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Nosemonkey's EUtopia

In search of a European identity

Nosemonkey interviewed: On EU blogs and Russia

Believe it or not, from time to time people actually ask me for my opinion on things, rather than me just spouting out unsolicited words into the electronic ether and hoping that someone may spot them and correct my mistakes.

As such, this evening I’ll be doing the talking head thing on the BBC World Service’s World Have Your Say, trying to come up with a coherent theory about Russia’s current plans and how the rest of the world should respond. (Likely argument? Russia’s being childish and throwing a tantrum, and there’s usually two responses to tantrums: smack them or ignore them. Unfortunately, neither option’s really possible in this case.) Any suggestions much appreciated.

Oh, and some content from this place may soon start appearing in syndicated form on the website of a new PBS world news show – about which more details when I have them. (Check me out – I’m a regular media whore…)

Meanwhile, last week the chap behind L’Europe en blogs got in touch to ask my take on all things Euroblog. The write-up can be found here and is, I believe, the first in a series of interviews they’re doing with leading EU bloggers. Below the fold is a longer version of my somewhat pessimistic take on the state of the EU blogosphere – a taster:

the EU continues to work largely unscrutinised by the public – because us bloggers ARE the public, and if we’re not doing it, who the hell is?


There’s not yet enough EU-focussed blogs to really generalise about them. The one major thing that does stand out is the lack of readership – something I’ll return to in a bit.

Other than that, EU blogs keep covering the same ground – pondering about what the EU’s for, how it should be reformed, etc. etc. etc. – largely because most bloggers don’t stick at it for more than a few months, so Euroblogland is littered with dead blogs full of much the same sort of thing. There’s also very little detailed coverage of events in Brussels, Strasbourg, etc. – because there are very few insiders blogging, relatively few EU news sources, and because it’s mostly very boring. The only time I’ve seen anyone discussing EU policy in much detail is on the EU law blogs (usually heavy-going for the layman) or eurosceptic blogs (normally packed full of wild conspiracy theories and deliberate misinterpretations that would nonetheless take hours to research enough to debunk effectively).

In any case, without decent automatic online translators (they’re getting better, but still aren’t good enough to rely on), bloggers and blog readers who struggle outside their native language are stuck with a very small part of EU blogworld. I can read a bit of French, but that’s it – so have no idea what’s being said about the EU in Spanish, German, Italian, Czech, Polish, etc. etc. etc. Until the language barrier is overcome, it’s impossible to talk about a genuine European blogosphere – just as there’s still no shared European public sphere / demos.

Having said that, there have recently been some moves in the right direction – Euros du Village attempting a multi-language group blog which is showing some promise. Blogactiv attempting to set up a hub for EU experts in an attempt to bring a wide range of analysis together. European Tribune – the longest-running of these – bringing a Daily Kos-style multi-author approach to EU affairs. There are a few ongoing efforts to provide similar hubs – be it via RSS aggregators, Digg-style portals, or whatever.

But there still aren’t enough attempts to reach out to wider audiences – the hubs to date may have built up healthy readerships of their own, but there isn’t much cross-linking, and readers seem to tend to stick to the few blogs they know well, rather than jump around.

Part of the problem, of course, is that the EU’s insanely complicated and equally insanely boring. But it’s also that there are too few genuine experts out there with the writing skills to make the thing interesting. Over the last five years I’ve seen countless pro-EU blogs come and go, and I’d say the majority have been written by enthusiastic students whose knowledge is sorely lacking. Many get disillusioned by the level of debate – which, in English at least, is dominated by rabid British eurosceptics (see the comments at Margot Wallstrom’s blog for some good examples). Others simply lose interest in the whole blogging hobby. Yet more no doubt get depressed by the lack of interest their writings have attracted – the perennial problem of writing about EU affairs.

EU political news sells even less well than regular political news. And, as with all news-based publishing, it’s only the bad news that attracts interest. Which is, no doubt, why the anti-EU sites get so much more traffic than those in favour (well-meaning but frequently overly-excitable long-running eurosceptic blog EU Referendum and the barkingly mad conspiracy theorists of the Brussels Journal are far and away the most popular EU-focussed blogs, because they never have a good word to say about anything – bar the US military). Good news doesn’t sell and isn’t interesting, and the pro-EU blogs are usually trying to put out good news. (Which is part of the reason I take a more critical line than many other pro-EU bloggers – to suck in unsuspecting sceptics with attacks on Brussels before presenting alternative, more positive arguments that they won’t hear via the usual channels.)

This is the fundamental problem – coverage of EU affairs is not profitable. There aren’t enough willing readers out there to justify launching EU-focussed publications as profit-making ventures, so we’re stuck with amateurs – the blogs (even the few professionals – like the BBC’s Mark Mardell, Liberation’s Jean Quatremer, The Economist’s Certain Ideas of Europe team – are sorely under-funded and under-resourced, doing the blogging as a sideline, while the EU news sites are mostly – like EurActiv – not funded via advertising or subscription, but public grants and sponsorship).

Us bloggers are hampered by the same problem – we may be doing it for free, but we’re also all (mostly) having to rely on the same very few EU-focussed sites, papers or magazines. And being amateurs doing this as a hobby, we simply don’t have the time or resources – even collectively – to dig down and find the juicy bits that will be floating around among the tens of thousands of words of policy documents, briefing papers and the like that are produced daily by the innumerable EU institutions, thinktanks and lobby organisations.

And so the EU continues to work largely unscrutinised by the public – because us bloggers ARE the public, and if we’re not doing it, who the hell is?

In short: it’s all very futile, and is rarely rewarding. It is, however, quite addictive. And by blogging about the EU we could – just could – be taking the first steps towards the kind of European public sphere that most people are agreed is essential for the EU’s long-term success. If each of us EU bloggers can inspire just a handful of people to go and find out more, to start reading and/or blogging about the EU themselves, and they in turn do the same, eventually we’ll get there. It’s early days, but you never know – stranger things have happened…

The thing with blogs is the collective benefit – the more there are, the more that gets covered. Thankfully there’s not enough EU-focussed blogs yet for the usual blog groupthink to have kicked in (except for, usually, among the British eurosceptic blogs), which means that if you do the rounds of all of them you’ll usually get a nicely rounded picture of what’s going on. But at the same time there’s not yet enough of them to cover EU affairs in the amount of detail that is warranted – and needed.

14 Comments

  1. Well, so what can we do? Is there anything that would help to make us more attractive, more able to cover the uncovered and to discover the undiscovered? How do we guarantee that our blogs do not get lost either through immaterialness or due to disappearance?

    As you know, I am quite fresh in (EU-) blogging, and looking forward for any hints how not to make the same mistakes as have been done in the past.

  2. I’d say that so far you’re doing a damned good job – an eclectic range of subject-matter, and (usually) several posts a day, combined with obvious enthusiasm and knowledge, as well as an active engagement in the comment boxes of other blogs covering similar subjects. All of those are vital factors in any blog’s success (and most are things I usually fail to do). The only question is whether you can keep at it – because so many bloggers lose interest after the first few months.

    More generally, existing EU-focussed bloggers can’t do much more than just post more frequently (something I’ve been trying, but largely failing, to do over the last month or so), and encourage others to do the same. What’s needed is more of us. From time to time I encourage people who leave regular comments here to start up blogs of their own, and sometimes they take up the challenge. Because considering that the EU’s got half a billion citizens, the euroblogosphere is tiny. What will end up developing – and what has already started to develop – is that there will be a small group of regular EU bloggers all talking among themselves. And once cliques like that begin to form, they are by their nature off-putting, and will discourage not only new bloggers from trying to break in, but also readers from paying attention. After all, who wants to listen to a conversation between a bunch of people who all know each other and are always talking about the same things (which is, let’s face it, what groups of friends tend to do…)?

    Other than that, it’d be good if eurobloggers with language skills could start providing translations of interesting blog posts outside their regular blogging languages – French-language bloggers providing French translations of Spanish/German posts, etc., English language bloggers doing the same. With English and French the EU’s two major working languages, that’s probably not too much to ask for – but somehow we need to find a way to break through the language barrier, because otherwise everything ends up so very parachial – especially for English-language bloggers, where comments are so often dominated by British eurosceptics, which will always skew the debate towards minority viewpoints, and thus alienate the more general European readership that I’m sure is out there if only we can attract them.

  3. When it comes to the frequency of my blogging, I am not so much afraid of losing interest, I just hope having enough time to do so beside my job.

    I am frequently blogging for almost four years now and I am also used to a limited readership since the last blog I was working on focused on a very limited area of interest with a clique of barely 10 blogs and maybe 100 readers. So I am not afraid getting discouraged by readership. ;-)

    What I hope is that more MEPs (or their assistants) as well as people from the lower ranks of the Council or Commission and from other international organisations start blogging, especially about the everyday discoveries they make in Brussels and beyond. It is these discoveries that we as outsiders cannot make on our own, but we could disperse them into the wider blogosphere.

    But for the attraction of a) a wider public and b) of more bloggers, I actually have no real clue. At the end of June, I googled for EU blogs and I found your blog directory. That was actually the first step for me to be attracted to the European blogosphere. But I find that it is still quite difficult to get an easy start into the field of EU blogging.

    You said that there is a risk of forming an exclusive clique, but in fact I have the feeling that too much of the European blogging happens unconnected, with just some exceptions of cross-linking and cross-quoting. Sometimes I ask myself how much some bloggers are aware of what others have already blogged. As an outsider, one is not really sure whether one is joining a community or just a dispersed field of loosely connected bloggers.

    If I hadn’t the inner motivation of blogging, I would find that more discouraging than a low readership.

  4. An excellent summary of the problem with the Euroblogosphere (my blog included).

    @Julien Frisch:”You said that there is a risk of forming an exclusive clique, but in fact I have the feeling that too much of the European blogging happens unconnected, with just some exceptions of cross-linking and cross-quoting.”

    I also feel that way…but, sometimes/(very often) if you surf Euroblogs and try to find something interesting to link to or to talk about, there is essentially nothing! Even large blogs like Nosemonkey or the institutional blogs update very slowly.

  5. Following the title, I thought this was going to be a piece on you being interviewed on how EU blogs covered the Georgia/Russia issue.

    The funny thing is, that would be completely normal for a prominent US blogger. Which shows where we are at.

    All the same… good stuff.

  6. Julien – yep, we are largely unconnected at the moment, but there have been moves to grow closer. That’s good to an extent – but moving too close together will mean we’ll all end up singing from the same hymnsheet. I’ve seen it happen too many times in the world of UK blogging, where bloggers end up becoming virtual mates (which is lovely) and then becoming progressively more predictable and bland (which isn’t) – we all need to feel able to criticise each other, and that’s less easy when we’re all reliant on each other for links and traffic.

    RZ – A fine one to talk – you haven’t updated in three weeks! (Heh!) – How come I’m a large blog, though? I’m just one guy with not enough spare time, just like everyone else.

    Nanne – Yep, true, that. I’ve been invited onto far more discussion shows thanks to the UK aspect of the blog than the EU one – and to far more events. It’s becoming increasingly standard in British and American politics to invite a few token bloggers along – whereas in EU politics it remains a rarity (though I did get invited to the launch of the French EU presidency in London a couple of months back, and did get asked to guest post at Margot Wallstrom’s place, though nothing came of it – more due to my laziness than anything).

    Then again, we need some perspective. The sort of US bloggers who get invited to the conventions are pulling in a bare minimum of tens of thousands of readers a day. Between ALL EU-focussed blogs (including the high traffic eurosceptics), we couldn’t manage that sort of readership. Even by UK blog standards I’m a pretty small operation these days, not even second tier (where I used to be, 2-3 years back, when I had more UK coverage and the pond was smaller) – and now only get the occasional invite thanks to past glories. I’m only considered one of the bigger blogggers in EU blogland because there’s so few of us, and I’m one of the longest running.

    In other words, little wonder the EU institutions are mostly failing to engage with us – we’re tiny.

  7. If we asked people from all different EU institutions to read our blogs regularly we could get quite some readership (I bet one of the Eurosceptics can give us the exact number) and then we were important enough for them to be invited to their events where we would meet people from the media who would like us so much that they start reporting about us and then the larger public becomes aware of us and in the end we are the most important media on the continent. And then we wake up.

  8. Hi,

    Thanks for this interesting article. It’s true that the EU blogosphere is very limited, largely english-speaking and frankly not visibile in the media landscape.

    One of the objective of Blogactiv is to develop and federate a multilingual communauty of blogs on European affairs. Until now, we managed to get bloggers in French, English and German. Bloggers are mainly attracted by our blog platform because they can reach visibility thanks to the integration of Blogactiv to EurActiv.com and its network of partners’ websites accross Europe. Btw. Some existing EU bloggers have open a second blog on Blogactiv only to republish their original articles on our blog platform.

    Next step for us is to develop Blogactiv in each Member States in which EurActiv.com is established that is mainly Eastern Europe – where I am convinced there is a real potential.

  9. In general, this blogactiv thing is a good idea, but I find it not so well arranged. The same holds true for the euractive platform.

    So far, it is not something that attracts me, especially because it doesn’t really look and feel like blogging.

  10. Hello Julien,

    Thanks for your comments. If you could go deeper in your analyse, I’d be very interested.

    About Blogactiv, here is how it works:

    Once you have signed up, you get a wordpress style blog with usual features.

    Then, we try to give you the maximum visibility thanks to the rss-based architecture of our blog platform.

    A general homepage agregates every Blogactiv bloggers articles with a focus (‘Editorial Choice’) on one particularly interesting.

    From this general homepage, you can browse articles by sections (Communications, EU priorities, etc.), bloggers and tags.

    The same for language versions (English, French, German). Soon, there will be others.

    As WPMU is an open-source platform, we are constantly developping it and trying to provide the best features for our bloggers.

    Moreover, as I explained in my precedent comments, blogactiv bloggers articles are showing up on EurActiv.com and its network of partners’ websites accross Europe. It gives them quick visibility and reach an accurate readership.

    I mean, if you open a blog on blogger, wordpress, etc., it will take you some time to get traffic and reach relevant readers.

    If you have questions, don’t hesitate to contact me directly.

  11. Pierre,

    maybe it’s not 100% rational, but when I come to blockactive, it somehow doesn’t feel personal. The most important thing seem to be the categories, not the individual blogs. I read blogs for their individuality, not for their categorisation.

    The frontpage does not really invite to browse for the individuals on that platform, I feel more like on a news platform.

    But in the end, at least that is what my superficial view, it does also not appear to be a community of people trying to work together on different topics, but it’s just a bunch of bloggers somehow related to European topics on the same platform.

    To find interesting European blogs, I therefor still would rather scroll through Nosemonkey’s EU blog directory than going to blogactive. From Nosemonkey, I at least get a nice personal evaluation of each and every blog, something I can agree or disagree with. That’s what I like about blogging.

    However, as I said above, it is more out of feeling than out of rational consideration.

  12. Read it an weep:

    How blogging failed the war in Georgia
    http://www.cjr.org/behind_the_news/echo_chamber.php

    And the best reporting on Russia for the last decade:
    http://exiledonline.com/

  13. Yes, Aleks. I read it a while ago and agreed with every word.

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