I’m in Brussels for 36 hours and have just been on the panel at Edelman | The Centre‘s event about whether social media can help bridge the gap between the EU and its citizens. I’m not sure any of the panellists (@MarietjeD66, @lauradagg, @ryangheath, @cybersoc or I) managed to fully or even partially answer the question, but that didn’t stop it being one of the most interesting EU-web discussions I’ve attended.

For a start there was good wifi, and #DigitalEU on Twitter generated some interesting discussion. Might be normal elsewhere, but that’s damned rare for an EU event! The fact that the panel was adequately narrow, and all the panellists respected each other, was handy, and there was a decent (and – for Brussels – reasonably young and gender balanced) audience.

This is not a comprehensive report, but a collection of odd thoughts from the event, in no particular order.

First, Marietje mentioned that in the last week she has received hundreds of e-mails about shark finning. What’s the value of those e-mails, as opposed to whatever else she might get mails about? Watch this speech from Clay Shirky at PdF in NYC and have a think. How should MEPs deal with this?

Second, there was a question from the audience from Marco Incerti from CEPS, asking whether if MEPs spend time blogging, tweeting etc., that doesn’t allow them time to do ‘real work’ – i.e. policy making. For me this is completely the wrong question to ask. If a politician is using social media well then they are opening their minds to ideas, debates and opinions from elsewhere and that should make them better at what they do – it’s not a zero sum game.

Third, this tweet for @NishmaDoshi, and a quick chat with her, got me thinking. Surely the only way the web is a leveller is if you have first mover advantage. Would I be on the panel this evening if I hadn’t been one of the first to blog about the EU? Would I have 2.5k followers on Twitter had I not been one of the early adopters? Later on you need a (business) plan, a structure, much harder work, or to be able to transform some other fame and fortune into a web presence (see how @NeelieKroesEU has managed to grow to 7k followers very quickly). Question is then if it’s possible to leverage online suppor, offline effectively – i.e. do the opposite of Kroes?

Fourth, in response to Laura’s assertion that Dutch MEPs are qualitatively the best on Twitter, I raised the issue of whether open or closed lists correlate with good Twitter usage – i.e. where a politician’s own personal future is on the line they are more likely to make good use of social media. Marietje seemed to agree. Lesson for the UK?

Fifth, Marietje rather vaguely mentioned that all it would need would be a couple of campaigns around which citizens could gather to help deal with these issues. Open government, or one seat for the EP were the issues she suggested. These are both really important matters, but don’t, I think, lend themselves to interesting and inclusive online campaigns. How do you measure openness – don’t you always want more? And one seat is not a SMART objective – within the life of the campaign it’s not achievable. Things like ACTA and net neutrality are just too geeky. So I wonder… But conversely we can’t just wait for the institutions to reform themselves – it’s just too glacially slow.

Finally here’s my EU in 140 chars Tweet – in response to a question from the audience!

4 Comments

  1. re: Tweet your MEP …

    In the US, Congresspeople had a rule of thumb that said that each letter received in the post by a senator was worth 200 votes. Writing a letter, putting it in an envelope and posting it all took time – so a letter was an Indicator that an issue was important.

    Unless it was a nutter, of course.

    Once email came in, the value of a letter actually rose. Why? Because the value of an email – as measured by the effort to produce and send it, in a world of “please copy this email and send it here” – is recognised as almost nonexistent. No effort = no value.

    Similarly with Twitter, I suspect.

  2. @Fabien – I’m not sure what to make of Tweet Your MEP. Who would use that exactly? Time will tell whether it works out or not. Normally it’s not the means to communicate with a politician that are lacking, it’s the incentive or the reason. Will these tools also mean a response is more likely, or more timely, from a MEP? Time will tell…

    @Mathew – first mover stuff, I think we agree there. On the ghost writing – I think it’s a bit odd, and it might mean some of the tweets are more bland than they could otherwise be, but she clearly trusts Ryan and he trusts her, so this is more likely to work for Kroes than for some other Commissioners / politicians who don’t work that well with their people.

  3. Firstly, thanks for tweeting during the event.

    re: first mover: I think it’s relatively easy for someone with an existing profile like Neelie to quickly garner 000’s of followers. As soon as a Commissioner joins twitter, news spreads like wildfire and everyone follows within days. Particularly if you’re responsible for the EU’s Digital Agenda!

    Moreover, she’s keeping her folllowers because she’s getting the basics right, and people don’t seem to mind ghost twits (strangely).

    Firstmover advantage works for normal people, though.

  4. Thanks for this post on the conference. What do you think about new tools as “Tweet your MEP” or Yooks ?

    They don’t make european public space, but they can be a good easy tool for this if politics and citizens take care of it, isn’t it ?

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