Mathew Lowry

A while back I and a number of others were blogging about how a very light, bottom-up usage of Web2-style tools and techniques (bloggingportal, delicious, tagging, google alerts, etc.) could help build links between national and EU online discussions and develop the slowly emerging European public space.

The importance of this was brought home to me recently when I realised that the European public space is already splintering into almost completely separate online groups – there is not much overlap in membership, or interaction between, say, the IABC web2eu “twibe” (mainly Belgium-based lobbyists and EU officials); the independent, quite in-depth bloggers supporting (located all over Europe); bloggers on Cafe Babel (traditionally studenty, if that makes sense); individual bloggers here on Blogactiv (who sometimes don’t even allow comments), and so on.

And yet they’re all using social media to discuss Europe (or, in many cases, just bluffing their way through).

Anyway, I’ve always thought that we’ll miss the essence of what social media offers the EU, particularly if the Brussels bubble simply projects itself into social media and isn’t connected to anything else.

But there’s bugger all I can do about it – the only reason I bring this up again is that around the same time I was reflecting on the abovementioned “EuroSplinternet”, I stumbled upon, via an article on RWW about SocialText, a wishlist from the early days of social media:

“I think Reed’s Law should be refined to state:

“The value of a group-forming network increases exponentially with the number of people in the network, and in inverse proportion to the effort required to start a group.”

… When I come across a post on an interesting theme that seems like it might have lasting value, I want to be able to:

1. Create a topic, with a title of its own and a definition or description …
2. Subscribe to that topic. Subscribing has two effects: it adds the topic to a personal topic list of mine, and it means I’ll get posts by other people on that topic …
3. Post to that topic whenever I talk about it in my weblog. This has to be *easy*, like checking a box or selecting from a drop-down menu …
4. Access an archive of posts on that topic somewhere on the Web.
5. Let anyone edit the description of the topic when important things are added to the “state of the art” on the topic, or when other related topics spring out of the discussion…”

Making group-forming ridiculously easy, Seb Paquet, 2002

Exactly what I was looking for (and expressed so much better), so it’s a shame that this was posted eight years ago by Seb Paquet, who’s quite influential and now blogs here, and yet only now are we seeing services like SocialText basing their ideas on it.

Even then, it’s still a long way off, as SocialText is aimed squarely at corporations and project teams.

To see what I’m actually looking for, you’d need to:

  • watch their video,
  • substitute ‘company’ and ‘organisation’ with ‘Europe’
  • substitute ‘project’ with terms like ‘EU policy debates’ and the like
  • imagine that their technology is ubiquitous – i.e., it comes pre-installed in most browsers, and/or is as standard a feature in social media software as RSS

[kml_flashembed movie="" width="425" height="350" wmode="transparent" /]

Still, a man can dream, I guess …

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  1. Attitudes not systems, get results. I’d love to see something like SocialText in my place of work. However, given the poor track record of wikis, I fear the take-up would be slow. Platforms can support interaction between people – they can’t create it.

  2. I really shouldn’t have included the SocialText video, because it’s pretty much besides the point I was trying to make.

    You’re right – people want to interact, have a conversation. It’s our nature as social animals.

    But you downplay the importance of technology – the internet, and the software running on it, have been making it easier for people to have those conversations for 50 years, extending the reach of their conversations and allowing geography-less groups to form around topics.

    This process may have accelerated since Mosaic 1.0, but it’s far from over – it is still not “ridiculously easy” for groups to form in the wider Web (within platforms like Facebook it”s a different matter, but FB is not the web).

    SocialText took the concept of easy group-forming and ran with it in one direction (internal comms). My point was simply that if this concept was taken in another direction, enabling ridiculously easy group-forming on the wider web, the European online public space could take a decent-sized step forward.

  3. Ridiculously easy group-forming technology actually existed (and was used) for a brief time around 2003 thanks to the efforts of NZ hacker Philip Pearson. It was called the Internet Topic Exchange.

    I’m still hopeful for REGF tech to make a comeback in blogspace. Of course, it’s a kind of culture that has to be instilled, but it can happen. We already see it in twitter with #hashtags, and in tools like SocialText and .

    Don’t despair though, even without REGF there are bridge-people in every community who eventually do the hard work of linking things up for the rest of us.

  4. Seb, thanks for dropping by, and for the pointer to Philip Pearson. Building those bridges is what I’m trying to do here, but one feels a little like a Dutch boy with a finger in the dike.

    It’s not helped that discussions of EU affairs are already massively splintered into 27+1 debates (there are 27 member states in the EU, speaking over 20 official languages plus plenty other ones).

    But there are some interesting things going on. Am currently having a conversation on IABC (one of the other platforms mentioned above) about crowdsourcing policy development, where an old friend pointed me toPadgets, an EU-funded research project (in which Google is a partner) that is building “a micro web application that combines a policy message with underlying group knowledge in social media (in the form of content and user activities) and interacts with end users in popular locations (such as social networks, blogs, forums, news sites, etc) in order to get and convey their input to policy makers.”

    What do you think? Can a microweb application from a research project get the install base it needs to reach a tipping point, or is the history of this field littered with neat technologies which never did?

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