Friday, April 17, 2009

Less Than Zero: The Impact of The EU Blogging Circus

[Image: Scary Clown - Burning Life, Constanza Volare, 2008,
Attribution-Noncommercial 2.0 Generic, edited by Josef Litobarski, 2009]

The always interesting EU blogger Julien Frisch came up with a provocative post today about the state of the EU blogosphere. I've wanted to post something about EU blogging for some time now, and Julien has given me the kick-start I needed.

His argument was a sophisticated one: Julien feels that because the EU blogosphere is so very small and so very geeky, we write under the illusion that nobody is actually listening to us. On the rare occasion that a "non-geek" does actually lift the lid on our grubby little world, it's a rather disconcerting experience.

The EU blogosphere is a "quasi-private" realm. It's not quasi-private because our ramblings are concealed - everything is conducted very publicly - but because the obscure, geeky nature of our subject-matter ensures that hardly anybody bothers to read what we write. Julien calls this public/private world the "Circus of Geeks."

"Look Mummy, There is a Geek. And He's Blogging!"

It's difficult to know how much this quasi-privacy is actually an illusion. After all, as Steffan pointed out in his blog today, comments are not always the best way to gauge how much of an impact your blog is having. Tools like Google Analytics can help you determine how much traffic you are receiving, and if any of that traffic is coming from important domains like the offices of the EU Commission or Parliament, but that's a very nerdy and very imprecise way of assessing your impact (also, does that mean your blog is a failure if it hasn't been read by an intern at the European Parliament on his/her coffee break?)

Is the best that our carnival of geeks can ever truly hope to achieve really a "close to zero" impact on the real world? Are we doomed to look on in envy as "mainstream" political bloggers get ministers fired and expose political scandals (and how bad is it when you can describe other bloggers as "mainstream"?)

Stephen Pollard wrote a piece in The Times this week about the dangers of over-estimating the impact of blogging:

I know from my own experience as a blogger, a columnist and now an editor that there is no comparison between the impact of a newspaper and a blog. If I write something critical of government policy on my blog, it might produce a sage nod in agreement somewhere, but that's it. When, however, the Jewish Chronicle recently attacked the Government's plan to grant a visa to Hezbollah's spokesman, it helped to bring about a volte-face by the Home Secretary.

This goes double for the EU blogosphere. I'm quite sure our impact is less than zero.

EU 2.0b or Not 2.0b - That is The Question

Frank Schnittger, one of the bloggers over at the TH!NK ABOUT IT competition site, wondered last month if the competition might be dying.

TH!NK ABOUT IT, a project run by the European Journalism Centre, is a blogging competition designed to provoke interest in the upcoming European Parliamentary elections in June. Judging by the predictions of historically low turnouts in many member-states, by that criteria the project may not have been much of a success.

However, in terms of expanding our little circus of EU geeks, it could be great. Far from dying, the project is generating a lot of interesting posts and discussions. For my part, I've decided to make more of an effort to encourage all of the TH!NK bloggers to keep posting as we get closer to the elections. Not that I think their efforts will have any real impact on the actual elections - but the more geeks in the carnival, the bigger the show! In other words: if we have close to zero impact at the moment, it can't hurt things to develop a larger EU blogosphere.

And it really does encourage you as a blogger to receive comments and questions. Even if it's only fellow geeks commenting, it reminds you that people are actually listening. This is why I'm going to try to comment more on both TH!NK ABOUT IT and on other EU bloggers' sites in general from now on. Furthermore, I'm going to have a go at writing more posts like this one: examining what's being said by other bloggers and writing follow-ups. This is how debate takes shape.

The idea behind web 2.0 was always that it's not so much about the technology (which is often already in place) as it is about the community. By commenting more, posting more, interacting more and generally strengthening the network, it's possible to build up a vibrant internet community that draws from itself and turns up unique and fascinating debate.

In some respects, the tiny nature of the EU blogosphere is actually its biggest strength. There are literally a handful of names that turn up in the comments section of blogs, time and time again. It's easy to get to know people, and to start developing a dialogue. People are friendly and polite (if they insult each other, then absolutely nobody will be reading their blogs) and generally very welcoming to newcomers.

There' s Another Show in Town

Despite trying to be as neutral as I can in my approach to the EU, I find myself reading and commenting on broadly pro-EU blogs more often than not. This is a mistake. There is, you see, another show in town. Over the road from the circus-tent of the EUrophile geeks is the EUrosceptic geeks' tent. The two groups of clowns mostly stay in their separate tents, but very occasionally one or two will wander across for an argument.

Now, the blogosphere is a great place for debate. But it's also very prone to the dangers of tribalism and cyberbalkanization. I was having a debate with a EUrosceptic on Nosemonkey's blog recently, and I was reminded how important it is to engage properly with people that oppose your views (and I mean actually listening to what they're saying and trying to find common ground rather than just thinking up counter-arguments).

There was some minor heckling and name-calling on Nosemonkey's blog, but mostly the discussion has been civil and very interesting. I honestly feel I learned a lot. And it got me thinking: if now is the time to develop the EU blogosphere and strengthen the network of connections between bloggers, then now is almost certainly also the perfect time to strengthen those connections between the two tribes of geeks.

The EU blogosphere, whilst insignificantly tiny now, will not stay small forever. Despite growing painfully slowly over the last few years, it has nonetheless been growing. And as it grows, there are two possible directions it could take. The two camps could either grow increasingly polarised and separated, or they could maintain civil (and maybe even friendly?) relations.

So, in order to try to encourage the latter path of development, I'm going to try to visit, read and comment on as many EUrosceptic blogs as I can. I'm also going try to tone down the rhetoric when speaking with EUrosceptics, and call them out when they lapse into their own rhetoric. And I will be doing exactly the same when I speak to EUrophiles, especially if I see them mocking or insulting a position. If possible, I'd like to be on first-name terms with as many bloggers as I can by the end of this year (both EUrosceptic and EUrophile).

A Hippy Love EU Blogocooperative

This doesn't mean I want the EU blogosphere to morph into some sort of hippy love EU blogocooperative. My point is that it's useless to stay within your own ideological tribe and not to engage properly (and politely) with all opposing views.

Here are some of the things I intend to do:
  1. Write more blog posts in response to things other EU bloggers have posted.
  2. Admit more often (publicly) when I've made a mistake or changed my opinion. It's not "flip-flopping" and it doesn't invalidate my whole system of belief to admit I've made a mistake.
  3. Listen closely to what other people are saying and engage with them seriously, no matter how badly argued I may feel their position is (I may very well not be understanding them properly - see below).
  4. Make sure I'm absolutely clear I understand what a person is saying before I attack their point.
  5. Ask more questions.
  6. Do more research.
  7. Criticise people from both sides of the debate if they lapse into rhetoric or insults.
  8. Read and comment more (offering both support and criticism) on blogs from both sides of the debate.


Anonymous said...

I am not a blogger and I am not reading EU blogs regularly but if I get to read them, I have learned interesting new perspectives. Good blog posts can be very good sources of ideas and new perspectives. So EU blogs are somewhat a think tank resource. Many ideas might get lost but many also are taken up. So keep on blogging, guys! :)

Grahnlaw said...


Have you reflected on that if you actually do everything you threaten, you may end up as a (nearly) perfect human being?

Michael said...

Admirable sentiments all round.

Eurocentric said...

Well, there's nothing wrong with aiming for perfection (actually, that's not always strictly true...).

I should probably try to be more outgoing in a blogging sense myself.

Josef Litobarski said...

Cheers, all! Your comments are (as always) much appreciated!

@Anon - Thanks for the encouragement! That's exactly what we should be aiming for!

@Ralf - Much more likely: I will be perfectly annoying. :D

@Michael - Thanks for your comment! From the looks of your blog, you are indeed one of those fabled non-EU geeks I've been hearing about. Do you mind if I ask: how did you come across my blog?

@All - It's going to be an interesting experiment, and I'm sure if it will actually work or if it will just irritate people.

Let's wait and see!

Josef Litobarski said...

@Eurocentric - Absolutely! I really want to encourage other people to participate more as well.

I'm working my way up to leaving some thoughts on your nationalism post, by the way. It falls exactly into my area of interest! Good stuff!

Michael said...

Although technically not an EU geek, (my interests focus more on Polish cinema, post war Italian politics and Norwegian pop music) I have been threatening to do a PhD on the Regional Policy for some months now. (I have 800 pages worth of unread journal articles sitting on my desk).

I was considering applying for the University of Trento studentships this year, and stumbled across the blog whilst I was looking for information about Trento. I chickened out in the end, and am currently consoling myself with the absurd idea that I can just go to Lucca next year instead.

french derek said...

Hi Josef

The only late addition I would make to your excellent blog is that I find blog-reading and posting an excellent learning tool. I admit I sometimes sound-off about something I don't really know enough about: with the result that someone will put me right and give me new knowledge in doing so.

The EU is a contentious issue. Too many posters to EU blogs are deaf to others' views. They give up the opportunity of learning too easily.

Kosmopolito said...

I do agree with the learning aspect of EU blogging - at least I find it a very entertaining way to learn about new EU details. ;-)

Moreover I think EU blogging is quite a social experience which is partly due to the small scene. I met a lot of interesting people through my blog, got engaged in quite a few projects and invited to many interesting events!

If we really manage to increase the EU blogging scene with the thinkaboutit project it would be a great success and more than we ever hoped for as it started as an experiment with very modest aims...

mathew said...

I couldn't agree more with the risks of cyberbalknanisation. In some extreme cases, I think Web2 can actually make groupthink worse.

I tried engaging with the sceptics when I launched the Blogactiv platform back in late 2007.
They weren't as polite as you make out, so get yourself an asbestos suit, and good luck! ;-)

Josef Litobarski said...

Hi, all!

Thanks for your comments. They've demonstrated another advantage of having a small blogosphere - people actually leave meaningful comments!

Although... @Mathew Thanks for the warning. I'm sure I'll get plenty of abuse. But (hopefully) if people realise that I am willing to actually listen to them and not just mindlessly drone on about how great the EU is, I might have some luck.

We'll see!