Mathew Lowry

A while ago I posted (Not losing sight of the basics) the idea that EUROPA could suffer if the EU Institution’s limited online communications resources were refocused on social media. While social media offers the EU a great deal, this could be a serious problem, particularly given EUROPA’s importance to any EU social media strategy.

Interestingly, commenters seemed to both agree and disagree, pointing out how social media could compensate for EUROPA’s shortcomings and/or force the EC to do something about them.

In the process they triggered this post, which I’ve been meaning to write for a while, asking: is 2011 the year when EU social media grows to the point that it reaches the limits of scale?

The Fame Problem

Today, of course, we have the Brussels Bubble, where a small number of highly committed eurogeeks (some inside the Institutions, most outside) read and comment on each others’ blogs, follow each other on Twitter, etc.

It’s nice and cosy – I’d guess that many have us have actually physically met most of the others personally. Generally in Brussels, and usually around Place Schuman or Place Luxembourg.

And I think hardly any of us receives so many comments that s/he can’t find the time to read and – if worthwhile – comment right back. If my last post had almost 70 comments, it’s because I found the time to respond 20 or 30 times. It’s small enough in scale that we can actually have a conversation.

A lot of us seem to like it like that. But if EU social media grows, this will change Big Time, particularly for those within the Institutions.

I’m guessing Aurelie – via her @eurocontrol Twitter account – may be the first person in the Brussels Bubble to face what Clay Shirky calls The Fame Problem. When your audience is small, you can have a synchronous relationship with it – i.e., maintain a conversation. But what happens when you get hundreds, not dozens, of comments? The relationship becomes asynchronous, and maintaining a conversation with everyone simply becomes impossible.

The first response is to be selective, but once the numbers get too big, even the processing of selecting comments for response becomes impossible. Enter the ghost blogger, and ghost tweet, and exit authenticity.

Do the math

So is this the inevitable endpoint of EU social media? After all, there are 20-30,000 EU officials, and 500 million Europeans. Do the math.

Not, of course, that I’m suggesting that every last European is going to want to interact with Commissioner X via Twitter or President Buzek via Facebook. But it’s worth keeping in mind for next time you hear an over-enthusiastic, under-25 years old, self-described Social Media Expert, grandly declaring from a café in Place Luxembourg that social media is The Answer to the EU’s democratic deficit.

Today’s pilot model – a tiny number of EU officials conversing with a small number of Eurogeeks, using a tiny handful of languages riddled with insider jargon – cannot scale significantly enough to make any real difference to EU communications.

Either it evolves and scales, or it remains centred around Place Luxembourg. In which case social media won’t really help the EU reach anyone new, and its “elite feel” – one of the major reasons for its rejection by an increasingly distant and distrustuful population – will be projected into social media. A shame.

Zero sum games?

So let’s hope it evolves. I don’t know how, but comments to my aforementioned post did suggest that “EUROPA vs social media” is not a zero-sum game. Two ideas stood out for me (the comments are worth reading to get the full arguments):

1) Social media requests will overwhelm EU officials, forcing them to improve EUROPA

My gut feeling is that public pressure is not enough. As I said in my comment to Martin Westlake, who referenced the post in his blog:

Personally I find that optimistic – after all, several NOs in critical EU referenda didn’t do it, setting things back by years, so will a few overflowing Inboxes do the trick?

I also asked whether he was feeling overwhelmed yet. His reply was he’s been overwhelmed for ages. So I’m not holding my breath that social media pressure will out an end to the “EU institutions and Directorates’ … useless interinstitutional fights about how pages should look and about what tools should be implemented”, as @ronpatz put it.

2) Social media provides a different route for people to get EU information, including from each other

As I mentioned in my comment on Martin’s post, crowdsourcing usually looks good in theory, but “is often too good to be true. The web is littered with crowdsourcing initiatives which have failed due to disinterest or because they were gamed.”

The latter point raises a wider issue about access to information in democracies. Relying on online communities to help people find EU information seems like a risky abdication of responsibility by EU Institutions.

After all, it’s hardly the case that everyone involved in discussing EU policies are both politically neutral and altruistic. Far from it.

Political groups and lobbyists are already answering questions about the EU in social media, but they are doing so to pursue specific political, economic and social goals. They will not always present the full picture.

Having said all that …

Reading the above, I realise it reads like a rejection of the ideas quoted. Not my intention – the final picture will be a mixture. I have no doubt that active social media engagement will help focus EU communicators’ minds on what they need to do on EUROPA, and that online communities will help people find out what the EU is doing – after all, I’ve been building Community of Practice sites for the EU since 2002.

But I also believe that social media is just part of the toolbox, not a cure-all panacea, and remain convinced that the EU needs to make its own case: to set out its reasons for doing what it does, and explain how the EU sphere adds value to the national. It needs to do this via social media, with a good EUROPA to underpin that engagement.

Leaving it to the eurogeeks, lobbyists and assorted nutcases already discussing Europe is not a viable EU response to social media.

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  1. I feel more and more that social media eases real contact between people who would otherwise not have met, and afterwards helps to spread the added value of these relations to a wider audience.

    Good example:

    Take the bloggers from the more eurosphere-focused blog Vasistas. I knew them digitally for quite some time already (but had never met them in person) and so I’ve invited them to join the bloggers meeting with the Hungarian Presidency. Kirsten had time to come to the third meeting, and she wrote a blog post on Vasistas that she also cross-posted on, the most important German blog with ~1 million visits each month.

    She, by interacting in the bubble, helped to transmit the actual content of our discussions to a wider German audience outside of the bubble.

    The question now is whether, because of that, suddenly thousands of German readers wanted to interact with EU Council Presidency officials, which would be a scaling up due to rising demand following the knowledge that the institutions are in fact open for such kind of interaction.

    I doubt that.

    The fact that a trusted source (trusted in the sense of the national audience in this case) has done the interaction and helped to transmit the relevant message as a multiplier or broker will in most cases be enough. Being a multiplier or broker takes up a lot of time that most people are not able or ready to invest. So they rely on multipliers and brokers, and we just have to think harder how to get more multipliers from and to all European public spheres.

    In the end, network analysis has shown that most natural networks evolve in that way: Most people come together in rather close subnetworks (groups, cliques etc.) that are usually linked just by a few bridges.

    In the end, the demand for EU officials to answer to the requests of thousands of citizens through social media will remain rare. Most request will always come from the bubble. But that is kind of natural: As seldom as I will interact with officials of the German government or administration, as seldom will my German friends interact with the EU administration. So by being present in social media I’m not suddenly confronting every official with presence; it is still limited to those who matter.

    The final question thus is:

    How do I create points of access for the (rare) cases that I actually have a question to ask to people from a community that I usually don’t interact with, people whose specific language I don’t use in my daily life? Those people at such points of access should be ready to understand my request and to react in a way that reflects my reality.

    A good website may help because I may know in general where to search, so I’d find my way to the website (directly or through a search engine) and when it is good, it guides me directly to the answer or to someone to whom I can ask my question. This may then lead back to social media, helping me to find those people who are out there to interact with the public or guiding me to the right documents or the expert(s) not present in social media who might be able to help me through an email or a classic letter.

    There won’t the one way through which people address EU institutions, and so they have to have as good websites as they have to have a good strategy of how to be present on social media.

    It’s so simple when you write it down in a comment! 🙂

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

  2. Thanks, Ron! An excellent comment, really worth more than many blog posts I read.

    The process you describe – where you, a Bubble denizen, connect the EU to a national audience through a personal relationship created via social media – is exactly what I was talking about in a number of posts about Building Bridges between EU and national conversations (cf, specific fields of interest, communities of interest/practice, etc.).

    The resulting network shape is exactly as you describe.

    [Aside: If anyone wants to know more about the implications of this, I cannot recommend Greg Satell’s blog on network theory strongly enough. Start with his 2009 post on The Primal Forces that Drive Social Networks. He’s @Digitaltonto on Twitter]

    However, I’d not made the connection between this network shape and the scaling problem addressed above. Ironic, really, but it goes to show the importance of blogging one’s thoughts – together we’re more than twice as creative than the two of us are individually.

    This redoubles my conviction that we need to find ways to motivate people to become that ‘trusted bridge’. Actually, I prefer your term of ‘trusted broker’: after all, this is not just a passive carrier pigeon role, but an interpreter and translator between different spheres and contexts.

    Some ideas on that under ‘Motivations’ in Specialists required to build bridges, while I think part of the answer to your final question are the Community of Practice/Interest sites which the Commission should be convening, described in (When) Does EU blogging matter?, easily findable online through both social networks and SEO.

  3. Hi Mathew, I think Ron has made a valuable point about the need for the EU and its officials to be web 2.0 ready rather like the website needs good SEO to make information effectively available to interested parties.

    The beauty of web 2.0 is that there is no requirement to maintain a presence on a pre-ordained schedule as opposed to getting out a regular newsletter: you have something to say, you say it, someone reacts (intelligently), you respond. If the information gets passed on, great. If someone is sufficiently interested to translate it into a local context (and perhaps also linguistically), even better.

    The institutions feel there is an imperative to communicate in an even-handed and systemic fashion. I think web 2.0 should allow them (and their contractors) to question this mindset and look for more ad-hoc approaches.

  4. When you put it that simply it looks easy, Hugh! 😉

    My original point was that it is easy … at its current scale: a tiny Brussels Bubble. But what happens if the EU’s experiments in social media actually fulfill their promise and the bubble grows beyond Brussels?

    Answer: the quantity of people reacting (intelligently) grows with it. But the number of officials responding just doesn’t scale. The model becomes a victim of its own success.

    Limiting interactivity mainly to the Bubble and ‘brokers’ is possibly a way around this. But it does bring us to similar, difficult questions regarding the accreditation of bloggers to EU Institutions, which took a step forward this week, without answering the question of exactly what criteria should be used.

  5. @Mathew

    Perhaps some of your worries seem to be a bit early. Even if the Euroblogosphere is growing, no exponential growth in interaction demand seems to be on the cards for the vast majority of 501 million EU citizens.

    On the other hand, it is axcellent that at least a few trailbazers within the institutions break out of the old mold.

    If I remember correctly you spoke about the allocation of communication resources a way back: social media vs. doing the basics better.

    Just a while ago you commented on the Council search function and that of the institutions.

    Here my own experience is that with advanced search you can often find what you want on the Council website, even if it requires some work (and if the document is accessible, a big if).

    In comparison the general or quick search functions on the Commission (Europa) and European Parliament website are 1) lotteries, and 2) usually inferior to Google.

    Why have a proprietary search option if the value added is negative?

    Social and basic media improvements are hardly mutually exclusive, I would think.

    Both are clearly needed.

  6. Hi Ralf,

    The post you referred to is the first one I reference in the above post (Not losing sight of the basics), whereas the comment you mention was to Ron’s highly entertaining post on the hoops an EU expert and Transparency expert has to go through to find documents on the Council site.

    My previous post was just a plea to not forget EUROPA entirely, as the EU has pretty much fixed resources for comms, so work in one area takes away from work done elsewhere. As I pointed out “the EU institutions have a thousand reasons for getting social media right … but getting these basics right is important, too”, particularly given the fact that a good EUROPA is essential for any genuinely useful social media engagement strategy, particularly socmed outreach, where the potential is enormous.

    As for EUROPA search … don’t get me started! Particularly as I’m not peddling proprietary search (my focus is generally open source anyway).
    But my comment to Ron’s post was less about document searchability and more about linking relevant documents together to make document research more efficient.

    PS The previous post also covers this topic: “If EUROPA was only serving hyper-specialists in EU affairs, all it’d really need to do would be to publish documents with decent metadata and invite people to use Google. I’m exaggerating to make my point, which is that any website is a lot more than a document repository…”

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