Mathew Lowry

Raising the level of the debate

Over on Nosemonkey’s blog, in yet another debate on the pros and cons of EU membership, Insideur is of the opinion that:

IMHO there is a real gap in the market, that Open Europe has sought but failed to fill, for serious, informed, and therefore constructive criticism of the EU

As he points out, the debate on Nosemonkey’s blogs are generally of far higher quality and depth than elsewhere. The post in question (A cost-benefit analysis of the EU and the Lisbon Treaty?), for example, even got Robin (a longtime Eurosceptic contributor there) to agree “with the thrust of your post , it`s a very complicated issue“.

But having said that, there was also Sarah shrieking (It’s 1984. It’s undemocratic! It’s unwelcome!) and plenty of references by eurosceptics to facts and figures which are verifiably false, and ‘sources’ which are about as reliable and impartial as the Daily Telegraph and other Murdoch British titles.

Nosemonkey tirelessly and patiently corrects the fallacies, but one gets the impression that he’s arguing with a brick wall at least most of the time. More importantly, I wonder what he could contribute in a more constructive atmosphere than the confrontational tone that always seems to poison useful debate on EU issues.

And remember, the discussion on his blog is probably the best that it gets – elsewhere, the level of debate is much lower.

Out of the cacophony

So, as I mentioned earlier, the online debate on Europe is a cacophony, but does it have to stay that way? Is it possible to create a European public space for “serious, informed, and therefore constructive criticism of the EU”? Or are we stuck with the current yobbish, Friday-night-after-11pm-in-Manchester ambiance?

For me there are two possible paths for improving the signal-to-noise ratio. One is that people grow up and learn to respect other points of view online. That ideal appears unlikely, at least in the short-term.

The other may be some sort of self-organisation. Note I’m not advocating anything top down – independence and freedom are sacrosanct. All players should be invited, and carry on the conversation in their own way, on their own platforms, as before. The last thing we need is to reinforce the groupthink that isolated the Brussels bubble from the rest of Europe in the first place.

I’m just wondering whether it’s possible to link a few pieces of the existing landscape together, using tools and aggregators like delicious, posterous, or Yahoo! Pipes, in a structured way. And maybe build some quality control into it too. So that those who want to have an informed and constructive conversation can easily find the quality and don’t have to waste most of their time rebutting pure b*llsh*t.

The question I have is this: would this need to be organised, and if so, who would support it?

It is possible that a bunch of bloggers and other independents take it upon themselves to bootstrap a European public space into existence. But given their resources, the results may be limited, particularly given the costs associated with supporting a multilingual debate.

On the other hand, the effort could be sponsored by someone. But who? Lobbyists, NGOs, governments and EU institutions would all clearly bring issues with them. However, as Presidential candidate Obama demonstrated, it is possible for an interested party to fund a purely independent space.

But this is the EU, not the USA. What equivalent would we find in a political environment where most MEPs are barely known outside their own homes?

The media may be a better candidate, but perceptions of media bias could also be problematic – witness the massive distrust accompanying the launch of Blogactiv, for example. And with 99% of all media nationally based, let’s not even mention the question of linguistic and national bias.

Put simply, we might be stuck in with the current landscape, a Catch-22 situation where there is no European public debate because there isn’t one already there to support its own birth.

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  1. The birth of a European public sphere is going to take a very long time, but less if it is allowed to develop organically. And it is growing. I am amazed by the extraordinary rise in activity and exchange and the capacity to self organise appears to be a natural extension of the use of web 2 platforms.

    Ok, it is still mainly inside the beltway one way or another, but I feel we need to be positive and think acorns and oaks or slowly, slowly catchy nosemonkey…

    [WORDPRESS HASHCASH] The poster sent us ‘1055386704 which is not a hashcash value.

  2. Thanks for the kind words – though it should be noted that it’s taken literally YEARS for me to set the tone in my comments section, through a long-winded process of actively responding to as many comments as I possibly can.

    And it still takes an insane amount of time, effort and patience to maintain a vaguely civilised approach, and encourage constructive engagement by people with wildly divergent political viewpoints – many of whom (on both the pro- and anti-EU sides) assume that those who take the opposite view are either idiots or self-interested or both. Which is part of the reason I set up – to try and create a new civilised discussion forum, but one where I didn’t have to be personally responsible for every comment.

    With a recent change in my real-life work situation, I’m not sure whether I’ll have the chance to keep any of this up. Which would be a real shame, as (at the risk of sounding all self-important) I agree that the debates at my place do often seem to be rather better than can be found in other EU-focussed fora.

    As such, I’ve recently been pondering setting up a message board / discussion forum running parrallel to the blog in a vague attempt to maintain the kind of quality debates that my posts occasionally attract. The danger is that it would just descend into the usual slanging matches that every other EU-focussed discussion forum seems to end up as, but I’m thinking that it might just have the potential to maintain the house style of the blog comments. Would be interested to hear people’s views.

    [WORDPRESS HASHCASH] The poster sent us ‘1055386704 which is not a hashcash value.

  3. Before I answer in more detail: what should be available on such an online platform? Please forgive me when after your nicely built-up series I now ask this plain question 🙂

    Is it facts against myths? Is it blogs? Comments to blogs? EU directives? EP reports? Press releases? Live streaming links? Or all of that and who would then be interested in it?

    Even on there are not enough editors who have time to review and tag all articles every day.

    (I don’t say this doesn’t work, but want to ask critical questions first)

    [WORDPRESS HASHCASH] The poster sent us ‘1055386704 which is not a hashcash value.

  4. Thanks for your comments. As you probably know, my delay in replying is due to a technical glitch, but it does give me the opportunity to address all 3 comments in one. I risk getting long…

    First, let me be clear on only one thing – I don’t have the answers. If I thought I had them, I’d be delusional, as the answer(s) to the questions I’m asking can really only emerge from a discussion, rather than being deduced in some ivory tower and brought down the mountain to be imposed on an unsuspecting populace.

    What I’m doing is trying to figure stuff out in public, asking the questions out loud to get this discussion going. It’s the best way to discover, for example, that Nosemonkey has been considering “setting up a message board / discussion forum running parrallel to the blog”, or that bloggingportal doesn’t have “enough editors who have time to review and tag all articles every day.”

    So the comments to my recent posts are very valuable, particularly as the answers to brusselsblogger’s questions are found in Hugh’s comment, at least in general terms, while Nosemonkey’s last comment deserves more space than I can give it here.

    As Hugh (and I) said, the European public sphere has to grow organically. So the question is not what sorts of content would be included, because the answer remains whatever people find interesting and valuable, as is currently the case. Personally I doubt that press releases will play an important role in their present form (note to self: blog about social media releases ASAP), but that’s not my call.

    Moreover, I really, really doubt there’ll be ‘one platform’. “All players should be invited, and carry on the conversation in their own way, on their own platforms, as before”. So there’ll be a variety of content sources, as is currently the case.

    But I do not think that the current debate is limited to the Bxls Bubble – it’s groupthink to say that.

    There are 27 national policy debates, each either directly about EU affairs or touching upon it via the various policy axes, yet barely connected to the EU-level debates in the Bubble. Now add multilingualism to the mix, and stir with loads of pyjama people and biased journalists. And then distribute the whole mess over uncountable sites and platforms, with aggregators like bloggingportal catching and organising some examples of some content types (i.e, posts), but not others (e.g., tweets).

    So the current growth may be vigorous, but it looks less like a stately oak forest and more like my garden after I returned from a month in Oz – an impenetrable thicket, with the occasionally valuable plant smothered in weeds and desperate for sunlight.

    Like Hugh, I can mix my metaphors! But unlike Hugh, I’m impatient. Although his Zen-like calm sits oddly with the speed with which he launched a posterous blog literally minutes after I tweeted about it. 😉

    So the question (at least in the above post) remains whether there’s any way of improving quality without excluding anyone or spending Nosemonkey-levels of time dealing with pyjama people; or having organisations sponsor initiatives without (perception of) bias.

    It’s what’s called a ‘Wicked Problem’. As one possible solution is to link things together with a little Web2.0 technology, I’m thinking that we can start with an experiment. I’m wondering whether anyone else would like to join in on a focused conversation on what I guess one could call the theory of the European public space – i.e., to discuss the space itself, not the EU policy discussions going on inside it, or indeed even the forms of content.

    This conversation, of course, is already underway, but it’s like the wider picture described above – a loose collection of individual thoughts. Through a little coordinated use of Web2.0, we should be able to knit it together; do more, quicker; and bring in other minds. And maybe the techniques we try out – posterous, twitter, delicious, whatever – could provide some models for the wider European online space, down the line.

    I’ll blog again on this soon. I’d really like to hear more about Nosemonkey’s plans, and am sure will play an important role, whatever happens (if it didn’t exist, I’d call for its invention). And we might even call it web2eu, if only Hugh would tell us what it all means! 😉.

    [WORDPRESS HASHCASH] The poster sent us ‘1055386704 which is not a hashcash value.

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