Saturday, October 22, 2011

Speakers' Corner: On Conversation in the Digital Age

At Speakers' Corner in Hyde Park I once heard a man, standing on a box: He held forth on the topic of what could induce him to speak about important topics of the day. He said, "I refuse, on principle, to stand here on the cusp of one of the world's foremost exchanges of ideas and speak tofewer than 100 people." He carried on like this, with great earnestness, for some time, and I listened, enthralled, until I finally caught on to the joke. Nobody gathered a
crowd of 100 at Speakers' Corner. There were a dozen speakers that day, none of whom had more than a dozen listeners. This speaker was a street performer, with no real intent, other than to entertain, and that he did well, holding me for a good twenty minutes, while he elaborated on the lack of value of speaking to small gatherings.

Another story, this one likely apocryphal, from medical school. A four year old child was brought to New York Hospital and admitted for aphasia, inability to speak. He had hit his developmental milestones normally, and spoke quite normally until he stopped, and this turned out to be an important point, nobody in his family could quite agree or date exactly when he stopped talking.

He came from a family of eight children, a boisterous, rollicking Irish family, and he had three younger siblings, age 1, 2 and 3 and four older sibs, the oldest 12 years old. He was evaluated by a medical student, an intern and finally a neurologist, who could find nothing amiss on the neurological exam, all reflexes and findings normal.

Toward the end of an hour, the neurologist asked him why he thought he could not speak. The child shrugged. Would you like an ice cream from the cafeteria? The child nodded. What flavor? "Chocolate chip," the child replied brightly. The jaws of the medical student and intern dropped and the neurologist smiled and asked the child, "Why have you not been speaking?" The child did not look up from his shoe tops, and just shrugged.

"Does any one ever listen to you?" The child shook his head.

And that was the diagnosis. This was a well loved child. His mother was, as you can imagine, quite distressed, but the child stopped talking simply because he had concluded there is no point to talking in a family where everyone is always talking and nobody listening.

Which brings me to the point of whether or not it is sheer petulance to refuse to continue to post diatribes, if the free market of ideas has shown no indication these ramblings are of any value to anyone. One or two random comments from kind readers are simply not enough.

Mad Dog has heard from editors of magazines, political scientists, relatives, friends with words of encouragement and their kindness has been appreciated, but that is not, Mad Dog has finally realized why he writes. The point of a blog is conversation. Mad Dog says A, and some person in Indiana says, well yes, A, but really not A so much as B, and then Mad Dog says, "Ah, you have enlightened me. I had not thought of that."

But postings, even the 300 postings on the Gail Collins Opinionator blog do not constitute a conversation. Perhaps there is no way to have a conversation among 300 people.

I do not understand what "Followers" are. I suspect they somehow get Mad Dog's posting automatically and are perhaps more likely than others to respond.

But as a Mad Dog, I have certain rights. And one of them is to say: I have, what? Over 50 posts to this blog and I refuse to speak to less than 25 people. If I have fewer than that many followers than the blogosphere has voted with its feet, or it's keyboards or whatever the appropriate image is for cyberspace.

I am at Speakers' Corner and I refuse to speak to fewer than 25 people.

So there.

Of course, if one of them is Gail Collins or Stephen Colbert, that is quite enough.

But, failing that, you have heard the last from Mad Dog.

All those of you who have come to Church and not put anything in the tray, well you can just go home and watch the Republican debates, heaven help you.


  1. Is it really necessary to speak to no fewer than 100 people? - only if you are an entertainer! Putting out thoughtful ideas is of great value - even if your readers do not enter into a online "conversation" with you. You have given them something important to consider which might change their perspective significantly. Hang in there - you are doing a great service - even if you can't hear the applause of 100 or more people.

  2. Yeah - hang in there a little while yet. I agree about the lack of conversation when the comments are delayed but let me tell you it ain't exactly all that edifying when the moderators post the comments in a reasonably timely fashion. Here in Australia, my preferred newspaper is and they often have a comments section attached to articles on line, particularly those related to politics or hot political issues, in particular at the moment, climate change/global warming and the introduction of a price on carbon and CO2 emissions. After you have read the comments over a few days you start to see that most of them come from a hard core of readers and then you start to suspect, particularly when the comments are so personally insulting and poisonous, that many of them are staffers in the offices of politicians.
    In addition, you are dealing with an extraordinarily and disappointingly high level of general and popular ignorance. In today's Age is an interesting article about the difficulties of getting people to see reason when they are so much more easily influenced by emotion, belief and faith. How can you have a rational conversation about science-based evidence with a population of which 22% believe in witches and 34% believe in UFOs?

  3. Okay,

    You are true believers, the people wandering in the wilderness in Farenheit 491, who have memorized books to preserve them, who do not want to see true literary worth wither--so just for you, a recommendation. Try The Phantom Speaks blog If you liked Mad Dog, you may well appreciate the Phantom. Less political, but no less annoying.
    --Mad Dog