental policy, let alone which EP Committee is examining a Commission White Paper, doesn't get involved in the Brussels bubble.

Which is why conversations about EU policies involve relatively few people at the national level (the EurActiv people call them EU Actors), with most people reacting to, rather than contributing to, proposals from 'Brussels'.

Hence my eurosplinternet tag, and the need for a European online public space, because true democratic legitimacy requires an informed polity. And look at those EP election results...

Opportunity 1. Outreach

Hence the first opportunity that social media offers the EPS - outreach. I make no apology for the fact that this term comes from the world of PR. But when applied to social media, this is not PR, unless you actually like getting a kicking from your audience.

People engaged in social media conversations are talking about something they care about. Why shouldn't the EU engage them where they are, explain what it is doing in this area, and how it adds value?

But there are an awful lot of conversations out there. Fortunately, some are already cross-border. But more are needed. Which brings me to ...

Opportunity 2. Facilitating cross-border conversations

The barriers separating national conversations are porous. There are plenty of international online conversations focusing on specific themes: the Internet's long tail is brilliant at helping thematic communities form. So focusing outreach on communities which are already cross-border might be a start.

But what would happen if the EU was to help stimulate the emergence of such communities, by (for example) actively networking people and existing communities together, and/or helping people overcome the language barrier?

After all, the EC has been bringing national experts together to discuss policies and programmes for decades - it's just that most people don't get invited.

The traditional method of creating these 'Communities of Practice' has been through conferences and workshops, but there are examples of community-oriented websites for EC events and programmes which kill three birds with one stone:

  • making the actual events more effective;
  • opening up EC programmes and policy discussions to more people;
  • stimulating the emergence of cross-border conversations on the topic.

Better policies and programmes, including more participation and uptake of their results, would result from such an approach. The EC proved it in 2002.

1 + 2 = Opportunity 3

The same post also notes what happens when you have both outreach to national online conversations and the facilitation of cross-border online conversations on EU policies. Briefly:

  • People seeking information on a subject will find these EU-supported conversations, perhaps via outreach, or maybe just Google;
  • And they'll then see how the EU adds value, in an area they care about.

So is that the European Online Public Space?

Challenges, Risks and Solutions

Well, no, but before we move onto what the Lisbon Treaty offers, the Prezi quickly summarises some of the challenges and risks, and some of the techniques that could come in handy:

  • Achieving a good signal-to-noise ratio is hard in any online environment, and sometimes more so in EU affairs, unless they're quite technical. Discussion and background documents are essential. In particular:
    • for non-specialist audiences, thematic portals would help, as they explain EU added value in areas of interest; help users navigate the EU's complex structures, rather than force them to study them first; and can be cost-effectively multilingual;
    • handling eurosceptics would be helped by setting up a resource for sharing eurocrap rebuttals (see an excellent example of rebuttal in action).
  • Online community management will be an essential skill. It requires qualities not common to 'classic' PR;
  • I've blogged a lot about trust here. Basically, if people don't trust an institution no amount of communications will make any difference, as everything broadcast is filtered through a filter of distrust. However, social media strategies could help restore trust - it'll require everything I wrote about above: outreach, online community management, and both demonstrating and explaining EU added value, rather than glossy, 'happy family' brochureware;
  • Conversely, social media, if handled wrongly, risks creating more distrust: engaging in social media incorrectly (e.g., astroturfing) risks poisoning the well for the EU's use of social media. Social media guidelines are required, and not just for EU staff.

But just in case you were thinking that this sounds too hard and fraught with risk, consider the risks of inaction. Conversations about the issues touched by the EU are ongoing, whether the EU is present or not.

Not being involved makes one look aloof and uninterested in what people think, and gives free reign to those who openly peddle lies about the EU.

Opportunity 4. A debate with a LiSP

While a lot of bloggers have focused on European Citizens' Initiatives (mainly negatively), I think the real opportunity for developing the European Online Public space lies within the Lisbon Subsidiarity Procedure (LiSP?), where EU proposals are sent to national parliaments for debate, focused on the subsidiarity test - whether the proposed policy would create EU added value.

Now this will hopefully trigger 27 national debates (in 20+ national languages) which are simultaneous. This offers a real opportunity.

What's needed are people in each country curating and reporting on their national debate in a 'lingua franca' (all of these posts tackle multilingualism).

The idea is to build bridges across the barriers separating the national debates, allowing those in each national discussion to understand the debates in the other 26 countries, and connect their ideas together.

In other words, we'd have cross-EU discussions on EU policies which involve those outside the 'Brussels Bubble' - i.e., we'd have our European Online Public Space.

The same network of national social media curators would also provide an excellent platform, by the way, for supporting truly bottom-up ECIs (all relevant posts here).

What have I left out?

Looking at my tagcloud, I see that I've completely omitted my posts on visualisation and on the technological aspects of the European Online Public Space.

The latter because EOPS will only work if the technology is kept simple. Having said that, I also believe that the EU has a lot to gain from the semantic web, but that's another subject entirely.

And what, in the end, do I want for My Europe Week? I'm not political, and I'm a swing voter, so I'm not going to make any grand political or social declarations.

If you got to the end of the Prezi, you won't be surprised:

I'd simply like an EU which exploits online communications to the full, because I don't really see how the EU can function properly until it does.

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Comments

  1. Now you know why I’ve been so quiet recently ūüėČ

    Actually, there’s nothing new here – it’s just a summary of things I’ve blogged before, narrated together. Was almost surprised to find that the ideas fit together coherently – it’s like collecting pretty seashells on the beach, and finding that when they make a nice picture when thrown together on a coffee table.

  2. Good analysis Mathew. This is really interesting and there’s definitely something there, and it’ll be interesting to see if the EU Actors can be convinced to take real interaction via social media seriously rather than as an entertaining distraction.
    I guess many of them don’t realise the power of the internet (that there’s no longer such a thing as a speech for a “domestic audience” any more).

    So I can see where the idea of heading somewhere, doning something useful with all this is attractive.

    But one of the things I like about the eublogosphere at the moment is its anarchic approach, the way we are all so different but capable of coming together for campaigns (www.genderbalancedcommission.eu, or indeed #myEurope) or accidentally (the way so many of us reacted to the European Citizens’ Initiative).

    Many of us blog as a hobby rather than as part of our job (or indeed personal brand) and can’t commit to something more organised that would mean getting involved in something or running something to a specific timescale.
    But that doesn’t mean we’re not interested.

    So keep going with this thinking and let’s see if a grass roots grown space for interaction can affect the big political scene…

  3. Thanks for your comments and welcome to my blog.

    I totally agree with your analysis – with people blogging as a personal hobby, or as a small part of their brand, coordination and concert are only possible for short bursts of activity, not anything sustained. I know ‘cos I’ve tried.

    And the eublogosphere is a nice place, right now. But I doubt it will have much impact in its current form – it’s basically a virtual version of the Brussels Bubble, with euro/socmed/geeks talking amongst themselves, and no traction elsewhere. A bit of an echo chamber, maybe.

    However, I try to take a longer-term view of things. Hopefully, the number of people covering EU affairs will increase. To gain visibility in a more crowded environment, specialisation may become a strategy of choice. You see that a lot in complex systems ranging from ecology to economy.

    And anyone deciding to become an EU-level window to country X’s national discussion will become established both as the ‘EU guy’ among the Country X crowd, and the ‘Country X expert’ in the EU crowd. Sounds like a good place to be.

    This is a difficult role to describe in words. I don’t really think it came across well in the Prezi, either. I really need to learn Photoshop.

  4. Hi, A. Rebentisch, welcome to my blog and thanks for the question. I’ll answer it by reframing it.

    The meat and potatoes work underpinning the European online public space are bloggers who stimulate national discussions and/or curate them for consumption elsewhere in Europe.

    So before asking who would finance this activity, ask what motivates the people who are blogging today about EU or national affairs?

    In other words, what motivates political bloggers? Many things, but it’s rarely financial. It’s usually a mix of personal interest, part of a wider awareness or promotional work, visibility for other business activities, etc.

    Now hold that thought and remember, as I pointed out above to rose22joh, that performing the above role is an excellent way of raising one’s visibility in national and/or EU circles.

    So all that may actually be necessary is time – time for the number of EU bloggers to grow to the point that such specialisation becomes necessary to gain the visibility most bloggers need.

    However, such a development could be encouraged and stimulated – it becomes much more interesting to curate a national discussion when there are 26 other people doing the same thing in their countries.

    While I do see potential business models in that space, right now it looks like any such effort would be on volunteer power alone, as most eurobloggers definitely do not do what they do for the money! ūüėČ

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