Mathew Lowry

In September last year I wondered whether 2010 would be the year when someone poisoned the well for the use of social media by the EU (here and here). In the last few weeks I’ve been mentally preparing an update post, as it didn’t really look like it was going to happen.

So is the #euco twitter wall kerfuffle (see Jon Worth’s post) it?

Update: plus Eurogoblin’s views

I’m just guessing here, but I think (and hope) not – at least, not in the way most people may assume.

On the face of it, there are probably more public servants operating in the higher echelons of the EU Institutions who are now less likely to be open to social media. You simply cannot blame these people for being risk-averse. It’s their job to organise summits smoothly and to ensure none of the participants lose face. By this logic, there are probably now a few more people for whom social media and the EU are poisoned.

But a twitter wall at a EU council is not a good way of using social media, so this is (hopefully) not a huge problem.

Why? Let’s break this down into two statements.

Is this useful?

Does anyone really think that EU leaders, as they do whatever it is they do at these events, are going to be glancing at a Twitter stream for policy ideas, guidance, spiritual enlightenment …? Really?

Certainly, looking at the stream, few of the people Tweeting did.

People aren’t idiots. They know they won’t have any constructive influence via Twitter, and – moreover – they’d also probably agree that they shouldn’t. Democracy doesn’t work like that.

If someone is not expecting their constructive contributions to be taken seriously, then their contribution will not be constructive, nor serious. Quite the opposite (destructive, flippant, sarcastic …).

[BTW: I deeply loathe Berlusconi and loved the hijack]

Does it matter?

So why is this hopefully no more than a storm in a teacup?

Well, just because a Twitter wall is not useful for a Council meeting doesn’t mean that social media is not useful for the EU. There are a hundred ways social media can be used constructively for the EU.

Crowdsourcing, however, is at the harder end of the spectrum: it takes real resources and requires very special conditions. Moreover, those conditions are found at the exact opposite end from high-profile events like Council meetings.

Good crowdsourding requires, among other things:

  • small numbers of highly committed people (anyone on Twitter could get onto the Wall)
  • dedicated online community management (there was no tweet moderation)
  • the expectation that contributions will be taken seriously (see above, and below for more)
  • and a resulting high signal/noise ratio (Much Ado About Silvio, & very little about the EU)

So while this episode may set back the use of social media where it won’t help much, it won’t hurt it where it can make a real contribution. Hopefully.

Losing our trust

Jon’s post references Clay Shirky talking about the failure of President Obama’s

… there was a lack of a credible bargain – there was no realistic assumption on either side that the ideas would be implemented, so an organised group lacking a voice in traditional American politics settings gamed the system to their advantage for publicity purposes.

– The need for a credible bargain … – Jon Worth

Just substitute ‘Italian’ for ‘American’ and you could be talking about the Twitter wall.

Interestingly, last year in Creating trust by example, I also reference Clay Shirky talking about Obama … but talking about Candidate Obama’s successful use of crowdsourcing, before his election.

Usually failure is followed by success, not the other way around! Moreover, we’re talking essentially about the same crowdsourcong effort – the only difference was that the Candidate had become President.

How is this possible? After all, presumably President Obama has more resources than Candidate Obama. Why, by mid 2009, was it clear that the US eGovernment2.0 experience was overrated?

Perhaps it’s because candidates can credibly claim to be listening to ideas, but it’s a lot harder for a government to convince us that they’re really listening. They, after all, are already in power. And we are very, very cynical.

Without that crediblity, any crowdsourcing effort is doomed. Which would imply that crowdsourcing is most effectively used by those not (yet) in power. Ouch.

Update: All we need is … Buzz?

Eurogoblin, on the other hand, suggests

… the Council’s press team … need to figure out what went right. How is it they got so many people interested in their Twitter experiment? Rather than just improving their moderation, the Council’s press team needs to think how best they can tap into that chaotic, exciting, out-of-control buzz they managed to achieve …

EU Twitter Wall Hijacked by Anti-Berlusconi Protesters, Eurogoblin

My post, above, is predicated on the idea that using social media is about more than creating a ‘buzz’. The signal-to-noise in any buzz is generally low, and that was certainly the case on this Twitter wall.

Future Twitter walls at Council events – if they happen at all – will attract more of the same sort of contributions (except Cameron to be dogged by Eurosceptics). Moreover, the walls will almost certainly be moderated, which will infuriate people even more, generating even lower S/N in a vicious spiral.

So if all we want is buzz surrounding an EU event, then you could argue that the twitter wall was a great success! But if the goal was to improve understanding of what is going on at the EU level, and even get some useful ideas, then this is probably not the right direction to take …

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  1. Mathew, you’re quite right. However, you’ve misread my point a little – I’m not arguing that the answer is “more buzz.” I’m saying that when the Council’s press team sits down next week and talks through what they should do to avoid this situation in future, the solution is not just “more moderation.”

    Of course – moderation is important (they were lucky they didn’t get a flood of xenophobic tweets or Twitter porn up on the screens), but going in with a heavy-handed approach will kill anything like this they do in future. So, they also need to figure out what went right. Buzz on its own is counter-productive, but what elements combined the other night to attract so much attention? The answer is, I think, more complicated than just “it was a massive public cock-up and people came to point and laugh.” Yes, that was a large part of it; but I’d guess that some of the elements that created so much energy the other day can be replicated, without embarrassing the Council.

    Bottom line: the assessment should not be that the answer is as simple as asserting greater control over what people write. That would be a mistake.

  2. I think when they sit down to think this through, the use or not of moderation is not even secondary. It’s a detail.

    First they – like anyone doing anything – need to ask themselves what they are trying to do. Then if – and it is IF – social media offers anything, and if so what. Whether what they do is moderated comes later, as one of many (very important) details.

    Right now, it just looks like a classic case of someone thinking “Twitter seems a very popular shiny toy, so let’s use it to appear to be listening”, without thinking things through.

    The result of that is always painfully public, because people know when something is being used for gimmick, and not for real, and punish it appropriately.

    In contrast: the last online community I launched from within the EC, we got over 8000 constructive, useful comments in the first month … and that month was August!

    Why? Because we had what Jon, quoting Shirky, called in his post “a credible bargain”. The communities we’re launching now, in contrast, are building more slowly, as the links between the online community and our clients’ internal organisations are not as well established.

    As always, it’s a question of organisation, not of the technology you use, however hip it may appear.

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