Can EU social media scale to the EU?

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A while ago I posted (Not losing sight of the basics) the idea that EUROPA could suffer if the EU Institution's limited online communications resources were refocused on social media. While social media offers the EU a great deal, this could be a serious problem, particularly given EUROPA's importance to any EU social media strategy.

Interestingly, commenters seemed to both agree and disagree, pointing out how social media could compensate for EUROPA's shortcomings and/or force the EC to do something about them. In the process they triggered this post, which I've been meaning to write for a while, asking: is 2011 the year when EU social media grows to the point that it reaches the limits of scale?

The Fame Problem

Today, of course, we have the Brussels Bubble, where a small number of highly committed eurogeeks (some inside the Institutions, most outside) read and comment on each others' blogs, follow each other on Twitter, etc. It's nice and cosy - I'd guess that many have us have actually physically met most of the others personally. Generally in Brussels, and usually around Place Schuman or Place Luxembourg.

And I think hardly any of us receives so many comments that s/he can't find the time to read and - if worthwhile - comment right back. If my last post had almost 70 comments, it's because I found the time to respond 20 or 30 times. It's small enough in scale that we can actually have a conversation. A lot of us seem to like it like that.

But if EU social media grows, this will change Big Time, particularly for those within the Institutions. I'm guessing Aurelie - via her @eurocontrol Twitter account - may be the first person in the Brussels Bubble to face what Clay Shirky calls The Fame Problem. When your audience is small, you can have a synchronous relationship with it - i.e., maintain a conversation. But what happens when you get hundreds, not dozens, of comments?

The relationship becomes asynchronous, and maintaining a conversation with everyone simply becomes impossible. The first response is to be selective, but once the numbers get too big, even the processing of selecting comments for response becomes impossible. Enter the ghost blogger, and ghost tweet, and exit authenticity.

Do the math

So is this the inevitable endpoint of EU social media? After all, there are 20-30,000 EU officials, and 500 million Europeans. Do the math. Not, of course, that I'm suggesting that every last European is going to want to interact with Commissioner X via Twitter or President Buzek via Facebook. But it's worth keeping in mind for next time you hear an over-enthusiastic, under-25 years old, self-described Social Media Expert, grandly declaring from a café in Place Luxembourg that social media is The Answer to the EU's democratic deficit.

Today's pilot model - a tiny number of EU officials conversing with a small number of Eurogeeks, using a tiny handful of languages riddled with insider jargon - cannot scale significantly enough to make any real difference to EU communications.

Either it evolves and scales, or it remains centred around Place Luxembourg. In which case social media won't really help the EU reach anyone new, and its "elite feel" - one of the major reasons for its rejection by an increasingly distant and distrustuful population - will be projected into social media. A shame.

Zero sum games?

So let's hope it evolves. I don't know how, but comments to my aforementioned post did suggest that "EUROPA vs social media" is not a zero-sum game. Two ideas stood out for me (the comments are worth reading to get the full arguments):

1) Social media requests will overwhelm EU officials, forcing them to improve EUROPA My gut feeling is that public pressure is not enough. As I said in my comment to Martin Westlake, who referenced the post in his blog:

Personally I find that optimistic – after all, several NOs in critical EU referenda didn’t do it, setting things back by years, so will a few overflowing Inboxes do the trick?

I also asked whether he was feeling overwhelmed yet. His reply was he's been overwhelmed for ages. So I'm not holding my breath that social media pressure will out an end to the "EU institutions and Directorates' ... useless interinstitutional fights about how pages should look and about what tools should be implemented", as @ronpatz put it.

2) Social media provides a different route for people to get EU information, including from each other As I mentioned in my comment on Martin's post, crowdsourcing usually looks good in theory, but "is often too good to be true. The web is littered with crowdsourcing initiatives which have failed due to disinterest or because they were gamed."

The latter point raises a wider issue about access to information in democracies. Relying on online communities to help people find EU information seems like a risky abdication of responsibility by EU Institutions. After all, it's hardly the case that everyone involved in discussing EU policies are both politically neutral and altruistic. Far from it. Political groups and lobbyists are already answering questions about the EU in social media, but they are doing so to pursue specific political, economic and social goals. They will not always present the full picture.

Having said all that ...

Reading the above, I realise it reads like a rejection of the ideas quoted. Not my intention - the final picture will be a mixture. I have no doubt that active social media engagement will help focus EU communicators' minds on what they need to do on EUROPA, and that online communities will help people find out what the EU is doing - after all, I've been building Community of Practice sites for the EU since 2002.

But I also believe that social media is just part of the toolbox, not a cure-all panacea, and remain convinced that the EU needs to make its own case: to set out its reasons for doing what it does, and explain how the EU sphere adds value to the national. It needs to do this via social media, with a good EUROPA to underpin that engagement. Leaving it to the eurogeeks, lobbyists and assorted nutcases already discussing Europe is not a viable EU response to social media.

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