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The illusion of the EU bubble and the discovery of the EU foam

Mathew believes in the existence of the EU bubble. For him, EU blogging is just the tiny fraction of overlap between the small world of EU experts and the small world of bloggers. For him, we need to build bridges to escape from the bubble. But all that Mathew needs is to open his eyes.

The EU bubble is a self-created illusion, and those who remain in this bubble simply fail to acknowledge that this bubble has actually become part of a foam over the last years. There are many bubbles in which European topics have found a place, and the foam of European spheres is all across our lives. There is no absolute need to build explicit bridges, because the bubbles in this foam are already connected, if not by links then at least by related meaning. All it takes is to understand and discover these relation by making a little step to the next bubble in the foam.

Take a step and discuss on a Maltese blog why inmates should be able to know their rights in the EU. Argue on a Portuguese blog why Portugal may still break with the Troika. Tell an Estonian blogger why his predictions for the mega-election Sunday in Europe were wrong.

Go and convince this Romanian blogger why Greece will not collapse and why the European Union will therefore survive, too. Contradict a Bulgarian blogger and tell him why the Turkish-Bulgarian EU border is not as unguarded as he finds it. If you prefer a decent argument in English, you’ve got a chance to tell a Dutch blogger why The Hague might still be the beginning of a European Spring.

Or, if that’s too easy for you, you may want to let to know a leftist Swedish blogger why the election results in France and Greece will not be the end to the Fiscal Compact. Agree with a German blogger who explains why you should applaud the European Parliament for passing a resolution against patenting human life. And just across the border, you may wonder together with a Polish blogger why the Polish should support Greece although Poland itself is not considered to be a very rich country.

Maybe you would also like to ask a French blogger why he uses a photo of Barroso to open a discussion on the future of the leftists blogosphere in France now that Sarkozy is defeated. On the other hand, you would not want to miss an amazing Spanish blog posts that tells you why we should stop focussing on “big” European politics and instead care for those that need attention, such as the victims of the Lorca earthquake last year. But than again, isn’t it more important for you to contemplate together with a Czech blogger on why Brussels bureaucrats have to resort to supporting “civil society” while the Chinese government actually takes decision with undeniable direct effects?!

Twelve countries, twelve blogs, 10 languages. None of these blogs is part of the EU bubble, none of them is focussed on EU affairs. Yet, all posts linked above discuss EU and wider European politics. They are part of a European blogosphere, without being written on explicit “Euroblogs”. Especially those bloggers who discuss the crisis and the economy almost naturally discuss national, European and transnational issues within the distance of one breath, one line of text.

All posts linked above have been published within the last two weeks. All were found and read with the help of Google and Google Translate. So there are relevant discussions ongoing, and one can find them. It’s a little work, I admit, but it’s comparatively easy.

EU politics may happen in a bubble for those who live in this bubble, but European discussions have become connected bubbles through the crisis and formed a European foam nevertheless. If you are part of one of these bubbles, you may not actually notice that you are part of this foam, but once you leave the micro-perspective, you realise that there is more European public sphere than you can see from where you were before.

The problem is that, in order to get to that point, you cannot just complain about the bubbleness of your own bubble. You have to go on a journey. That is why you should continue blogging, Mathew. However, if you want to create a European Online Public Sphere, you should actively look for it, write about its presence, not about its absence and the abstract need to create it. Because it is already there, right in front of your eyes, so there is no need to create it actively. By blogging about it, you can confirm and re-enforce the existence of this already existing sphere, but that is not its creation, it’s just a bird’s-eye view on it.

Why discuss this at length? Well, on Wednesday I wrote that I did not take any idea from re:publica. This was however not true. The idea I took from re:publica was to simply open my eyes and blog about European politics and restart reading new blogs, restart searching for interesting blog posts, discover what is already there. Because the European Public Sphere will not emerge through divine creation and fancy projects. The connection of the bubbles does not come from building bridges but from discovering these bridges. European blogging is part of this discovery tour – and it’s time to travel again!

Image: morberg (flickr) | BY-NC

20 Responses to The illusion of the EU bubble and the discovery of the EU foam

  1. Pingback: Mathew Lowry, “Introducing the Brussels Bubble to some of its denizens” | Kartellblog.

  2. avatar mathew says:

    It’s a shame you couldn’t wait for the slidecast (I just got the mp3 file and will try synching it with the slideshare over the weekend).

    If you had, on the audio track you would have heard me state that the picture I present is “of course a gross simplification and exaggeration just in case anybody’s getting upset” (and here I was thinking of you explicitly) … and that “of course there are links between Brussels and the rest of Europe, I’m exaggerating to make my point”.

    And my point, of course, reflected what your own research found when preparing your post The Unlinked Blogosphere, where you claim that EU blogs “mostly coexist without too much interaction (in the form of links and comments)“.

    So how does that finding square with this new post of yours? I haven’t had time to follow every link – gotta go to a meeting – but I look forward to continuing the conversation.

    In particular, I look forward to exploring your development of the metaphor from bubbles to foam. I’ve always gotten a lot of food for thought from your research so far. Shame, therefore, that you felt you had to get personal: “all that Mathew needs is to open his eyes” was beneath you.

  3. avatar Ronny Patz says:

    To address the last point first: I did not mean to “get personal”, so if you felt that this went to far I excuse. I intended to overstate a point you have been making recurrently on your blog and elsewhere, a point that I have also been making a lot, to get this blog post rolling. This may have been cheap, I admit. So I excuse!

    On the substance:

    “The unlinked EU blogosphere” was the start of the evolution of my thoughts on this issue and there is a series of over 10 blog posts here on this blog that kind of shows part of the evolution of this thought. It’s also the result of discussions on a number of German blogs that have reacted to my op-ed on Spiegel Online, the latest here, and several interviews I gave during re:publica.

    I think we have to get beyond talking about the bubble, and I already felt that in the course of preparing my talk, but I kind of did not have the right words. To use the metaphor of “foam” is actually not that original. Peter Sloterdijk’s triology Spheres starts with Bubbles and ends with Foams. I don’t think I’m using the concepts in his terminology – I admit that I only read part of the first volume some years ago – but I think it fits well to work on our argument.

  4. avatar mathew says:

    Back again. I just checked the first 6 nationally-oriented blog posts you linked to, above. None of them show any sign of a pan-EU conversation about the EU policy concerned. So, many, many thanks for proving my point with your research (provisionally, at least – I’ll check the next 6 posts later this week).

    Of course, perhaps Google Translate wasn’t up to the job. In at least one case it wasn’t that much use in terms of handling comments (cf Turkey in the EU). Then again, in at least one case there were no comments at all. A lone blogger somewhere opining about EU policy with no comments does not make a EU online public sphere.

    Conversations about the EU financial crisis are exempt from this analysis. The complete destruction of a financial system and the 27 societies dependent on same is not just exceptional – it’s too high a price to pay for the creation of the EU online public sphere

    Whatever. When you say “Take a step and discuss on a Maltese blog why …”, or “Go and convince this Romanian blogger that …” well, I say:

    “Great idea – that’s exactly what I meant in my presentation about outreach. Such a shame noone is doing it, although they could.”

    If you are saying that a EU online public sphere is a theoretical possibility because people are blogging about EU policy, and we can use Google and Bloggingportal to find them, then I agree with you. The potential is there, and has existed since people became able to publish.

    But if you are saying that the EU online public sphere actually exists simply because it’s theoretically possible, then we’re talking about different things. Many things are theoretically possible. Fewer things exist.

    Perhaps you misunderstood my point – you didn’t have the audio track (my post now has a link to the screencast of my presentation).

    After all, I was focusing on what was going on inside the Bubble, where people talk to each other and think they’re communicating with all of Europe.

    The fact that you found bloggers at the national level, talking about EU policy with no interaction with any EU policymaker or anyone from any other country probably proves my point better than I can be bothered to. The EU Online Public Sphere does not exist, but it could. I make presentations like this to encourage people to turn this potential into reality. So, thanks again for your support! 😉

    this comment, and the view held therein, are absolutely provisional and completely hostage to the research contained in Ronny’s next post, and/or me running out of wine

  5. avatar mathew says:

    Hmm, shame the software stripped out my ironic hashtags ( {disclaimer}, {blogplug alert}, etc. ) … Now, where’s that bottle?

  6. avatar Ronny Patz says:

    Dammit, your comment is too long and too convincing for a quick reaction. Now I’m forced to actually think about my answer. 😀 Check back around 2 a.m. …

  7. avatar mathew says:

    Oh, god …

  8. avatar Ronny Patz says:

    I’ve now listened to your Slideshare and at about minute 6:45 and 8:00 you say the following things:

    a) “Rather than have the Brussels bubble expand and take over the European conversation, so people discussing French employment law in France in French are suddenly going to discuss EU employment law and Europe 2020, that’s never going to happen, the best that we can do is to build some bridges.”

    b) “The condition of the European Online Public Sphere to grow is when it makes sense for somebody to make a contribution to it because they’ll get something back. Right now, this cost-benefit analysis only holds true for eurogeeks, people who are really deeply interested in the EU. It doesn’t make sense for anyone else to get involved. And that’s the vicious cycle that we face ourselves with today: Nobody is interested in Europe cause nobody is talking about it.”

    Without having heard your talk, this is actually the essence I draw from just reading the slides and interpreting them knowing what you have written over the last 2-3 years on your blog. So I don’t think I’ve particularly misunderstood you. In fact, I’ve been thinking quite exactly the same until very recently, and my presentation at re:publica – almost shockingly 😉 – proves how close we are/were on this thinking.

    However, the essence of my research over the last weeks and the discussions around re:publica have proven to me that these points are only “true” when you are in the Brussels Bubble. And they are not even fully true in the Brussels bubble.

    First: My original blog posts actually just talked about blogs that were already in what you and I would call the Brussels Bubble. So what I found is that – to my surprise – the bubble was actually not a bubble of hyperlinked blogs but at best a group or community of “Eurogeeks” that talked about Europe without noticing much what was going left and right to them, neither in the bubble nor beyond. This finding kind of destroys the idea that it needs bridges or active (hyper)links to define a common sphere.

    Second: Funny enough, this blog post on the unlinked EU blogosphere actually provoked a blog debate about European blogging, involving Eurogeeks but also a bunch of blogs (including German and Finnish blogs) which clearly did not belong the Eurogeek category that you define in your presentation. This proved that the bridges you want to build are already there, you just do not notice them until they become walked in such a way that makes you (and me) notice them. The fact that we do not notice them most of the time does however not imply they do not exist.

    Third: What I have shown in several posts preceding re:publica and what I wanted to show with this blog post is that your statement that only Eurogeeks blog about EU and European politics is false. Especially when it comes to the crisis, I have now realised how large the actual sphere of such discussions is. Yes, it is true, these discussions are not hyperlinked and it would be kind of nice if they were. However, the Eurogeekosphere is also not very well linked, because most tend to mostly link to themselves. (I don’t have any concrete example in mind. 😉 ) However, the fact that they don’t hyperlink doesn’t say they are not part of a European sphere, a sphere that you generalise as Eurogeek(osphere). The fact that not EU-geek blogs write about European topics although they are not part of the bubble shows that somehow they have become connected to European discussions, have heard or read about EU developments and found it worth spending time to blog about it. The examples linked above actually represent generalist blogs and specialist blogs, very concrete EU-policy related texts and some very general, some very well commented and read (I got quite some traffic from the Romanian blog) and some rather (seemingly) isolate. Thus, quite a perfect mix of blogs that are all part of a common online public sphere discussing about European politics.

    Fourth: When you talk about outreach, you usually talk about specialist spheres that can be linked to create European discussions. What I meant when I said “Go to XYZ…” is that you don’t need to go to link specialists to create European discussions, because they are already there. So you don’t need to link to these blogs to create a European Sphere, they are already in a European sphere and you as another European just have to find them to realise they are there. This means that if/when you join them, you are not creating a European Online Public Sphere, you just help to re-enforce it. This sphere is not a theoretical possibility, it is a practical reality.

    Fifth: What I think I have realised is that by talking about the Eurogeekosphere for the last years, people like you and me who are part of the narrow Brussels bubble have become a little blind about how deep European discussions are already going. Us talking about “building bridges” or how “only Eurogeeks blog about the EU”, even when we don’t mean it, actually re-enforce a comfortable Brussels bubble stereotype while reality has overtaken us. That’s why instead of continuing to talk about the Brussels bubble I meant to say with this post that I will stop talking about it and to start talking about the foam that surrounds this bubble and that we just don’t or didn’t (want to) see. You said in your comment above that you were mainly talking to people in the bubble, but instead of telling them that they are not the only ones talking Europe you told them that (almost) no one did and that you therefore needed to create specialist discussions. If you had told them that people were actually talking about their and other topics from a European perspective but they were too blind to notice them because they never made the effort to even look for them properly, you might have made the twist I am trying to make here

    Sixth: I won’t say that the European (Online) Public Sphere is already perfect, which is why I think platforms that overcome linguistic gaps or actively linking discussions that are already ongoing can be useful. But these bridging activities are also needed in within thematic bubbles like the Eurogeekosphere were people write alongside each other in English without ever entering into any substantive discussions. Gaps in discussion spheres also exist in national (online) public spheres, and most of the time this is because people don’t want to spend time researching for what is already there and instead just write about what they want to write. That would still not stop us from calling a national public sphere as national public sphere, and so we should not be so dismissive about the (non-)existence of the European (Online) Public Sphere. It doesn’t need a bunch of specialists and someone bridging between them to make a common sphere happening, it just makes the sphere more perfect.

    I hope I have reacted to all your points. If not, I hope I have at least clarified some issues. 🙂

  9. Pingback: Yes Europe Can, EU blogs are solid, Marvel vs Breivik | Leiden European Union Studies Alumni Association

  10. avatar mathew says:

    Hi Ronny. It’s been a busy week (and will be a busier weekend), but I eventually found the time to react. It was too long so I posted it here

  11. mmm….

    Several points.

    First of all, what we understand with Public Sphere, European Public Sphere and European Online Public Sphere might differ greatly. If we consider Habermas’ definition it is one thing and if we take Peter Dahlgren is another thing. What I understand with EPA might be something completely different for someone else…
    The second point is that what I can say until now from my own research is that I believe there are two kinds of EPS, online and offline. The problem, and this is where I agree with Ronny if I understood him right, is this foam he describes, or a bunch of disconnected bubbles. I am dizzy from counting websites and blogs in Spanish about EU affairs, that are not listed in blogginportal or elsewhere. But they are connected to a European level. They speak of what is going on in Europe, based on their respective interest.

    As an example, a friend of mine published a YouTube video of Farage on Facebook subtitled in Spanish. Farage is blaming –of course- the EU and the €. My friend never ever travelled out of Spain, does not speak English or any other language apart from Spanish and Catalan. But after all, he is interested and -right or wrong-, is giving his opinion of what is happening in Europe, and about what Farage is saying. My friends, from the small city, are reacting to it, and linking to news, now yes, in English. But yet, these friends will never go online to check blogginportal. Because they are happy with their “European bubble ”. We might be speaking of Europeanization of bubbles, instead of creation of a transnational European Public Sphere or Europeanization of national media? In other example maybe more illustrative, I know people making comparison in forums between videogames created in USA and in Europe, or that a European Facebook –meaning the creation of such big trans/international company –will never happen in Europe….because of the laws in the member states and in Europe about data protection.

    The third point, and this is a kind of warning for all of us immersed in the EU Brussels bubble, is that some of my participants (Spanish) complained of too much relevance of the Brussels based bloggers: “Los blogs que tendemos a considerar más leídos sobre la UE son en inglés y están escritos desde Bruselas. Pero ¿más leídos por quién? Por los españoles no, puesto que el público de habla hispana prefiere los escritos en español y lo mismo ocurre en francés, alemán, italiano, etc.” And more interesting: “Como puntos débiles [de la euroblogosphera], en mi opinión, es la tendencia que tienen muchos euroblogueros de pensar que Bruselas es el ombligo del mundo.”

    Actually some of them are almost screaming to get more attention, but since they are not blogging in English….

    So in summary I think yes, we have a kind of European online Public Sphere, but it is still at the very beginning. People speak about EU, they want to know what is going on in Greece, maybe because it will affect them at some point. There are also people debating about other European issues that are not important for us, we do not know enough, or we do not have interest. But the interaction “between bubbles” is not well developed yet, and I do not think it will develop.

    I do not think we will ever have a Public Sphere like we have now in the member states. Like the European Union when we try to explain what kind of political identity is it, the European Public Sphere must be taken as an experiment where we might need a new definition of the European (online) public sphere. The same when political scientists discussed –and published a lot of books- to define what the European Union is.

    There is a nice book I am using for my thesis. It is called The European Union and Public Sphere, edited by John Erik Fossum and Philip Schelesinger. It is a compilation of different chapters speaking about EPS. Also, the latest journal of Javnost has some good articles about the EPS.

  12. avatar mathew says:

    I agree with a lot of this, Javier. As I pointed out in my response post, there are almost as many definitions as there are disconnected bubbles. We can call a collection of disconnected bubbles “foam” if we like – the question remains whether developing the metaphor in this way is actually helpful, or obscures the issue behind a curtain of literate wordplay.

    You write that there are many Spanish blogs talking about Europe “connected to a European level. Are they? I ask because you also say they are written by bloggers in their own “European bubble”. So are they connected to, say, German and Irish and Finnish and Hungarian and Dutch and Italian and Brussels Bubble bloggers talking about the same subject? Or are they each in their own “European bubbles”?

    I agree that we are unlikely to see an EU Public Sphere like we have now in the member states – I would regret it, actually, because it would imply all that wonderful diversity being replaced by some sort of monstrous online Europudding (what I presume you refer to by the ‘Europeanization of bubbles’ and the ‘Europeanization of national media’). Hence my preferred option of encouraging conversation between the various bubbles, not replacing them.

    PS Language of course is a huge factor. When we launched Blogactiv, we did it in 3 languages to begin with. In a classic example of the network effect, many French bloggers chose to write in English, presumably because one prefers to be read by more rather than less readers.

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  20. It’s impressive that you are getting ideas from this article as well as from our discussion made at this place.

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