As the Jewish world prepares for another cycle of daf yomi I was thinking about what makes 'the daf' so special. It seems, on the face of it, to be a crazy thing - to learn a daf of gemara - a whole folio - each day. It is beyond the capabilities of most people (including most of the people attending a shiur). Those few who are able to learn a daf (and both understand and retain it) are probably on a different learning schedule anyway. In my experience, those few people do not learn daf yomi.
My brother has posted about why he will not continue with daf yomi this next time. He points out the costs, both in terms of family time, and in terms of real Torah learning.
In my (humble?) opinion, for most people daf yomi is a waste of time. There are so many more important things that they could be learning instead - beginning with halacha (but including Torah, Mishna and a proper bekiyus seder that would allow them to understand and remember what they have learnt). Yet for some reason daf yomi has conquered the world (except the Satmar world, where it is still treif).
The main/best/only thing that daf yomi has going for it is that people actually do it. How often have you planned or thought about learning something, only to give up soon after beginning (or even before beginning)? People attend their daf yomi shiur 'religiously' - regardless of whether they understand, remember or even stay awake. Taking away daf yomi would not add more Torah - because many people would not replace it with different, more productive Torah learning.
On This and That links to a very interesting description of an earlier kind of daf yomi. (It was also linked to by On The Mainline a few years ago)
In The Fundamental Principles of Modern Judaism Investigated by Moses Margoliouth (who was a Christian (former Jewish) missionary) he describes the different types of learning groups. The first (and most important) is the chevrashas, who learn a page of Talmud every day.
I have no idea how accurate this is, but I remember hearing that Rav Yaakov Kaminetsky was very bothered by the snobbery inherent in the hierarchy of learning. Apparently on Chol HaMoed Sukkot a different group would visit the Rav each day, and it was clear which was the most important, and how much they looked down on those below them.
Rav Meir Shapiro did not invent learning a page of Talmud every day. But what he did was suggest that everyone could learn that page, regardless of background, knowledge, or rightousness. He tried to democratise Judaism and make Talmud accessible to all. In that sense Artscroll (and the new Koren) Talmud (perhaps unlike the Soncino, which is quite exclusive) are continuing in his footsteps - making Talmud accessible to everyone.
Is this a good thing? I don't know. It is very impressive. And the interest generated by the siyum will encourage thousands of others to begin learning daf yomi. I'm not convinced it is right for most people, but it is a wonderful educational device, which has certainly changed the Jewish world.