Mathew Lowry

Apparently tomorrow – apart from being Australia Day – is BloggingPortal’s 3rd birthday. What does it’s state tell us about the EU Online Public Space? How many more friends can I lose anyway?

[Update: read a blogtour of 11 other posts celebrating this auspicious occasion]

BloggingPortal’s USP is deceptively simple: if you want to know what people are saying about the EU in blogs, BloggingPortal is the best – in fact, the only – place to find out.

It is a good example of machine-aided human curation: EU-oriented blogs are fed into it’s CMS, presenting their posts to BP’s volunteer editors, who tag them by category and make the best ones “Editors’ Choice”, pushing them to the home page. Users can thus browse EU-oriented posts from across Europe by category, filtering by 1+ languages.

There are also automated daily and weekly enewsletters, a manually written ‘Week in BloggingPortal‘ best-of, the inevitable Twitter account and probably a few other platform accounts I can’t keep up with. There have also been a few ad hoc projects, resulting in various meetups and a few high-profile campaigns (e.g., highlighting the Hungarian media law, opening up the Council to bloggers).

I’d guesstimate that at least a third of my posts will have mentioned BloggingPortal.eu in some way, and some (e.g., Bloggingportal2: What, Why, How … and When?) have focused exclusively on it. The reason is not hard to find:

BloggingPortal is essential for the
future of the EU online public space

A structuring effect

BloggingPortal (should) offer something important to practically everyone who wants to contribute to debates on EU policy.

To use my gardening analogy, it provides those wanting to do outreach – and indeed everyone who wants to take part in the conversation – with a map of the garden, allowing them to find, reach out to and join conversations.

This, in turn, then allows them to join those conversations together, across national borders. It’s thus a major source of pollination.

Finally, it also (should) provide those who want to contribute views with the visibility they need, motivating more people to pick up a spade.

In other words, it (should) have a structuring effect, flipping the EU Online public space out of its current chicken-and-egg situation into a virtuous spiral, where the network effect kicks in and makes growth exponential.

This is a very short summary – such a platform is also vital for overcoming linguistic barriers in the EU online public space, for example, and should play a major role in bringing specialists on board to bridge national barriers (see Specialists required to build bridges).

There’s only one problem with this theory:

It hasn’t happened

The amount of EU-oriented content running through blogs and social media has massively increased over the past few years. Almost exactly 4 years ago, for example, when I left Blogactiv, there were perhaps 5 bloggers worth putting on the front page, blogging maybe once a week. Last time I looked, the quality and breadth startled me.

And Blogactiv is just one place – there are many blog platforms, and even more individual bloggers. According to Ron Patz, almost 250 of the 900 blogs tracked by BloggingPortal published at least one post over the past seven days (source).

Yet while BloggingPortal is the only player in this growing market, its traffic is remarkably flat. This seems to show that BP is not meeting its potential, nor fulfilling its role.

The reason is unchanged since I wrote that Bloggingportal2 post in mid-2010: there are no resources (BP editors are all volunteers), and we are absolutely unstructured, with no internal process for moving forward. Back then I made some suggestions to turn it into a social business, and was accused of wanting to ‘take it over to make money’ – the second time, incidentally, that I’ve been accused of having secret, evil plans vis a vis the Euroblogosphere (here’s the first).

The accusation was unfounded (it was said, for example, that I would manipulate the market research to make it look more positive than it was, thus ensuring that I would lose money!), but it was a nasty experience which convinced me to stop trying. I hadn’t enjoyed being called a liar by foaming-at-the-mouth Eurosceptics, but when it came from my fellow Eurobloggers…

Since then, bugger-all has really happened. We have lots of fun email conversations, I’ve continued to carp and grouch while others do the day-to-day work, and there’s been the odd ad hoc project.

Let’s get technical

But what BloggingPortal needs is a major revamp to integrate the following technologies:

  • add federated search to human curation: allow users to search everything it tracks, across Europe
  • machine translation: search, browse and read across language barriers
  • semantic web: auto-categorise all content for search and browse, publish the resulting source in RDF format, and unleash the geeks
  • section-specific editorial spaces: reward those willing to put in the effort some proper visibility in their field (see Specialists required to build bridges)
  • country-specific editorial spaces: reward those willing to become a ‘bridging blogger’ serious visibility in both the Brussels Bubble and their country (watch the PreziCast)
  • more social media integration: because while blogs are where the in-depth conversations are, there’s more to the EU online public space
  • customisable enewsletters and RSS streams

Plus, of course, marketing.

All this takes money – more than EP’s Charlemagne Prize, which BP (incredibly) failed to win anyway.

In any case, as I said in mid-2010, public funding for BP (favoured by many editors) would be the kiss of death, not the way forward, for reasons I set out in subsequent posts (e.g., Do we need more EU platforms, or sustainable EU media?): basically, the EU Online Public Space needs to be a living ecosystem, with vital structures like BP run by organisations independent from the Institutions.

That means BP – or its replacement – needs to be an independent media, run along the lines of social business. Once it gets serious, it will trigger competition, growing the space further. But right now, it’s more like the personal RSS feed of the European Mutual Admiration Society of Eurogeeks.

Which is a shame. The guys who got it together did a brilliant job in their own time, for no financial reward and precious little glory. Every week a bunch of editors put in their own time to keep it ticking it over. But it needs to go to an entirely new level if it is to help kickstart the EU online public space, and that doesn’t look like it’s going to happen before its fourth birthday.

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Comments

  1. You’ve still got some friends? Obviously you’re not trying hard enough.
    Maybe it’s because you’re digging in the same hole or only tending to the same species of plant. My mistake has been to believe that by creating order amongst one species I can cross pollinate with another.

    I can see the beauty of having the same species (blogs) all lined up in a perfect row/portal. I just can’t see how it helps to pollinate = join the conversations together. Not every gardener is as dedicated as you and replies to a comment on the same isolated thread. In fact very few do, especially in the hothouses maanufactured around Brussels.

    At the same time we can’t say that the EC hothouse dwellers haven’t tried. We can see their attempts littered around the central domain. E.g.
    https://webgate.ec.europa.eu/regionetwork2020/og/all?page=2
    http://cordis.europa.eu/forums/dc/index.cfm?method=f.userinfo&viewuserid=62
    http://ec.europa.eu/information_society/activities/collectiveawareness/index_en.htm
    and beyond
    http://www.epractice.eu/

    To be fair to these well protected slaves, nothing really could happen until they we’re informed they we’re allowed to play with the tools. http://blogs.ec.europa.eu/waltzing_matilda/2011-the-year-the-commission-embraced-social-media/

    It’s going to take a little time to get the delicate flowers from below the radar (comm-social-media-team@ec.europa.eu ) to above it. Old habits and expectations do take time to change (“despite good intentions it’s difficult to get them all in one room”) We might find it easier to change their habits if we can get them to acknowledge that it’s their old educational habits which keep them fairly rooted in yesterday. This same discussion is going on in every university, with the talk about “distance education”.

    I do hope you know a few creative gardeners down inside the old (broadcast) media silo. http://ec.europa.eu/avservices/ The change in every public institution being – to complementing a message pumped out with a place (with a long tail) to aggregate some feedback in. But you know that.

    I’m with you on the section-specific spaces. In the .edu world we talk about disciplinary-centric global groups. But that’s only because university researchers think they can learn something from their peers outside Europe. I did like your pic on this page http://mathew.blogactiv.eu/2010/07/20/vacancies-specialists-required-to-build-bridges/ although blogs, to me, are the pylons. They still need the causeway to be put in place. (and this includes the “real time” stuff, as my techie friends say, like video conferencing and streaming).

    I agree with almost everything you say about specialists, human curation and unleashing geeks. But we need to back up a bit here; literally. I can’t see how scaping a radioactive surface and planting a enclosed tract is going to help any gardener. The techs I talk to are the ones who put in agricultural pipes and ensure drainage between (walled) gardens, and they want to help if only some creative group of gardeners would give them a spec, in the language of their geekdom.

    So we (certainly moi) do need to tend to our education and become capable of translating between EC’s cheese makers and these mousetrap builders (my preferred metaphor). The first step is coming to some understanding about “federated services”. I’ll leave you this diagram in the hope it will confuse, and entertain, you as much as it does me. http://www.geant.net/service/edugain/about_edugain/how_eduGAIN_works/Pages/home.aspx

    What might it mean for the EU’s gardeners and other institutionalized peers? Well, all that any citizen wants is an ID that allows them to log on to a social spot or service in cyberspace. Before then “they” need to put the ag pipes in between gardens, which in EC language seems to be encompassed in a project called “the Public Trans-European Backbone”. I suppose you wouldn’t know who’s in charge of contracting front end loaders?

  2. @simonfj, This and your previous comment were hidden in my spam queue, probably due to your many links. Keep ’em coming, though – both comments and links are useful.

    Seriously, though, I think you’re having way too much fun with my metaphor! 😉 Would like to know more about your cheese makers and mousetrap builders, and agree that the work to do is to “put in agricultural pipes and ensure drainage between (walled) gardens“, which brings us to bloggingportal.

    You’re right that in its current shape it’s not enough to join the conversations together. … in fact, nothing will ever be perfect. But given the resources, it could do a lot more with both blogs and other forms of social media. For example, in my original specs, the Section editor curating a policy-specific section would normally also curate a Twitter List for that section. As you add platforms (LinkedIn Groups, Facebook) the workload increases, of course, so it’ll never be perfect … but the work could also be shared.

    The tech is the easy part. Writing specs and bridging gaps between Geeks and Garden Designers is what I’ve been doing for the last 17 years, and I’ve got one of the best bunch of geeks around me every day at work. But GEANT is something totally different – the tech they’re developing is too restrictive for the Wild West that the EYU online public space needs to be. It doesn’t need regulation, accreditation and authentication – just a good ole map!

    As for the organisational challenges inside the Institutions, this is something I discuss a bit more in my most recent post. Dinner calls. I’ll see you there.

  3. Yeah, Sorry bout all the links. Been following the developments of stuff around the global silos for a few years and you got the (half) brain dump.

    So far as the mousetraps and cheesemakers, this is a bit old and crappy but must do. http://www.scivee.tv/node/18086

    So far as the cross polllination, we’re peas in a pod. I just think it takes bit more imagination and combining the types of flowers. Blogs are OK. Just one goodie in “the specialist” box of tricks. Check out what one of our imaginative countrywomen came up with.
    http://www.katelundy.com.au/2011/09/06/the-digital-culture-public-sphere/

    Lastly, re the geek stuff. GEANT is the (pan euro) backbone, so one size better fit all, otherwise we can’t get any “bit” from point A to B. In the layers above that, every citizen just wants their little space, and access credentials, so they can find their mates and have some fun. We might be in this nowhere land where “government” is considered something which is “delivered”. But as the public service non-techs come to terms with their “at work/institutional” credentials being just a subset of their those issued by “their” government, we might begin to see ‘a light’ dawn on the common gardens/public sphere.

    Re: “The map”. You’re absoclutely right. Got any ideas about how we rearrange this one? http://dl.dropbox.com/u/46051045/Open%20media%20structure.JPG

  4. I know a bit about GEANT from my time at DG INFSO, but don’t yet grok the role you see for them in this particular garden. Public discussions on the EU are open to all.

    Although Lundy’s “Digital Culture Public Sphere” is not the same thing I’m thinking about here, I do like the number of channels Lundy made available for the consultation.

    Unfortunately, there’s not much of a record on the number of contributions actually submitted, at least at first glance. There were only 25 comments from under 20 people on the blog, and the wiki’s stats section is almost empty of numbers (although getting #publicsphere to trend to 3rd position for Australia after #apple & #stevejobs is impressive, if only for 1 day).

    But then I only took a quick look – the rarest resource in this garden is light (attention time).

  5. Thanks mathew,

    You’re quite right about the lack of light. But it does give us a seedling to consider. Pia’s publicsphere series has created a ripple in one little Aussie pond. It was the combination of channels (at one time) I thought you might be interested in.
    This will give you an idea of the numbers. http://www.katelundy.com.au/?s=public+sphere

    As you say, these kind of consultations are open to all; if only people knew they we’re going on. They do of course – on and off, like stobe lights. All the bunnies in the gardens are stunned.

    Re: Geant. That’s the pan euro backbone for the unis, schools, research institutes and some gov departments. Terena is the association for its (very) individual National Research and Education Network (NREN) members. Europa, just like any mid-sized uni’s domain, has a network which taps into others, and could/should share public services, if only the bubble-bound would consult with one another. This is GEANT’s map. http://www.geant.net/Network/RandE/Pages/home.aspx

    You’ll notice at that terena meet, there’s talk (with these mousetrap builders) about a “Public Trans-European Backbone” (by some EC guys). It’s been spoken about as a “GÉANT for public administrations.” The working title out of the EC is also called “Connecting Europe Facility”, where they’re talking about blowing 9B euros.

    The talk/consultation will probably degenerate (as is usual) into “forget the content, feel the bandwidth” unless we get some understanding between the NREN mousetrap builders and a few imaginative cheese makers like yourself and your peers like Pia. As Olivier says, Social is something you are, not something you do, and bureaucrats are decidedly not. Can’t blame them though. It’s their spoon-fed education, which has turned them into paper shufflers, just like their profs.

    But the systems of education are changing in the silos. They are becoming more open. The only question now is how graduates in .gov can get in touch with the institutional habits of those in .edu these days.

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