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The American Conversation Problem: Three Proposals

Tonight over dinner, my family was pondering the fact that, like most families, we lie inside an ideological bubble, shut off from understanding the points of view of many Americans.  We have not engaged much with people who live in different parts of the country, or differ from us with respect to ethnicity, socio-economic status, or religion.  Or what about Americans who face (or don’t face) various disabilities that we don’t (or do) face?  And my children were alarmed to learn that conversations of this kind online often do not go well.  

Call this, “the American Conversation problem”: how can we get better at talking civilly to people who are very different from ourselves, and whose points of view we are thereby likely to caricature?   

We came up with three proposals.  

(1)  Rock ‘em Sock ‘em Arguments App

This is an app that would anonymously pair demographically different people for a brief argument about some political issue of their choice.  Think of it: you are waiting for the bus, and instead of staring at the sky or scrolling through twitter you could have a one on one, no holds barred, rapid fire dispute with someone who belongs to a group you don’t usually get to talk to—no observers to show off in front of; no smalltalk needed; no time- commitment on either side.   There will also be a procedure to report incivility, e.g. curse words and insults, to encourage a measure of decorum.  The originator of this idea has agreed for me to reproduce it here on the condition that I make clear that emojis are forbidden.

(2) America Fairs 

They would be held in public places (parks, etc.) across America—in cities, suburbs, towns, and farms—and they would consist of fifty booths, one for each state. The booths would be labeled "Meet A Muslim", "Meet a Jew", "Meet a Conservative", "Meet an Atheist", "Meet a Gay Person", "Meet a Gun Owner", "Meet a Latino", “Meet A disabled Person”, “Meet a Rich Person”, “Meet a Transgender Person”, and so on.

You would spend five or ten minutes with the person or family in each booth, just chatting and eating tasty food provided by the Fair. There would be only one rule: talking about the issue itself (Islam, atheism, conservatism, etc.) would be forbidden. The whole point of America Fairs would be to learn about the person apart from their being an x—to see, first-hand, the humanity—the jobs, the jokes, the love of sports and music, the children’s birthday parties, the lives--that they share with you. 

 (3) Billy Goats 

Billy Goats are paid online forum participants who maintain a discipline of well-researched, courteous conversation. The hope is to take advantage of the behavior propagation effect of online trolls in order to push online discourse in a more productive direction. Online conversations tend to be difficult to escape, psychologically, and significantly influenced by game-theoretic principles of behavior. If someone engages in demeaning speech in order to embarrass an interlocutor, the interlocutor tends to return in kind. The result is that bad conversational behavior generally escalates until it consumes the conversation entirely. And not only are these sorts of exchanges hard to put down, but they draw in observers, who themselves have a hard time leaving, even once the conversation has broken down. Trolls, even in small numbers, can “nudge” an online community into counter-productive behavior.

The same social and psychological principles should make it possible to use trained conversationalists to deliberately nudge online communities into more positive behavior. While positive conversational behavior lacks the escalating effect of abuse, this will, hopefully, be counterbalanced by the appearance of authority given to those who behave themselves with some poise. These trained conversationalists are the “Billy Goats.” Initially, the Billy Goat project would be a test of the effectiveness of this strategy.

Who is a Billy Goat?

A Billy Goat would be paid according to the time spent in conversation in an online community. Their participation in the project would depend on their ability to speak with courtesy, fairness, and honesty, but they would not be required to possess any special education or background. They would not be full-time employees: the idea is an employment system similar to the Uber driver, who works at their own discretion. Billy Goats would be monitored for their behavior in online conversations, and in particular, they would be required resist any escalation of hostile or abusive rhetoric. Billy Goats may be directed toward particular communities depending on their background, and may be directed in groups so as to be more effective. For example, public conversations between two Billy Goats will be encouraged as a way to begin setting an example. Billy Goats will focus their attention on communities in which there is strong public participation (such as Reddit or Twitter) but not communities centered on technical subjects (so, not math stack exchange) or communities in which substantive conversations are impossible (such as Youtube). 

Who Monitors the Billy Goats?
Billy Goat conversations will be monitored by a subset of participants authorized to suspend other participants for their behavior. Their job will be to strictly enforce standards of civility. The hope is that the easy money available to Billy Goats for their participation in a generally pleasurable activity will incentivize obedience to these standards.

How will the effectiveness of Billy Goats be measured?
Online communities in which Billy Goats have been active will be monitored alongside comparable “control” communities in which no Billy Goats have been active. Monitors will be blind, and will quantify the proportion of productive conversation to abusive conversation. If these tests fail to show any positive effect of Billy Goat participation, the program will be modified or discontinued.


If you are an enterprising do-gooder or an eccentric billionaire and you would like to realize one of these ideas you should feel free to do so: the Callard/Brooks family hereby declares them public domain.  (But see above re: no emojis condition.)


  1. Nice post. I worry however that the question quis custodiet iposos capros is devastating--you've now got an infinite regress of goats.


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