Mail Call an opportunity to discover wisdom in crowds

November 05, 2011|Stuart Samuels

It's multiple choice time, boys and girls. The daily Mail Call section in The Herald-Mail is:

A) Woefully uninformed.

B) Full of atrocious syntax, incorrect history and backward logic.

C) A source for insight into what people are thinking.

D) Hell of a lot of fun to read.

E) All of the above

Yeah, you're right, E, all of the above.

You would think that in the age of Facebook, Twitter and incessant Internet blogging, blathering and chat rooms, only the old-school dinosaurs among us would bother to call a newspaper and just vent about anything and everything under the sun. But they do, by the scores every week, and I am glad there are so many rabble rousers out there.

Headphone-wearing editorial assistants dutifully take what anonymous people have to say on voicemails and type it up verbatim in 30-second sound bites. Editors delete some comments, particularly libelous ones, but mostly, we leave it intact.

In the process, callers can get up on their soap boxes and say what's on their minds. And, let's face it; in informal conversation, our grammar is not always what we learned in grade school. Things come out wrong and awkward as we extemporize. To be sure, some well-spoken people's diatribes in Mail Call are as concise as their Facebook postings or their more formal letters to the editor.

Nonetheless, it is absolutely maddening at times. People are welcome to their own opinions, as the saying goes, but not their own facts. That, however, doesn't stop the legion of mail callers from offering their often narrow world views supported only by their selective knowledge of partial facts — on both sides of most questions.

But that's cool. All of that makes Mail Call a daily entertainment worth the price of admission. But that may not be the only reason for its popularity. People just seem frustrated that the modern world conspires to limit their public voice, despite — or perhaps because of — all the options for computerized babble available online. They seem to be asking is anyone listening to me?

The secret to Mail Call's appeal may be that the callers are having a conversation — a conversation with themselves, each other and the community — rather than screaming at the wall.

In fact, Andy Bruns, The Herald-Mail's new publisher, was asked about Mail Call when he spoke to area leaders during a chamber of commerce breakfast in September. Bruns rightly called it an immensely popular "two-way conversation." He said if the newspaper shut it down, it would pop up somewhere else.

In its raw form, it is the rough newspaper equivalent of sitting around the pot-bellied stove in the only general store in town and just saying whatever you have on your mind, no matter how crazy or fleeting. In the modern world, we don't seem to talk to our neighbors much any more (although in small-town, rural Washington County, there are assuredly many exceptions to that).

Yet, there seems to be no shortage of people who want to sound off about everything from overflowing Dumpsters, scooter riders without helmets, landfill fees, state tuition rates for the children of illegal immigrants, a recipe for Sea Foam snoballs, stolen Christmas decorations, Elvis' birthday, dog doo in the yard, the skunk who ate the parakeet and, my personal favorite, kissing your mom on the lips — all of life's micro and macro complaints.

In the end, Mail Call is the mood ring of the mob, a rough version of what social scientists have dubbed "crowdsourcing." Apparently, at least according to an Associated Press report, research has long shown that large crowds of average people frequently make better predictions than experts about everything  — the wisdom of crowds, they call it.

So if you want to know what really is irking people these days — or what might make them vote a certain way, or how they will spend what money they have — Mail Call should be your first stop. You may not agree with the opinions being espoused, but you have an option, too: Call Mail Call.

Stuart Samuels is night city editor of The Herald-Mail. He can be reached at 301-733-5131, ext. 2336, or by email at

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