Wednesday 7 October 2009

In the Brussels bubble (3): Are blogs and social media any useful?

On the long road to a common European Public Sphere, I used my short trip to the Brussels bubble (see my previous posts on this trip here and here) to discuss with different communication professionals about the role of blogs and other social media to advance EU politics.

First, I asked the journalists I met whether they'd find euroblogs helpful for their work and what kind of articles were most interesting for them. There seemed to be an agreement that euroblogs are part of their sources and that they read euroblogs to get new perspectives on certain topics and to find original information presented in an original way. Of most value were those posts that would make them aware of new things they hadn't come across so far. Blogs are seen as a kind of pre-filter for the mass of raw information available. Bloggers that screen, summarise, and discuss original information thus seem to be of most value for journalists.

I think that is a reasonable point, especially one that goes beyond the standard blogger vs. journalist dichotomy.

Others, like the lobbyists/PR consultants, European political party employees and also Commission officials seem to be screening both the euroblogosphere but also Twitter in order to be able to react to new developments, and the information they are getting in both spheres seem to be quite relevant for their work or are at least becoming more important. However, I have the feeling that there is much room for development, and that the use of social media both for information gathering as well as for active communication is in some ways at a very early stage of development, and the main developments are yet to come for these actors.

Thanks to the help of a fellow Twitterer from the European Parliament (thanks a lot again!), I was also able to talk to the European Parliament web editors, a meeting I hadn't foreseen before the trip but that was extremely fruitful, for both sides I hope.

Part of our discussion was on how one could advance the European Parliaments online communication in order to reach out to new audiences.

The point I was making very strong - not just with them but with most people I met - is that in order to make European politics more appealing, we have to leave the black box of EU decision-making and get to a stage where the whole process, not just the final result is more visible and traceable for the "outside world". To get there, we inter alia have to personalise EU policy-making, we have to show who is responsible at what stage, how the debates start and how they end. And social media are particularly able to do this.

But when they - blogs, Twitter, Facebook etc. - are employed, it has to be clear this does not only imply personalisation of one-way communication, but should also include the willingness to interact, to allow for the outside world to provide input that is then taken up by MEPs and others in a recursive process.

This seems to be standard knowledge to anyone involved in social media, but as one can witness from many social media communication efforts of politicians or institutions, the real understanding that this time it is not just a change in means but also in attitudes and behaviours still needs to reach out.

Just not to be mistaken: I saw that the web editors of the Parliament are actually having these discussions among themselves, that they are well aware of all this. But I also realised that changes in the (online) communication always have to be evaluated in the light of the teams responsibility for the communication of a collective organisation in which their impartiality and the balance between the political groups has to be guaranteed - which isn't as easy as it might look from the outside (which won't stop us, the outside, to be demanding... :-)).

But they looked really enthusiastic, interested and willing to get the visibility of the Parliament to a new level - and I can only ask all politically responsible persons within and outside the EP to support them in their endeavour!!

In the same line, I also told that I find their blog (as any open communication from inside institutions) extremely helpful, because you understand better what kind of considerations and thoughts are behind changes or new developments. The blog opens up the black box of the administration - the "bureaucracy" - and shows that there are human beings (with human smells) working together for us. And I hope my comments did not create extra work for some of the human beings...

But not only the institutions have to change, we - citizens willing to make the European Public Sphere a reality - also have to consider how we can actually contribute to bring things forward.

With Mathew, who has already written a number of extremely inspiring posts on the European Online Public Sphere, the added value of blogging, and the role of the EU institutions (e.g. here, here, and here), I intensively discussed how one could develop a European blogosphere that is intelligently specialised along policy areas and also reaches from and into the national blogospheres.

This was the real-life follow-up to what I started with my post on the creation of a "European blog discourse" earlier this year. I think we agreed that such a project is absolutely necessary but will face a number of challenges - who secures the translations, who filters information from the national blogospheres, who could fund necessary support structures, would external financing influence the credibility of the process, and who would administer possible funds - and that we should discuss these more in detail.

We will start doing this in a collective blog uniting interested (euro- and other) bloggers. The blog should be set up in the near future, maybe under the roof of Ideas on Europe, to unite our discussions in one public forum, not to disperse it over to many places and blogs, which makes it hard to follow for outsiders.

But to find an end to this post:

What I could see in all the meetings I had is that social media is changing institutions and actors in Brussels, and that most are trying to adapt, both out of necessity and out of conviction that these developments are actually good - and I think we as citizens can contribute by sharing our thoughts and by demanding that the changes are made in our interest and in the interest of a transparent European democratic system, whatever this might look like.

Where it will lead us is not so clear and will need a definition that won't be definite either, but that there needs to be something more is absolutely sure.

PS.: I realise by the length of this post that I took quite some food for thought from Brussels with me. In the next blog post on the Brussels bubble I will thus share some thoughts that came to my mind during these days on possible problems blogging faces when it goes local in Brussels.


Mathew Lowry said...

Many thanks for the kind words and links.

Your post captures the sense I have here in Brussels that we are approaching the critical mass needed to have this conversation - if you had shown up even 12 months ago you'd have probably had a much less intense trip. The ground feels more fertile these days.

And there's something very positive about the fact that you are playing your role from outside Brussels. It really helps to have someone come in from Out There.

Most of the people you have linked to over the past few posts are still based in Brussels, however. I think we need more people involved from Out There - people involved in their national policy debates, with an eye on Brussels.

french derek said...

Julien - loved the web-editors' blog posting on your visit: swooning young ladies....?

Julien Frisch said...

I think I am a little overrated, but I love to meet people and to get into constructive discussions. But I usually hope those people see me as a single voice which is as relevant as any other voice - and that they keep washing their hands... :-D

Anonymous said...

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