I want to drown in the dialogue of our time
August 16, 2010 6:21 AM   Subscribe

Where do the über-smart people collaborate and hold dialogue online?

Back in the day (circa 1996) I seem to remember a lot of deep philosophical and critical dialogue and debate happening on the Internet. Maybe this is pure fantasy, and maybe my memory is deceiving me. It seems the depth of discussion is much less than it used to be. It seems I discover a lot less unique thought, innovative positions today, and a lot more group think and attention-grabbing mediocrity.

Case in point: this morning I peruse Slashdot and am shocked at the general superficiality of the conversations. There are a few gems in the comments, but overall it's a surface-level conversation. Again, maybe I am deceiving myself but I seem to remember the early Slashdot being a community for very deep discussion. Is this a general retreat of the intellectuals? Slashdot has always been technology-focused, but there were other types of conversations going on in the mid to late 90s as well: on the WELL, Salon.com, Usenet, even Yahoo.

Where did all of these people go? Do they just blog on their own sites now? Or, are there still communities out there that are advancing thought through dialogue and dialectic? Is there a social community that exists today of people way smarter than most of us, unafraid to delve deep and wildly into topics? Maybe people just have a lot less time now to pontificate?
posted by TheOtherSide to Computers & Internet (36 answers total) 55 users marked this as a favorite
If we knew the answer to this, we would all be there, not here.

Joking aside, maybe you could clarify why MeFi doesn't provide what you are looking for? Being able to say "I am looking for more X and less Y than I see here at MeFi" might help, especially because not all of the members here were on the internet (or even, in the younger cases, born) in 1996, so might not catch the comparison you are trying to make.
posted by Forktine at 6:32 AM on August 16, 2010 [2 favorites]

1. Here.

2. In all seriousness, I think it's a signal-to-noise issue. A larger percentage of people more widely use the internet now than were in the late 90s. Earlier internet-adopters tended to be, on average, more nerdy/intellectual than the population in general. As internet use became more of a social norm and its users became more diverse, discussion reflected that. The original people, or at least their modern analogues, are still around. They are just harder to find.
posted by millipede at 6:37 AM on August 16, 2010 [3 favorites]

My $.02:

1) The early adopters you recall online in the mid-1990's really WERE more innovative than the many millions who got online a decade later.

2) Community fragmentation due to blogging (as you already mentioned); Interesting people today have many more choices of online fora than in previous years.

3) Maybe you're getting smarter? Or more pessimistic?
posted by applemeat at 6:38 AM on August 16, 2010 [2 favorites]

Maybe people just have a lot less time now to pontificate?

Given the economic downturn between the late 1990's and today, I would bet that the reverse is true.
posted by applemeat at 6:40 AM on August 16, 2010 [1 favorite]

Once a place gets popular, the quality of discussion goes down. But I think everything's gotten fragmented and there's no "one place" for all the smart people.
posted by delmoi at 6:44 AM on August 16, 2010 [2 favorites]

Before I annoyed by all of the arguing that went on, I used to peruse the debate forums on GaiaOnline and Subeta and other sites that had them. Topics included the typical like abortion, race, religion, etc but there were also some interesting discussions, for example on whether Marie Antoinette was brave during her trial and execution, and some discussions became very philosophical.
Of course there are always trolls and there are always people who can't calm themselves down enough to talk about an issue without exploding but a lot of the people were able to carry on an intelligent, deep discussion. Admittedly I don't usually post in these forums anymore but I think that they're probably still work a try if you're looking for something like that.
posted by lauratheexplorer at 6:45 AM on August 16, 2010

Again, maybe I am deceiving myself but I seem to remember the early Slashdot being a community for very deep discussion.

The slashdot archives are all online, aren't they? You could look up the in-depth discussions you recall and see if they are as good as you remember.
posted by Mike1024 at 6:52 AM on August 16, 2010 [1 favorite]

I don't know where everyone is these days -- askmefi is a pretty good answer.

But, I've been on the internet since the mid-80's when it was Usenet newsgroups run over ARPAnet. Even back in those days there were flame wars. But, we were all posting from our work or school accounts using our real names -- I think that helped to enforce some level of etiquette. Furthermore, the community was *much* smaller -- I would guess at least 1000x smaller if not 10,000 or 100,000x. Having lived both in large urban areas and small towns, I think that the smaller the community, the more polite you tend to be to one another (because the person you are tempted to flip off might be your kid's teacher or the grocery clerk -- you have a higher likelihood of running into them again).

I was never on The Well, but I think that a lot of influential thinkers were on that discussion board back in the BBS days (which overlapped with the Usenet days). Not sure what it is like today.
posted by elmay at 6:53 AM on August 16, 2010 [2 favorites]

The comments section at Crooked Timber sometimes has very good debate. Very much an academic site though.
posted by Hardcore Poser at 6:59 AM on August 16, 2010 [2 favorites]

I recently found some old discussions I'd saved from CIX (the UK equivalent of WELL) and GreenNet from the early 90s. I remember thinking they were deep at the time, but on re-reading, they're pretty shallow. Their one mercy is their brevity, as everyone was on pay-per-minute dialup.
posted by scruss at 6:59 AM on August 16, 2010 [1 favorite]

I'd agree with the points made above re: popularity and signal:noise ratio.

Also remember that the absence of brilliant posts != the absence of brilliant people. People with any conversational sense are going to adjust the intellectual level of their comments to suit the tone of the discussion, which means that when a thread already consists of mostly one-liners or rants or groupthink, even the Stephen Hawkings out there will be likely just to chime in with more of the same. It's no fun to make a comment that sticks out like a sore thumb from everything around it, or to bring in a real critical perspective when everybody else just wants to go LOL[XGROUP].

Which means that instead of trying to find a place where smart people are, perhaps you should be trying to find a place on the internet where stupid people aren't. Good luck with that.
posted by Bardolph at 7:00 AM on August 16, 2010

Comments sections of intelligent blogs.
posted by Jaltcoh at 7:01 AM on August 16, 2010

Response by poster: Well, although metafilter is full of very fascinating and knowledgeable people, I find this site more aligned with the information aggregation part of dialogue than the idea and concept creation. That is, it _seems to me_ that many more mefis are excellent at gathering and exchanging information than necessarily generating new ideas or exploring niches of topics and thought. Although I'm positive that's partly because of the form of mefi itself. The functional form of mefi, with its focus on time-stamped articles and generic 'favoriting', doesn't promote deep, ongoing discussion of niche topics.
posted by TheOtherSide at 7:03 AM on August 16, 2010

Stack Overflow is that community for programmers. It's pretty narrow and technical but the combination of community norms and site moderation features makes it work pretty well. They're trying to replicate the model in other areas, so far I'm not sure it's a success.

Edge: The Third Culture is a community site that has tried to be a place for intelligent discussion amongst futurists. I find it more pretentious than interesting, but the tone is certainly elevated.
posted by Nelson at 7:08 AM on August 16, 2010 [2 favorites]

They mainly went to the blogosphere.

Another problem is that, as the web became more mainstream, the biggest sites have had an overflow of participants. Which often makes it difficult to sustain deep discussion in an informal forum. When the first 20 comments on a blog are all either FIRST1!1!!!!!11! or inane garbage, it's hard to force a substantial conversation that goes below the surface level.

In my experience, you have to really dig for a good blog of the right size on a topic you like.

I'm partial to

Pandagon - social issues/liberal politics

Slacktivist (though I don't comment there anymore) - religion and also liberal politics to an extent

Matador - travel and writing/journalism/creative nonfiction

EcoVelo - bikes, specifically bike commuting/recreation - not so much racing/sport stuff

Streetsblog - urban planning/design with an eye towards transit and commuting issues

Jezebel - feminism/women's issues. Often the conversations in the comments get much deeper and more fascinating than the posts.

The Awl is some of the smartest blogging I know, though I'm not too familiar with the level of commenting. It might be too big to be interesting.
posted by Sara C. at 7:20 AM on August 16, 2010 [15 favorites]

http://www.soulpancake.com/ may also be promising. I have gotten into some discussions in there, and admittedly there were only a few posts but I'm sure there are topics that get much more attention.
posted by lauratheexplorer at 7:24 AM on August 16, 2010 [1 favorite]

Nowadays the smart people don't congregate and hold discussions, each one is off doing their own blogs, waiting for recognition of their genius. Here and there you will see some sparks of intelligence - even here on this medium. It's spotty, but not rare.
posted by watercarrier at 7:27 AM on August 16, 2010 [2 favorites]

The smart people I am aware of get stuff on the net, may make a quick comment, but prefer to spend their time reading and in face to face talk with other smart people rather than posting comments on-line in a back and forth manner.
posted by Postroad at 7:31 AM on August 16, 2010 [1 favorite]

I think you're right that this mostly happens on blogs. I lurk on a group of linguablogs a lot (blogs about language and linguistics), Language Log. language hat (also a MeFite), bulbulovo, Jabal al-Lughat (there are a bunch more). It is kind of a loose community. Language bloggers read and comment on each other's blogs, and other people show up regularly. The level of discussion is generally excellent. This community overlaps a bit with a group of literary blogs.

I'm sure there are similar clusters of blogs on other subjects, including philosophy.

(I'm not sure that general interest forums can really foster intelligent discussion of specialized topics. It helps to have a group of people who are interested in whatever the topic is and have some understanding of it.)
posted by nangar at 8:09 AM on August 16, 2010 [1 favorite]

I don't think that conversation is persued much anymore. The model now is Blog and response blog. That means the paradigm works as follows:

1a. expert examines other people's work (papers, blogs, newscast, etc) and blogs or
1b. occasionally they write on their expert topic if there is insufficient counter-opinion

2. (generally) supporters of that argument comment (because you are less likely to read something you disagree with.

Therefore, we silo up, and intellectual discourse on a broad spectrum is non-existent.

As for favorite places which provide me interesting insight I read on a daily/weekly basis.
1. Farnam St.
2. Statistical Modeling, Causal Inference, and Social Science
3. Five Thirty Eight
4. Gin and Tacos
5. The Memory Palace

Of course, since it is their own blog, this means they use coloquialisms, make assumptions on their audience's understanding of an issue, and bring in old knowledge expressed in prior blog entries as a common practice.
posted by Nanukthedog at 8:13 AM on August 16, 2010 [6 favorites]

Hmmm well very specific I know but I used to frequent #philosophy on Undernet IRC back in the day and it definitely provided some profound / challenging conversations. Than again as scruss said it was pay per minute cost back then so not so much time to mooch.
posted by numberstation at 8:40 AM on August 16, 2010

RISKS Digest is still going strong after 25 years. The secret to a good S/N ratio is moderation.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 9:35 AM on August 16, 2010 [1 favorite]

The Something Awful forums are a lot better than you'd think at first glance. Check out the Debate and Discussion forum and see what you think.

Just stay far, far away from FYAD.
posted by reductiondesign at 10:55 AM on August 16, 2010

Is there a social community that exists today of people way smarter than most of us, unafraid to delve deep and wildly into topics?

I'm not going to say the people on this site are "smarter than most of us" (which, by the way, is probably not the best way to frame your question when asking it on a community blog), but Pandalous seems like it's trying to be the kind of thing you're looking for. (This site is completely unrelated to the aforementioned Pandagon.) I haven't used it much yet, but I get the impression it's like Metafilter with less vociferation and more wide-ranging discussions. Think: the blue without links, or AskMe if chatfilter were not just allowed but encouraged. The format is kind of clever: on the homepage there's a diagram of a house with lots of rooms, and each room is a different discussion forum.

Other questions similar to yours have been asked here and here.
posted by Jaltcoh at 11:25 AM on August 16, 2010 [1 favorite]

I agree with delmoi; I think passionate, well thought out discussion is still available, it's just gotten way more fragmented and therefore harder to find. The best approach I know of is to go by narrow subject (case in point: Chowhound) and resign yourself to visiting a zillion different sites to get your fix.
posted by ifjuly at 12:01 PM on August 16, 2010

A whole bunch of smart people are on the iDC (Institute for Distributed Creativity) mailing list - it's an "independent research network that concentrates on (online) collaboration."
posted by raxast at 1:42 PM on August 16, 2010

Another agreement with delmoi. Back in the early-mid nineties the internet was still a novelty, and discussion sites were far, far fewer in number. That meant that the smart people tended to congregate in fewer locations. Now... eh, it's like TV. So you have to work harder to find the good shit.

Even though this very site sometimes irritates the living piss out of me I have to concede that there is a higher percentage of smart, thoughtful people here than in most current non-specialist online communities. Also, I hear some place called 4chan is full of extremely smart people. Probably. ;-)
posted by Decani at 1:53 PM on August 16, 2010

Slashdot used to (it might still) systematically hotlink to E2 and I hear that many former Slashdot users migrated there. Not everything at Everything is highly intelligent, but a lot of it is- people explaining their specialties, analyzing current events, debating very technical topics within their fields. It's not a discussion forum, it's a repository of user content, and I would characterize a lot of the content as part of a collaboration and dialogue. I strongly recommend you check it out, and spend a little time exploring the site navigation so you learn how to get to the gold.
posted by dee lee at 8:49 PM on August 16, 2010

It's in the comments section of the Atlantic blog written by Ta-Nehisi Coates.
posted by citron at 9:13 PM on August 16, 2010 [1 favorite]

Try freedomainradio.com. The site is run by an interesting and controversial guy who is a self-proclaimed philosopher. (Though I'm not sure what other qualifications there are for being a philosopher.) He holds a lot of against-the-grain opinions, some of which I share, some of which I don't. He's a Libertarian, an Anarchist, etc. Whether you agree with his views or not, he's articulates them well, and he asks for feedback and opposing views. His site has a very active forum.

He believes in free will and I don't. So I started a thread on his forum, stating my objections to his pro-free-will argument. This thread has been active for weeks now, filled with very smart comments (and, of course, a few not-so-smart ones) and almost no snark or trolling. Eventually, the site owner invited me to be on a podcast with him to discuss the topic. Whether you agree with the guy or not, he certainly is devoted to hosting and promoting rigorous, intellectual discussion.
posted by grumblebee at 6:17 AM on August 17, 2010 [1 favorite]

Hacker News for "anything that gratifies one's intellectual curiosity" - mainly hacking and startup related discussions.
posted by Thorrent at 1:48 PM on August 18, 2010

I think everyone has their own memories of intelligent discussions, but the frequency of such is highly subjective. Anything that is created by humanity tends towards the tastes and abilities of all of humanity just as when is becoming more interesting ("Tragedy of the Commons" in some way).

I gave up on Usenet somewhere in the early 90's. Donald Knuth gave up on email in 1980 something. Metafilter is still pretty good, but I'm sure we'll look back on these good 'ol days one day.
posted by mdoar at 5:08 PM on August 19, 2010

prometheius society.. good luck getting in.
posted by reishus at 9:49 PM on August 19, 2010

posted by liron00 at 12:05 AM on August 20, 2010 [2 favorites]

Stack Overflow is that community for programmers. It's pretty narrow and technical but the combination of community norms and site moderation features makes it work pretty well. They're trying to replicate the model in other areas, so far I'm not sure it's a success.

Well, I think this ties into what nangar was saying about the cluster of linguistics/philology blogs, mostly smart people are better than dumb people at measuring their own competency in various subjects. Often they will stick to blogs that specialise in topics in which they have deep knowledge or interest, so you will find a lot of smart math discussions in the comments of Terry Tao's blog, and a lot of interesting computer science on Lambda the Ultimate or Stack Overflow. I don't know about any places where in depth generalists discussions take place.

I also think that part of what has happened is that people grow up. When I first got my MeFi account I was 6 months out of high school. In my recollection, MeFi had much smarter discusssions back then, but when I go to the archive to look for them, they don't seem to be there. Of course what's actually happened is that I've grown up and had 5 more years of full time education, so what seemed profound at the time seems banal now.
posted by atrazine at 3:59 PM on August 21, 2010

Check out Space Collective.
posted by carsonb at 6:36 PM on August 24, 2010

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