Vacancies: Specialists required to build bridges

Posted by Mathew Lowry on 20/07/10
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The lack of specialists in EU-oriented blogs is impeding the development of the European online public space.

One of the observations in the recent Waggener-Edstrom survey of influential blogs that resonated with me was the lack of specialists in Euro blogging circles.

Finding 1: a major gap in sector-specific blogging expertise

The study contrasts this with the US, from where they imported the methodology (possibly creating more problems than solving them), and echoes something I’ve written about a number of times (e.g.,  missed opportunities in using the long tail of Communities of Interest and Practice to communicate Europe).

So what’s a specialist blogger? A few weeks ago, Steffen – covering similar ground – defined it thusly:

An influential policy blogger is an authority on a policy area who has a professional interest in it. They represent an organisation – be it a single issue pressure group or a global corporation – that is one of many stakeholders on a set of policy areas and present that organisation’s positions in blog format.

- Why the shortage of influential policy bloggers in Brussels?

No base for bridges

The thing is, all Eurobloggers are specialists – but their specialisation is the EU.

Unlike most of Europe’s population, they know the difference between the Commission and the Parliament, President Herman van Rompuy and the rotating Presidency.

What’s worse, they actually care.

Which makes us a tiny, hyperspecialised bubble, talking about EU arcana noone else understands – and, increasingly, talking about ourselves. With barely any bridges connecting us to other online conversations.

We cannot expect those bridges to form that easily – why would anyone outside our bubble connect to a microscopic, hyperspecialised echo chamber where people talk a language they do not understand?

So it’s up to the Brussels Bubble to build those bridges outwards if we want to create a European online public space.

Specialised conversations

If that’s what we want (I sometimes have my doubts – do large fish in small ponds vote for lakes?), then these connections are going to be built on specialist subjects.

Because, out there, people are engaged in conversations on their topics of interest. Privacy. DRM. Biodiversity. Employment regulation.

All of these topics are touched by the EU, but these conversations rarely hear about relevant legislation on the way from Brussels, because:

  • They’re not connected to Brussels, and the media won’t be telling them anything before it’s too late
  • Brussels doesn’t reach out and engage with them directly – some online community managers from the Institutions would help here;
  • As both Steffen and Waggener-Edstrom recently point out, there are hardly any bloggers out there who blog at the intersection of Europe and a specialist subject.

A cohort of specialists blogging about the EU-level issues in their particular subject would give those who don’t understand the EU a ‘handle’ on how the EU affects their field.

Because if these cohorts do what bloggers normally should – engage with others blogging in the field – they will be engaging with people outside the Brussels bubble. Thus forming bridges, and helping pop the Brussels bubble.

Motivations

Which raises the question – what’s the motivation for a specialist to blog?

I always imagined that becoming the leading blogger on – say – the EU and digital privacy would be a useful reputation to have. In fact, that was the ‘basic pitch’ we used when foisting Blogactiv on an unsuspecting Brussels bubble almost 3 years ago.

I still think that … but three years have passed, and specialists blogging intelligently about specific subjects are still notable by their absence. Either I’m plain wrong, or I’m just wildly optimistic about timing.

While it’s true that Brussels is s-l-o-w, Stefan sees three more concrete reasons for the slow uptake. I think #2 is probably the most important:

it’s just a question of sticking to what they know best – and frankly, who can blame them? It’s worked for years … why bother unless someone is twisting your arm?

In this perspective, it’s a wonder any specialist blogs at all.

Specialise to survive

So while lobbyists and associations will always be part of the ecosystem, maybe it won’t be them primarily bringing EU policy debates to the wider online conversation.

Which means that it’s probably up to the generalist Eurobloggers – generally citizen bloggers.

Fortunately, the more creatures there are in an ecosystem, the greater the need to specialise to survive. Which means that Europasionaria was right: we need more eurobloggers.

Preferably ones with specialist knowledge. And quite some free time.

24 Responses to Vacancies: Specialists required to build bridges »»

  1. Comment by Eurogoblin | 2010/07/21 at 08:02:25

    The EU is already an incredibly specialised subject with a limited audience – is it a good idea to specialise even more? The Waggener Edstrom report wondered why the US had such great specialist bloggers – blogging in areas like healthcare – whilst the EU had very little. I wonder if the problem might be that the EU has competence mainly in so-called “low-salience” issues – i.e. all the boring things nobody cares about (mostly regulation of cross-border issues). Things like healthcare – a high-salience, interesting issue – are mostly left to national governments, and best covered by national bloggers.

    The EU is a trap – I don’t think specialisation in EU affairs would solve much. I think what we need (as Europasionaria argued) is to shift the focus off the EU and onto Europe more generally. Start exploring national blogospheres more (using machine translation, if necessary) and engage with the issues they’re writing about – then join them all up in the European public sphere. This requires, I think, a very general and flexible sort of blogger whose overall focus is on Europe.

  2. Comment by Ralf Grahn | 2010/07/21 at 08:47:03

    Mathew,

    I think that your blog entry is an important contribution to the blog discussion reignited by the Waggener Edstrom report, and reflected on Twitter under #bbs10 and generally #euroblog, as well as first #bkae and now #bkaeb for Better Know A EuroBlog.

    I am thinking about your blog post, as well as Eurogoblin’s comments and the wider debate, although I started by looking at an underlying problem: the image and attractiveness of the European Union.

    Motivation is key to any blogging, but what is needed to make Europe (the EU) interesting enough to compensate for the time and effort?

  3. Comment by Martin | 2010/07/21 at 11:24:48

    Yes, it’s exactly what I was thinking. Thanks for being faster than me in sharing this critique or motivation for specialised blogs.

    Who can blame the current bloggers in EU affairs? It is actually an effort to be blogging about the monster EU anyhow. Also it’s a bit of vicious circle. Specialists in one topic don’t blog (at least in Europe) unless there’s a need for it. This need or market might exist in the national blogospheres, those acutally discussing specialised issues. Yet since these blogospheres aren’t connected to others across borders, a European dimension is seldom included.

    At the moment there is at least one topic which is broadly discussed among bloggers around Europe. That’s institutional issues, that the core of the EU, that’s the nerdy part. In a way, we eurobloggers, copy more and more the behavior of EU actors. Heck, we’re in the same boat. Most of the eurobloggers support the idea of that union. What to help foster it, wish to involve citizens, make people understand what Europe is about. That’s sounds awfully close to what the EU itself is doing. ;)

  4. Comment by Mathew | 2010/07/22 at 09:31:38

    @Eurogoblin, I think you miss my point. If you specialise only in the EU, then your audience is limited to eurogeeks like yourself, and noone outside the Brussels Bubble will take the slightest notice.

    If, however, you specialise in (“EU” AND “third world development”), then everyone interested in development issues will notice ‘that guy who understands what the EU is doing in development’. Results:
    - your audience has expanded to include the development community
    - they are better informed about what the EU is doing in development: the Why, the What, the How and the When
    - you can relay their opinions ‘back to Brussels’

    In other words, a bridge has been built which can carry a conversation between two previously separate worlds.

    @Ralf and @Martin: Yep, the lack of motivation is in a way a ‘market failure’. These are usually fixed by providing the infrastructure that lowers the costs and boosts the rewards. Hence my ideas for ‘sections’ on Bloggingportal, which do both.

    @Martin, I agree that eurogeeks blogging about institutional issues (something I’ve never done, btw) makes them look very much like the EU institutions themselves. Who was it that said that most eurogeeks are wannabe EU officials?

  5. Comment by Eurogoblin | 2010/07/22 at 10:35:17

    No, that wasn’t my point, either. :-D I agree that if you specialise in the EU, you’re restricting your audience. However, if your topic is “Europe” more generally – then your audience is wide open.

    If you blog just about food hygiene and the EU I don’t think you’re expanding your audience – I think you’re contracting it to only those people interested in food hygiene AND the EU. This might seem counter-intuitive, but I think that’s exactly what’s happened with those specialist EU blogs that do exist.

    The US blogging model won’t work in the EU, because the EU has competence in specialist areas that don’t interest the majority of people (unlike the US government). There’s a Moravcsik paper on the EU’s democratic deficit that argues that (and I’m quoting from memory, so don’t hold me to this – but this is the gist) of the 10 most important issues to voters, the EU has full competence in none of them (and is partially involved in only a couple).

    Writing an EU specialist blog is a guaranteed way to narrow the bubble – and it appears harder than you may think for specialist blogs to bridge the gap into national blogospheres.

    I agree with Europassionaria – Euroblogs should blog more generally about European issues, and connect with national blogs that way.

  6. Comment by mathew | 2010/07/22 at 12:41:00

    Hmm, OK, you do have some good points.

    One clarification: I never suggested that everyone should immediately switch to blogging about food safety. In an ecosystem, there’ll be a variety of bloggers. What I’ve noticed is that in this ecosystem the specialists are absent, which I see as a sign of its immaturity and as a handicap to building bridges.

    One question: don’t you think that if all eurobloggers “blog more generally about European issues”, they’ll risk all looking pretty much the same? Already there is a fair amount of “me-too” blogging.

  7. Comment by Eurogoblin | 2010/07/22 at 16:59:56

    The “me-too” blogging is actually quite interesting. On the one hand, this sort of blogging could easily become an echo chamber. However, there’s a related phenomenon known as a “blogswarm” – where a group of bloggers (sometimes in the thousands) all write about the same issue and put a great deal of pressure on whatever organisation they’re writing about. The euroblogosphere hasn’t ever really been able to “swarm” before, but the Waggener Edstrom report might represent a “mini-swarm.” Already, if you Google Waggener Edstrom Europe you get our blogposts criticising the report.

    [WORDPRESS HASHCASH] The poster sent us ’0 which is not a hashcash value.

  8. Comment by Eurogoblin | 2010/07/23 at 08:28:07

    I don’t see too big a problem with “me-too” blogging – especially in politics. What is sometimes called the “echo chamber” can also be seen as a “blogswarm” – putting a great deal of pressure on an issue if enough individuals post about the same thing at the same time. It creates buzz and a sense of dialogue, especially if everybody adds their own unique spin on things.

    Since the report, Bloggingportal has acted as a way to collect all the threads of conversation in one place (Ralf Grahn has also performed a similar task) – so they can be followed chronologically. It’s meant the front-page has looked a bit same-y topic-wise, but as long as the topic of conversation keeps changing, I see this as a positive thing.

  9. Comment by mathew | 2010/07/23 at 09:31:41

    I associate “me-too” blogging with social media experts jumping on the bandwagon, saying the same thing others have been saying for years, and passing themselves off as experts to those slightly more ignorant than they are. It just reduces the signal-to-noise.

    But in politics, perhaps not. The blogswarm idea is nice, but if the bubble remains very small and very self-referential, the only people reading our posts is ourselves, so it will put as much pressure on the outside world as … well, a soap bubble. ;-)

    Of course, the bubble does seem to be expanding a little right now. We’ve had false dawns before, but I remain hopeful.

    As for BloggingPortal – it’s doing a good job. It would be an overstatement to say that its home page has nothing else than the Usual Suspects, voting for each other and discussing the future of BloggingPortal! I’m just rather impatient – I’ve been working with Web2 and the EU since 2002, after all, and back then assumed things would have evolved slightly further by now.

    PS Ralf has also picked up on this – I just added a comment over here.

  10. Comment by Mathew | 2010/07/23 at 09:37:28

    @eurogoblin: for some reason your first comment on me-too blogging/blogswarm got caught in my spam filter. I only saw and recovered it after your second comment, and my reply. Apologies on behalf of askimet …

  11. Comment by Eurogoblin | 2010/07/23 at 11:08:41

    Yeah – I wrote a comment yesterday and it didn’t show up, so I gave up. Then I came back this morning and wrote the same comment in a different way. Bloody spam filters.

    Anyway, I want to write a post on “signal-to-noise” at some point. Basically, I’m calling bullshit on the whole concept; it’s too antisocial, too artificial a way of reading information. When you put lots of people in a room together, they are going to make noise. Noise is good – it means people are talking. Even if the group is not talking about your preferred interests (e.g. EU geekery) and instead are talking about how good the Subway they had for lunch was – it’s still not “noise” in any negative sense.

    On top of that, a person can now anyway search specifically for conversations they’re interested in. Try a Google search of “Waggener Edstrom Europe” (without the quotation marks) and see what comes up. Two of the top five results are euroblogs – one of them (mine) very critical of their report (the other is your blog). The exact results might vary from person to person (Google now gives you unique results based on your search history) but we’ve still created enough of a buzz that our results will be up there.

    The audience that actually follows the euroblogosphere by RSS feed might be relatively small, but we’re putting out posts which people will come across through search engines and links. In the next 10-20 years (as over 50% of the predicted 9 billion humans on Earth go online) it’s going to be hard NOT to find an audience – no matter what you write about there will be a growing interest group.

  12. Comment by Mathew | 2010/07/23 at 12:09:19

    I look forward to your post calling signal-to-noise a bullshit concept.

    Is it too much to ask that you read the two posts I’ve written on this particular topic first? ;-P

    You’ll find that I’m not saying anything like what you write I am saying. Both posts were in fact reactions to the problems of eurosceptics lowering the quality of online conversation – Godwin’s law in action.

    Neither were at all concerned with whether our posts are findable or not in Google.

  13. Comment by Eurogoblin | 2010/07/23 at 12:20:50

    It wasn’t really a criticism of you – more of the entire concept of signal-to-noise in social media. This deserves a post of its own, but I’m calling bullshit on signal-to-noise because the phrase implies that noise is a bad thing. The argument is that a person only wants to hear signal and reduce noise – to put it another way, a person only wants to hear what they want to hear.

    Anyway, this really is off-topic. I hope I get round to posting on this properly.

  14. Comment by Eurogoblin | 2010/07/23 at 15:35:16

    BTW, I’m not calling anything you’ve said in your post bullshit – I think you’re probably right that if we had more specialist blogs it would be a sign of maturity and a good thing. I wonder, however, if the European blogosphere is too small right now to justify much specialisation.

    The noise-signal thing is just my own personal bugbear. Large groups of people are supposed to make a lot of “meaningless” noise! :-) Perhaps it’s a community-approach versus an individualist-approach (or perhaps I’m just misunderstanding the noise-signal concept).

  15. Comment by Eurocentric | 2010/07/23 at 21:08:11

    Some good ideas here. I think that the most pressing need is the expansion of the Euroblogosphere.

    There will probably need to be a lot more generalist Euroblogs in order to support more specialised Euroblogs. The generalist Euroblogs should reach out more across the language barrier and across national blogosphere barriers – there function should probably be information collectors and connectors across the different blogs, putting the stories, news, and arguments they make in context. This would help support specialist Euroblogs and encourage people to write such blogs. Of course, that’s a very idealist view of how a more mature Euroblogosphere would work, and placing the words “blogger” and “should” in the same sentence tends to render them oxymoronic… But generally Eurobloggers tend to be public spirited (probably one of the effects of being geeky enough to write about the EU is wanting others to join in to popularise your subject), so talk of “Euroblogging strategy” might have some affect.

    I have to admit that I’m one of the worst Eurobloggers when it comes to building bridges. My mini-series on Northern Irish MEPs was picked up by one or two Eurobloggers (and kindly put on the Bloggingportal front page), but I suspect that was because it fit in with the idealised view of “what Eurobloggers should be doing”, rather than the actual content being interesting. As far as I’m aware no Northern Irish or Irish blogs picked up on what I wrote (and I’m only linked to by 2 NI bloggers).

    Perhaps I should have tried to publicise my articles in the NI blogosphere? I’d be very uncomfortable with that. It is hard to build up a relationship with NI bloggers because their blogosphere is necessarily restricted in topic to regional concerns, and EU politics rarely intersects (though it does occasionaly with CAP politics).

    I suppose I should start commenting more widely, using Google Translate and lurking in more national/regional blogs. The problem for me is the amount of time that takes!

  16. Comment by Mathew | 2010/07/23 at 22:31:54

    @eurogoblin: we definitely mean different things when we discuss signal-to-noise (noise, to me, was eurosceptics and other assorted trolls getting in the way of an intelligent conversation), so get yer post out and we’ll continue exploring it.

    @eurocentric, many thanks for your thoughtful comment. You’re abso right – specialists appear when an ecosystem has grown to a point where the niches are large enough to support their specialised strategy. We may be a long way off that point – what I’d like to do is accelerate the evolution.

    I would really, really encourage you to reach out to the NI blogs, if only to continue developing your experiment, just to see what happens, if you have the time. That process is absolutely how I see at least some bridges could be formed. But we can only find out if we try.

  17. Comment by Dale | 2012/05/08 at 21:41:41

    Hi Mathew,

    I think the policy formation process in Brussels is more or less open and you can talk to the people making the decisions until it reaches the Council, and when has a blogger influenced a council decision? So why bother with blogging when in Brussels unless you had a product to sell because you can just talk to the people who matter?

    I think the web is great – as an organising tool, and for providing factual content, but face to face still rules for sensitive complex issues especially when people are from different culture and have different mother tongues.

  18. Comment by Mathew Lowry | 2012/05/09 at 07:28:01

    @Dale, thanks for dropping by. While nothing beats face-to-face, the web does offer more than a way of publishing factual content. It’s absolutely possible for a specialist blogger outside of the Brussels Bubble to influence a debate inside the Bubble.

    After all, Brussels is brimming with people researching policy, and the first place many turn is Google, which can frequently lead them to authoratative blogs by specialist bloggers … particularly if they start referencing an EU debate.

    This potential influence then grows sharply if there is online engagement between that blogger and those people inside the Bubble following the debate. In this way both parties, at either end of the bridge, see a reason to create and sustain it.

  19. Comment by Dale | 2012/05/09 at 08:09:20

    Hi mathew,

    It is of course absolutely possible, as is the semantic web, good organisational databases, and convincing euroskeptics/ climateskeptics/ watermelons of another opinion.

    I remain unconvinced, but perhaps I’ve been away too long and things have changed, but from my casual reading i think not. Back to my budgets;)


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  2. Pingback by Es rumort in der europäischen Blogosphäre | europaeum | 2010/07/21 at 15:46:11

    [...] doch wieder den Eindruck von einer eingeschworen, intransparenten Gemeinde von fiesen EU-Geeks. Mathew Lowry bringt es auf den Punkt, indem er mehr “Spezialisten” zu einzelnen Themen sucht. Das [...]

  3. [...] challenges for Euroblogging; how are we going to get more people interested in Europe? Is specialisation the answer? Or is it time for a European group [...]

  4. [...] I posted a while back (Vacancies: Specialists required to build bridges), we need to somehow form bridges between the Brussels Bubble and national social media [...]

  5. [...] Vacancies: Specialists required to build bridges [...]

  6. [...] But if volunteers do want to help, then curated sections would be an interesting option, providing one way to build bridges in the EU online public space through curating specialist topics (see Vacancies: Specialists required to build bridges). [...]

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