"Everybody knows we've got spam and urban hoaxes and a lot of bad information mixed in with the good stuff," says Internet author and critic Howard Rheingold. He was one of five Internet personalities to kick off the "Forum on the Future of the Forum."
Mitch Kapor, cofounder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, opened with observations on the "depressing phenomenon of yammering." Judith Donath from Harvard Berkman Center lamented the poor "quality of discourse online" and "no consequence for behaving badly."
Jim Buckmaster, CEO of Craigslist, cited Godwin's Law that sooner or later somebody online calls somebody else a Nazi. Howard Reingold suggested that the single most important danger of the cybersphere is kids who cannot tell bull from truth. It seems that parents' concern about hate and porn on the Internet has been eclipsed by a concern for misinformation. "Whom do you trust and what can you believe?"
"Kids aren't good at risk assessment," Buckmaster explains. "And, that's where the parent comes in to protect them from the risks that do exist, which are, I think, overplayed. But, they do exist."
"As you know," says Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales, "everybody gets emailed around some crazy thing and it sounds like it might be a hoax, and you're not sure. People need to know, 'ow do you find out? How do you investigate that?' That's a really important skill that you didn't need to have so much 40 years ago."
Wikipedia's method of mediating facts toward a consensus is a good start, panel members agreed. But that didn't satisfy one news publisher, Phil Bronstein, Editor-at-Large and Director of Development for Hearst Newspapers.
"None of these things really tells you, 'Do you get at actual facts,'" he says. "I think a compromise doesn't mean you've reached a set of facts, never mind the truth. So, I think that that's a question that's still very much out there."
While some participants would concur, none of them ended the day discouraged. In the words of Rheingold, "I'm not an optimist, but I am hopeful. There are a lot of signs of hope out there."