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The War of the Bubbles, or: 1999 Was a Bad Year

I never got her name but I will always think of her as 1999.

1999, the year I went to journalism school and the faculty told us students not to buy a computer, but to invest that money in a driver's license instead. The 15 computers the university had bought and kitted with this new internet thingy, the teachers assured us, were more than enough to accommodate five classes of 30 to 40 Woodstein wannabes currently enrolled.

1999, the year the small-town local newspaper where I'd temp during summers, got internet. Or rather, it got an internet subscription for one computer. As the company didn't like to waste money, the only internet computer in the newsroom doubled as the photographers' sole shared computer.

Screw the information super-highway – you have a driver's license for the real thing, right?

More equal than others

13 years later, 1999 is sitting across from me in an airport, a red-head with a pleasant smile and the slight self-conscious hunch of a girl who grew too tall too fast.

She's an assistant to a Member of the European Parliament, a rather prominent name in her country.

Since last I saw her, I've turned my back on journalism and am currently working for the Parliament as well. Mainly with the Front page of the European Parliament web portal. Also, I do social media.

This got her attention.

"Oh, I suppose that could be useful to some people", she said, putting some distance between some people and herself. "Not that there is anything wrong with it." Why mention it then? "But I've made other choices in life."

Suddenly, everyone's an expert

I considered telling her that we reach ten times as many people as voted for her MEP in the last election every day through Facebook. But why bother? If you are an expert on renaissance mural painting, people will just nod when you tell them. Tell someone you work in social media and they'll happily volunteer their expert opinion, whether you asked for it or not.

Clearly 1999 must have sensed I was weary, because she started back-pedalling. Well, sort of.

"I suppose I don't really have any friends doing it either. But I use it sometimes, like, when I need to get in touch with someone. Instead of calling or texting."

Calling or texting? Hold on a minute: when she's talking about "it", does "it" refer to social media – or to the entire internet?

Vintage or just plain old

"You do have an e-mail account, right?" I said, trying not to sound smug. But then how do you ask that without sounding smug?

"Yes, of course I have!"

She laughed as she reached into her bag and pulled out – a print-out of a weekly e-mail newsletter.

If there had been any doubts before, they were gone by now: vintage 1999.

She went into the usual spiel assistants give about the Parliament website: why is it so slow, why can't she see the amendments made to reports the minute after they've been presented in committee, it's her primary work tool, it needs to improve etc.

Not one word, of course, about the Front page, the press service, or any of the other tools of communication for reaching beyond Place Luxembourg.

Deep Throat

I zoned out when the tirade began. Then suddenly she said something shook me awake, much in the same way you wake from a nightmare by rolling out of bed and hitting the hardwood floor.

"You know, I may have a piece of news for you."

I was expecting something exclusive – insert ironic quotation marks – regarding her MEP or whichever committee he or she was chairing. Instead, 1999 said:

"There's an exchange program for assistants in the Parliament and the American congress. Have you heard about that?"

"I have", I said, "and, no, we probably won't be doing anything on that."

Screw your Latvian grandmother!

I was taken aback. Why would we write about that? It's of interest to no one outside the institutions.

"Why not?" There was scorn in her voice. "Too much like real news for you?"

That's when it struck me: she thinks WebComm exists for her. She believes the stories we write and publish in 22 languages are aimed at her and her Eurocrat friends, like we're Watson to their Sherlock, chronicling their achievements. No wonder she feels that any effort to bring Europe closer to the citizens via Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter et al is a waste of time. To her, citizens – some people – never enter the equation.

Bubbles isn't just a monkey in Neverland

All these assistants to whom I've tried to explain what we do, all the time wondering why, with their attitude, they are not working in the Commission.

Suddenly it all made sense.

It's the war of the bubbles.

And neither side is taking prisoners.

Unlike other wars, though, the first casualty isn't truth, but our common objective as an institution.

Attentive reader, by now you may wonder: if this is all true, how do I imagine I'll get away with publishing such an embarrassingly telling and not very flattering tale?

Sure, I suppose there is some slight theoretic possibility that someone not the least bit interested in social media – or even the internet, for Christ's sakes – could be spending her nights scanning the EU blogosphere for key searches like "Facebook", "Twitter" and "self-conscious hunch".

But I'll take my chances.

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