Whatever!

From #EP2009 to #EP2019: a lost decade?

Mathew Lowry
May 26 · 10 min read

It’s taken me over ten years to move from enthusiasm, through frustration into a Zen-like state where I no longer blog about EU comms. But when the Eurobloggers called, I had to answer ;)

This is a link in a chain of posts published by a loose network of Eurobloggers on how things have changed for us over the past ten years:

(I’m curating all posts on my TumblrHub: #EU09vs19)

I generally don’t blog about personal issues (you won’t find me posting photos of my kids on Facebook) but the idea struck a chord because I learnt so much from blogging with that network of Eurobloggers. So here goes.

I guess I became part of that network in 2007, when I launched the BlogActiv blogging platform. However it was BloggingPortal.eu, the website around which the network formed, which captured my imagination.

BloggingPortal by the numbers, from Could machine-assisted curation help European democracy?

Many years later, Frederic Filloux would coin the term “aggrefilter” for sites like BloggingPortal. It automatically piped in blog posts on EU affairs from several hundred carefully curated sources, to be tagged manually by volunteers and then redistributed via online, enewsletter and social.

Because it was focused on a specific niche, and combined machine and human curation, BloggingPortal helped users discover quality content relevant to their interests from around Europe and beyond, across language boundaries.

It could have been a map to build the online European public sphere. But it was already dying ten years ago. I just didn’t know it.

Opportunities were missed as online conversations migrated from the Open Web to social platforms manipulated by Kremlin infowar specialists.

The tale of BloggingPortal’s death is a good metaphor for how both the online world and the European Union have fared over the past decade. Opportunities were missed and easy options chosen as online conversations migrated from the Open Web blogosphere to advertising-driven social media platforms run by Silicon Valley bros and manipulated by Kremlin infowar specialists.

What could possibly go wrong?

Q: Facebook — Heaven or Hell? A: Yes

From one perspective, everything went wrong, with our online space poisoned by weaponised content, driving us into mutually-loathing echo chambers. I’ve curated scores of articles about this — one of the latest:

What is it like living in a world of billion dollar lies? Where the social worlds we occupy are fragmented and insular, giving rise to echo chambers of fake news and a lack of ability to discern what is real? All the while, global humanity moves toward a future nobody wants and sacred knowledge — like that of all scientific progress in the last 500 years, is in jeopardy …

- The Information Age Is “Weaponized”

On the other hand, everything’s great. As Ron Patz pointed out:

“In 2009, this would have been unthinkable… European topics are everywhere… and we discuss them across borders on Twitter, Facebook, Youtube”

- #EU09vs19 — What has changed in the EU social media sphere since 2009?

Both are probably right. Giorgio Clarotti (@Eurobrat1) positioned this perfectly with a recent EP electoral debate entitled “Facebook: Heaven or Hell?”. The most upvoted “Heaven // Hell statements” were:

“1. Alliance4Europe uses Facebook to reach 100 Million Europeans with the Vote4Friendship campaign, so that 3 Million more than in 2014 will eventually vote // FB has enabled the spreading of fake news which facilitated the elections of Mr Trump, Duterte and Bolsonaro

2. Facebook enabled Alliance4Europe and parties like Volt Europa to be created and networked in only one year // FB (and Google) have deprived European Media of some €9 Billion in 2017 alone… How can quality media survive?”

- Facebook: Heaven or Hell?

Personally, I think Hell is winning. But it didn’t have to be this way.

The EU Institutions could have chosen a different path, and not entirely subcontracted the conversation about Europe’s future to US-owned, Russian-manipulated, profit-driven social media platforms. They weren’t alone in making that mistake. And I still believe it can be fixed.

From enthusiasm to frustration…

This is supposed to be a personal view of the past ten years of Euroblogging, so I’ll explore the above story of decline through my writing in 2009, starting with a tongue-in-cheek vacancy notice:

Following rapid and significant expansion into new markets and sectors of governance and policy, innovative union of nation states (“European Union”) seeks an experienced Online Community Manager to gain buy-in at all levels throughout our 27 Members, as well as with external stakeholders on a global level.

- Vacancy: EU Online Community Manager, (June, 2009)

It reflected my belief that online communities could simultaneously build the EU online public sphere; better “communicate EUrope” to more people; and involve them more deeply in its political decision-making:

… the ‘European public space’ hardly exists — there are national spaces, within which EU affairs can be discussed, but almost always from a purely national perspective … By helping bridge the language gap between different online communities in the same area of interest… [online communities] would support cross-EU exchanges of best practices, ideas and knowledge, support debates on EU policy… & explain the logic of EU Added Value to the community’s area of interest

- Trust, the EU and Web 2.0 (January, 2009)

This reflected experience stretching back to 2002, when my team built the EC’s first online community (documented September 2009).

I was to keep boring everyone about communities (27 posts on Blogactiv, some more on Medium) until a EWRC conference workshop in late 2017.

Workshop report: better EUropean communities & public policy participation

The workshop, also involving Democratic Society founder Anthony Zacharzewski (@anthonyzach) and Heads of Unit from the Committee of the Region (CoR) and DG REGIO, showed how the CoR could build interconnected pan-European communities and involve more citizens in EU policy development, positioning themselves as the Institution “bringing Europe to the Regions, and the Regions to Europe”.

“A solid third of the workshop participants were Likely or Certain to get involved in a pilot project to test the process, with another third Possible” — Three steps to engage Europeans with the EU

It also showed that each component of the process had already been proven multiple times elsewhere, and that there were more than enough Regions willing to pilot it.

404: Ambition Not Found

Sounds ambitious” sniffed the senior CoR official, ambling away for a coffee.

The only unambitious things about the EU seem to be the EU Institutions… noone forced them to subcontract the conversation about Europe’s future to Mark Zuckerberg

He was right. The EU has to be ambitious, because EU democracy is an ambitious concept. We are trying something noone else has done before. If we fail, the nations of Europe will return to doing what they do best: fighting each other. The US, China and Russia will not spectate.

The EU will not succeed in the 21st century with 20th century governance. Unfortunately, sometimes the only unambitious things about the EU seem to be its Institutions. They had a choice, and (in fairness) made the same mistake many news publishers made closing their comment sections, which:

“should be considered one of the industry’s worst blunders… actively encouraging their readers to move the discussion to social media… [instead of] maintaining a stronger relationship with their readerships”

- Publishers that closed their comments sections made a colossal mistake (Simon Owens, May 2019)

The EU Institutions missed an analogous opportunity: to build a stronger relationship with Europeans via an online public sphere on the Open Web: benefiting from social media platforms, but not at their mercy.

Instead, they almost completely subcontracted their relationship with citizens, and the conversation about Europe’s future, to Mark Zuckerberg. He’s unlikely to give it back anytime soon.

Aside: don’t get me wrong (because I might be)

There are plenty of smart, hardworking, digitally literate functionnaires who ‘get’ this, and want more from the Institutions’ online presence than brochureware and taxpayer-funded “EU4U” adverts. They just weren’t the ones making the decisions at the time.

I also recognise the Commission’s EUROPA site has improved massively over the past ten years, although I recently heard that they’ve abandoned plans for a single site covering all the EC Departments’ work. Apparently they’re instead returning to (a pale imitation) of the ‘thin thematic layer’ approach first conceived in late 2001 (see yet another post from 2009).

Finally, I must also recognise that I might simply be wrong. Specialising in something always risks convincing yourself of the correctness of your arguments to the exclusion of all else. So maybe online communities offer none of the benefits I ascribe to them.

Past success, future failure?

On the other hand, the online communities I conceived and built from 2002–2013 worked. Moreover, recent audience research is promising, and recent “EU Citizens Dialogues” have apparently demonstrated the benefits of bringing European citizens into policy development:

At a recent installment in Passau … 120 Austrians, Germans and Czechs in the city’s ornate town hall… spent several hours debating issues … amongst themselves and with Martin Selmayr … [who said] “in many cases, more bright ideas were produced in a single evening … than in several days and nights of committee meetings by ministers in Brussels”

- Europe, Inc.@MKarnitschnig, Politico

Of course, that event included Mr. Selmayr, and was held in the leadup to an election. Institutionalising the practice into day-to-day policy development would not be easy, but if it both generates better ideas and brings Europeans closer to Europe, who would argue against it?

if it both generates better ideas and brings Europeans closer to Europe, who would argue against it?

Quite a few people, actually, as the senior CoR official wandering off for his coffee illustrates. Maybe he’s right — maybe it’s just too hard. But why?

It is possible that I haven’t seen the EC launch an online community successfully since EPALE in 2013 because of the growing dominance of social platforms: what was possible six years ago may no longer be possible today. But I suspect not: social platforms, if anything, make building online communities easier, if you get the architecture right.

It’s more likely that the growing involvement of EU communications teams over the past 10 years is the root of the problem. Which is an odd thing for me to say, given that I generally work with and in EU comms teams.

most Brussels comms types seem to see communities as a way of tricking people into liking Europe

Unfortunately, most Brussels comms types do not see communities as an opportunity to develop better policy and run better programmes. Instead, they seem to see them as a way of tricking people into liking Europe, as illustrated perfectly by the Commission’s #HaveYourSay campaign, the subject of another post in 2017:

Thousands of Europeans voted on the EC’s five different “scenarios for EUrope” because they were told it would influence President Juncker’s State of the EU speech. He chose a sixth.

… to resignation and Zenitude

Between the EWRC workshop and #HaveYourSay, I probably would have stopped blogging about EU communications by the end of 2017.

@albawhitewolf’s reach (bottom right) was 2nd in impact only to the EC itself, and brought in an entirely new audience (orange).

However, I also ran the #EWRC blogging competition, and one of our bloggers made quite a splash.

Arriving in Brussels as @albawhitewolf, Madeleina Kay left as #EUSuperGirl. She became Young European of the Year a few months later.

Many have hailed the appearance of young, engaged pro-Europeans like Madeleina as a New European Dawn.

Maybe. I hope so. But she also showed why the Brussels Bubble is so incapable of opening up to Europeans from outside the Brussels Ring Road:

the future Young European of the Year, a 23 year old woman who’d gotten an EC-funded project onto the BBC News twice and brought an entirely new audience into the Brussels Bubble, was shunned by EU professionals specialised in communicating Europe… people come to the Bubble to influence others in the Bubble… It’s their job. Engaging with someone without influence from outside the Bubble is not

- How Brussels ignored the Young European of the Year (March 2018)

The last to know

I was probably the last person in Brussels to realise (a) it’s nobody’s fault that the Bubble’s too inward-looking; and (b) I can’t change it.

¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Better late than never. The realisation liberated me, helping me move on from the frustration I’ve felt with the way the EU Institutions communicate online since 1995. Today I’m more sanguine, no longer tilt at windmills, and have even adopted my own version of digital minimalism. The few old friends I still see face-to-face have noticed my greater ease. My family certainly has.

Which is probably why How Brussels ignored the Young European of the Year, above, was my last post on EU communications, although I do write for and manage a Medium Publication for one of my EC clients.

However, I haven’t given up entirely on BloggingPortal — or maybe it hasn’t given up on me.

After spending many years trying to herd cats, my thinking about machine-assisted curation evolved. I’m currently exploring a new approach which just might bring the benefits of social networking without having to turn users into a commodity to be sold on to marketers. So stay tuned ;)

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Mathew Lowry

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Piloting innovative online communications since 1995. Fascinated by the intersection of media, technology, society and science.