There’s a legendary story for those of us that look at political activity on the web that concerns change.gov, Obama’s platform to allow the public to put forward their political ideas that went live the day after he was inaugurated. Give the people a platform, so the argument went, and excellent ideas for future legislation will emerge.
Not so, or at least not in the way anyone expected. And there are parallels for today’s European Council Twitter experience.
Fifteen of the top fifty ideas proposed concerned the legalisation of cannabis for medical purposes, something that had no hope of seeing the light of day. You can hear Clay Shirky explain more about the change.gov story here, but essentially there was a lack of a credible bargain – there was no realistic assumption on either side that the ideas would be implemented, so an organised group lacking a voice in traditional American politics settings gamed the system to their advantage for publicity purposes.
So how does this relate to the EU?
Today and tomorrow all the heads of state and government are meeting in Brussels at the European Council. Citizens can’t get close to the event, held back by razor wire and police with water cannon trucks.
Yet in a token effort to gain some kudos among the Brussels EU blogosphere and twittersphere two screens were setup in the atrium of the Justus Lipsius building where the summit is taking place, showing a live Twitter wall of all tweets containing the #EUCO hash tag.
Normally there’s comparatively little blogging and tweeting around summits – what do bloggers who are not actually present at the venue have to contribute? Plus a load of anodyne statements from high-level politicians is not that fun to analyse anyway.
So what to make of a Twitter wall in the summit venue in the area the journalists sit?
I assume rather naively the European Council’s people were expecting a bit of nice chatter about the subjects on the agenda. But that isn’t much fun. So game it! Make a splash!
It started with a few sarcastic tweets from me, a blog entry, and some tweets to some Italian followers alerting them about the Twitter wall. A bit of Wikileaks-style critique was thrown in for good measure too. Then the rest was done by the braying Twitter mob who swamped the #EUCO tag with a critique of Berlusconi who was due to be present at the European Council. The tweets (branded ‘noise’ by the European Council twitter account) were adequately controversial to mean the Twitter screens were turned off ahead of schedule.
Why is this like change.gov? Essentially there is no credible bargain. People might have used the #EUCO tag anyway to discuss the summit a bit, but the presence of the screens gave the semblance that the European Council was somehow listening when that of course is not so.
Hence a well-organised group shut out from the debate in Brussels – anti-Berlusconi protestors – could game the system, make a bit of a splash and in some very small way make their voice heard. The lesson: these sorts of things work if they are two-way. Doing them because they look cool isn’t enough any more.