Tuesday 7 July 2009

Creating a European Public Sphere: The Hyperlink Story

Inspired by a must-read article on Ribbonfarm titled "The Rhetoric of the Hyperlink" and following my recent critique of Jean Quatremer's way of "zero-link blogging", I would like to share some thoughts on the active creation of a European public sphere through hyperlinks.

Let's start with the obvious: The creation of a genuine European public sphere would be the basis of a genuine European democracy, independent of the legal basis of the Union.

Yet, the lack of communicative links between national and European discussion threads and the lack of shared background knowledge, both across national borders and across groups on the European level, is impeding its emergence.

Because their method of story-telling is not based on links, traditional media cannot really contribute to a development that overcomes the divide of different national and policy-related public spheres. Their closed presentation of news usually does not foster cross-checking of facts and backgrounds, and they do not invite to participate in the debates around a particular topic.

The reason is that they miss the core element of virtual interaction: The hyperlink.

I think I had understood this before, but only after reading Venkatesh Rao's article on Ribbonfarm yesterday it really made sense.

So far, I thought of hyperlinks in EU-related articles more in the sense of a possibility to create connections between information, discussions, and people: They hold together what would be atomised thoughts, they tie in with what has been said before, and they are thus constructing the intertemporal and interpersonal reality of (still limited) European debates.

If their only function would be to be the glue between those who are writing, a system of reference and reverence, they would already fulfil an important function, one that I consider to be one of the main elements of blogging.

But in fact, the use of hyperlinks is not only a way to create connections to others. Hyperlinking allows completely new forms of writing about European politics, and those who understand this can actively contribute to the creation of a European public sphere, both within the institutions and in the wider public.

If hyperlinks become an active part of the language we speak when we write online, we can help to build bridges between those who are already inside the debate and those who want to join. And thanks to the inspiration from Venkatesh, I can give you a simple example.

Imagine the following sentence in a newspaper article (or anywhere else):
  • "After long discussions in COREPER that have been echoed in the European blogosphere, a compromise proposal has been made that satisfies even the strongest critics."
And now the same sentence with hyperlinks (exemplified!):
The first version of the sentence expects from the reader that she or he knows everything, from the abbreviation COREPER to past discussions, from the idea of a European blogosphere to a mysterious compromise proposal.

If you have the perfect reader, this sentence is read with delight.

But the same reader could also read the same sentence with hyperlinks, with the same delight. For her/him, there is no need to follow these hyperlinks.

However, anyone who has never heard about COREPER or who didn't know that there was a European blogosphere, someone who didn't follow the discussions in the past or who wasn't aware of positive reactions in the present, can read the sentence in combination with everything s/he finds through the hyperlinks, in accordance with her/his interests and knowledge.

In principal, this is very similar to what you know from Wikipedia, but there the links are more related to word-concept-relations while we can use them more actively, more creatively, mixing explanation and provocation, allusion and confusion, guiding the reader while interacting with other writers.

Hyperlinks in this sense are an interaction between the writer and other writers as well as an interaction between the writer and the reader(s), one that goes beyond the unidirectional sending of thoughts.

In the Euroblogosphere and in the overlapping Eurotwittersphere as well as in the European online news service EurActiv, the use of hyperlinks - although different in style and scope - is a widely accepted standard and a more or less natural practice in the creation of European discussions.

Links are used both as reverence mechanism between peers but also as cognitive bridges for those who would not understand the full extend of an article without this relational guidance by the author, without forcing the latter to (re)write what has already been written before.

Despite the many shortcomings one could list for the Euroblogosphere, and probably also for EurActiv, this is definitely a crucial plus one should not underestimate.

Ultimately, everyone who is writing about European politics has to understand that the audience we speak to is very diverse, in terms of nationality, involvement in EU-related matters, knowledge of technical details etc.

If we want to create a European public sphere, we have to be aware of this diversity, and address it with the possibilities digital writing offers. In particular, since usually people tend to blame the many official languages for the failure of the EU to create common debates and to become a common polity.

Yet, it is not so much the number of languages as it is the inability of newcomers to easily follow and join European debates, debates which are basically held between EU experts using the language of EU experts - not because they want to keep others out but because this language is the most efficient to discuss EU-related matters.

The conclusion is that we may write texts that are full of implicit references, EU-specific language and filled with technical details and abbreviations.

But if we have an interest in involving not only those already heavily involved, we have to be creative and effective in the use of meaningful, text-based hyperlinks, making the implicit explicit and the technical easily comprehensible for the wider audience we want to reach out to without losing our immediate target group(s).

Creating a European public sphere is thus absolutely possible - we just need to use the right hyperlinks!


Venkat said...

Interesting that you talk about being friendly to cross-checking. That's one advantage traditional media infact claims over new... that they check/double check facts. Linking as evidence of openness and interconnection is a different form of validation of facts, and presumably has some advantages/weaknesses to the journalistic method.

Julien Frisch said...

The good thing with links is that you can offer the reader the reader to check the original source although you did that yourself. This raises the trust because they see that you work accurately, but offers the possibility to detect misinterpretations or mistakes that can always happen.

The journalistic approach still remains to keep all the facts checked, but the hyperlinked journalism would also allow anyone to see that this actually happened.

Eurosocialiste said...

Excellent article.
Although we can't really avoid using technical language when our primary target is EU specialists, and probably linking is a good thing as such, I am not sure that it would get non-EU specialists to read technical posts... I think the only way to foster more attention to EU politics is by making things look simpler than they are, using common language, and putting the emphasis on things all can rely to. I know it's challenging and can oversimplify things to the risk of being inaccurate, but I think that's the only way.

Brussels Blogger said...

I of course very much support this. One of the most important objects for linking would be press releases: if the groups in the European Parliament would learn accurately link in their press releases it would already be more interesting for bloggers to read (and in return link to) them.

Ralf Grahn said...


Thank you for an excellent reminder of the virtues of links.

We bloggers have caught on, to an extent, and even one or two mainstream media blogs have taken up the practice, but mainstream media in general, administrations and politicians rarely have the courage to use references or link to others (even if I have seen some exceptions). They are still geared towards proclamations, mainly.

Joe Litobarski said...

Hey, Julien,

I'm playing with a new toy: web annotation. I've been highlighting your text and adding notes (hover the cursor over the highlighted text to read them). Here's the link: http://www.diigo.com/06i73

I haven't annotated this post much, because I agree with everything said. Very well written!

I hope you don't find my notes too annoying - because I plan on doing more of them. Maybe the way we interact with information on the web is becoming less passive, eh?


Joe Litobarski said...

Still playing around with it. Trying to find the best way to use it.

Ho hum...

Julien Frisch said...

I am not sure whether making comments to a blog article elsewhere is not very practical, because readers of this article cannot see what you have written without going there, and it is quite hard for me to react.

Regarding your comment to my first sentence in the main article: I think the Union as it is could be (more) democratic if the whole system would have a public sphere, because then all major institutions and players would be under constant scrutiny by the public, wherever they are active (i.e. on the national or the supranational level).

Joe Litobarski said...

On second thoughts, I think you're absolutely right about it not being very helpful, Julien. :-D

If there is a comment section, it doesn't make sense not to use it.

However... I have been finding this new gimmick useful if there ISN'T a comment section - especially if I don't have time to write a full blog post.

Hehe - anyway, let's see if I drop it after a few weeks and start chasing a new shiny toy.

Joe Litobarski said...

P.S. I'm also playing with StumbleUpon - and left a review of your blog on there:


Emil said...

Spot on Julien!

"Euro bloggers", in particular, tend to forget hyperlinks, effectively making it quite painstaking to read certain EU focussed articles for the uninitiated. Thanks for reminding us about the importance of hyperlinks.

Julien Frisch said...

Well, Emil, I am not sure whether you are pointing to something particular.

I would be always open for critique if I write painstaking articles that lack links.

But in the end, yes, everyone should think about writing more understandably - which includes linking - no matter whether s/he is a blogger or not.

If this is what you want to say, I agree.

french derek said...

Julien (and others), what you write is - as has been noted - of significance to those of us interested in discussion of EU affairs and activities. However, isn't this just so much more "navel-gazing"?

We are the few; we still try to keep alive some semblance of the idea of "democracy". But, in reality, democracy, if not already dead, is near to death, in the EU and in most EU states. Government has become a 'niche' activity, reserved for an elitist group.

Facts, hyperlinks, etc are necessary to any story, whether EU related or not. The sad fact is that, so far as the EU is concerned, it means little. EMPs, whether as candidate or as elected "representative" care little for the EU citizen.

Joe Litobarski said...

@French Derek

They may not care too much about EU citizens, but don't you think they care about their own national citizens?

It seems to be national issues that are influencing policy with the EU. I'm not saying this is a good or bad thing, I'm just saying it seems a bit early to call democracy dead.

Julien Frisch said...

Derek, you know that I am quite sceptic about European democracy.

This post was more about a way to speak to different audiences at once with the right use of hyperlinks.

I agree that we are a very small group, and we are mostly among ourselves. But there is one difference to the past: What we say is still public, it remains visible, disputable.

That is tiny, but I prefer tiny successes and sceptic optimism over surrender... :-)

french derek said...

To joe and julien - d'accord!

Insideur said...

Check out Google's new product, Google Wave: http://wave.google.com/

I think there will be technological innovations that will make our heads spin. Hyperlinks are only a small start...