Speakers, Cornered

My wife and I were at a burger joint the other day, waiting for our order. A garrulous fellow with an English accent, upon seeing my San Francisco Giants cap, began regaling me with tales of his life as a fan of the English football club Chelsea. Actually, he said “I love football, and I love Chelsea,” and proceeded to explain why he put the sport first and the favored club second. I understood his argument in the abstract, but for me, when we are talking Giants, baseball comes second. There is nothing abstract about it. Still, it was fun listening to this guy, rather like having an amiable version of the Hyde Park Speakers’ Corner show up at the burger joint.

He said he had just come from a nearby gay bar, where his role was “token straight guy.” He loved that bar because of the conversations he had with women. You see, because the women were gay, it was already understood that he wasn’t trying to pick up on them, and so he could concentrate on being a delightful bar companion. But, as was clear from our own brief chat, he did most of the talking with the women. As he explained it, he’d go on and on about his favorite topic, English football. And when I suggested that perhaps they weren’t exactly enthralled with the topic, he said no, he was very popular, because everyone enjoyed a situation where no one was trying to pick up on anyone else.

I don’t know what the moral is. Maybe this: if you are a straight male American soccer fan, and your friends hate it when you jabber on about the sport, just go to a bar frequented by lesbians. They’ll be happy to talk footy with you all night long. And when you realize that isn’t working, move to London and make Hyde Park into your regular gig.

Or start a blog. According to Wikipedia, “A modern form of the soapbox is a blog: a website on which a user publishes one’s thoughts to whomever reads the page.” Finally, I understand what I’ve been doing for the last 8 1/2 years.

I’ve been online since the early 80s, have been writing essays about the Internet since the early ’90s, and have had a personal blog since the early 2000s. Occasionally over those years, I’ve climbed into my navel and tried to figure out why I do this (“this,” for almost a decade, meaning “writing a blog”). I’ve written about the odd way in which personal blogs resemble diaries, without the lock and key which prevents prying eyes from knowing what we really think. And my choice of topics has reflected changes in the Internet: first we had “home pages,” personal web sites with pictures and links, then we had blogs, which still have pictures and links but which also allow a writer to stretch out.

Now, we have Facebook (and, in a different way, Twitter). We still have pictures (and videos) and links. We still have the opportunity to write, but while Facebook allows more than the 140 characters of a tweet, I don’t ever get the feeling people are using Facebook to stretch out as writers. Or as readers; I cross-post my blog entries to Facebook, and more than one person has told me they rarely read beyond the first few sentences that show up as a preview on Facebook.

That last point leads me to one of the key questions regarding the construction of an online persona: who is your audience? A blogger must imagine an audience of at least one other person, or there is no clear reason to post public missives. Most of us never get very far past those one or two readers (I have my handful of regulars, but I often get people who reach me via a Google search). Facebook gives us a much larger audience; in theory, every time I cross-post a blog entry to Facebook, my readership jumps tenfold. But people aren’t paying attention, the way they are when they read the blog from the source. There is too much going on in Facebook, too many friends to follow, too many games to play, too many photos to upload. Not to mention the fact that many of us access Facebook at least part of the time via a mobile device (it’s hard to blame someone for not reading my long posts when they come across them on a 4-inch screen).

So blogging still exists, but cross-posting is mostly marginalized on Facebook, while the existence of Facebook probably reduces the amount of time people spend reading blogs. My audience is bigger than ever, but fewer people are actually reading.

Which brings me back to my friend at the burger joint, and, more particularly, that Wikipedia entry.

The Chelsea fan assumed his audience enjoyed his speechifying, and I’m not here to say his perception was wrong, although it seems rather unlikely. He was a friendly chap. That would be that, if I hadn’t gone from guy-at-burger-joint to like-Hyde-Park-in-Berkeley to Wikipedia-says-blogs-are soapboxes.

Who listens to the people at Hyde Park? I know, as a tourist, that I felt obliged to check it out the first time I visited London. I was properly impressed in general, but didn’t spend much time listening to anyone specific. Speakers’ Corners are useful places to practice and support free speech, but again, my guess is many people who support free speech and, by extension, support places like Hyde Park don’t actually frequent them. Similarly, free speech continues to be a crucial issue on the Internet, and it is easy to find free speech proponents who are always willing to fight the good fight in the protection of free speech online. But how much of that speech do they actually read? How much can they read, given the enormity of the web, which is like a googol of Speakers’ Corners?

Who, exactly, makes up the audience for blogs? There are famous blogs, of course, some of which have grown to be collective repositories. They have lots of readers; their audience is large enough that attention must be paid to them. Yes, they had to start somewhere. Markos Moulitsas didn’t have 100,000 followers when he started blogging in 2002 (the same year I began my blog). He found his audience, and while not everyone thinks the Daily Kos is great, we all recognize its importance, and the importance of its audience. It is not surprising that the web site is still going strong in 2011.

Markos and I may have begun blogging at the same time, but I don’t have quite as many followers. I am quite certain that if you added up all the visitors to my blog over the past 8 ½ years, you’d come up with a number far smaller than 100,000. Which is fine; I’m not Markos.

But I have an image in my mind of my audience, small as it might be, and an image of my relationship to that audience. I write for myself, but I also write knowing that someone is out there. I can see my regulars, friends who drop by, leave the occasional comment, keep me on my toes. But I can also see a faceless group … I think of them as travelers from Planet Google, since that’s where they usually begin their journey to my blog … and I obsess about those people, thinking that perhaps within that crowd lies the one person who might be positively influenced by my meanderings.

I am deluded, I realize that. But I couldn’t keep at it, year after year, without that delusion. If I really just wanted to commune with my inner self, I could write to my soul’s content and never publish a word. The act of blogging is an act of faith in the audience, even if the faith is misguided.

Yet I don’t think I quite understood just how misguided I am, until I read that Wikipedia quote. Whatever I think I am doing with my blog, ultimately I am just another bloke at the Speakers’ Corner, trying to get the attention of the strangers who walk past me. At best, one of them will take a picture of me and post it on Facebook in an album of travel photos.

I am, of course, part of an audience far more often than I am the subject of the audience’s gaze. Hyde Park’s Speakers’ Corner was interesting because it was new to me. On the other hand, I spent a couple of decades associated with UC Berkeley, walking through Sproul Plaza dozens of times a month. Sproul Plaza is famous as the location of some of the beginnings of the Free Speech Movement in the 1960s, and it remains something of a Berkeley Speakers’ Corner. I’m not a tourist there, so I didn’t feel the fascination with the new. I’d just walk through, ignoring the speeches around me. Familiarity did not breed contempt, it just bred a feeling of “been there, done that.”

While Wikipedia might be correct in calling blogs modern versions of the soap box, perhaps it is true mainly for the blogger, and less so for the reader. Facebook illuminates the point once again. We can have hundreds of friends on Facebook, but the more FB friends we have, the less attention we actually pay to them. There aren’t enough hours in a day to keep up with it all, so, like a Londoner at Hyde Park or an academic at Sproul Plaza, we skim, and we ignore. We participate in a subculture, but only on the surface. Meanwhile, bloggers try for depth, but our subculture often consists only of ourselves. The Speakers’ Corner has moved to a different spot in the park, and we didn’t even notice.

Hopefully, my handful of regular readers relate to my blog the way I do towards baseball and the Giants, rather than the way our mate at the burger joint relates to soccer and Chelsea. The only thing that marks my blog as unique is my own presence; I am the Giants, the web is baseball. If you place the sport over your loyalty to a particular team, you are unlikely to notice Steven Rubio.


  1. in internet fame news, i was stopped in the park the other day by some guy saying ‘elaine?’. i assumed it was one of the bizzilionty people that i know from *somewhere* but have no chance of remembering where, or what their name is, while they puzzlingly remember me with embarrassing clarity.

    i said yes, hello, and he said “THEN THIS MUST BE POPPET!!!”

    yes. i am not internet famous, but my dog is. and she couldn’t give a monkey’s. the guy’s boyfriend had been looking at unfetteredmind’s ning, where i have a profile and links but nothing else, had followed the links, and found a recent blog about my dog.

  2. That’s crazy! I would be alarmed if I weren’t envious. These days, I wouldn’t mind knowing that there were people out there who are aware of my online presence without knowing much about my life.

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