Maybe I am just in a contemplative mood this lazy Saturday morning, posting pieces that are more philosophical than newsy, but it occurs to me that Slashdot might be a good example of the possibilities of wider net access.
(Ensues longish both technical and philosophical discussion, if your day is not as lazy as mine jump to the bottom for the moral.)
Folks love the net but even its most ardent fans will admit that parts of it are pretty juvenile. Folks that are unpleasantly and often baselessly opinionated, for instance, dominate most discussion features. (I trust we are trying to be pleasantly opinionated here. :-) ) You can get the good stuff but you have to wade through a lot of silliness to get there. In an earlier post today I dismissed slashdot forums, leaving the implication that they were usually a waste of time. That is unfair and untrue. They are just a LOT and reasonable folks don't always have the time or energy unless the topic is important to them.
Slashdot is a little preview of what can happen when a community users gets serious about having serious discussions. Slashdot is mostly about technical, web-oriented stuff. So its users are very net-oriented and have had access for longer than any one else. And they have had longer to get annoyed with folks we call "jerks" and they call "trolls"—folks who spoil the discussion. Being technical themselves they set about a fairly technical solution. They decided not to exclude people but to find other ways of keeping the conversation on track.
Update 3:30: The walk-through below is a nice teaching example of how the Slashdot system works. But as content it is old. A newer version of a very similar question asked the Slashdot community, Cities Building Own Fiber Networks, is recent and if you want to browse for information it is a better choice. The information there is a lot fresher. All the principles developed below apply. It might be fun for those not familiar with Slashdot to walk through the example below and then go explore the newer version.
If you'd like to see what I'm talking about open the slashdot fiber discussion in a new window and follow along.
The intro sets up the discussion and at points toward the real issues. Beneath the intro is a interface bar that allows you to change how things are displayed. If you set it up for -1:291 comments, Nested, and Oldest First and click the Change button you will be taken to a new page that starts with the comments. Look at 'em. The very first one is a silly off-topic thing that the someone a crew of folks who have been deputized to keep things sensible have downgraded to a (Score: -1 Offtopic) indicating that it's offtopic. Looking down a bit you see one labeled (Score: -1 troll) indicating that its a post that is just trying to start trouble. You don't want all that gradu do you? Go back to the top. Try the other extreme. Change -1: 291 comments to 5: 4 comments. Someone on the rating squad thought these the best. The system isn't perfect. The first comment is way off base as responses in that thread demondstrate. But third one rate 5 for insightful actually is. Take a gander at it and you'll see what I mean. (alone in a separate screen if you haven't been following along) But while the rating system is very useful the adults using the forum do most of the work. They ignore dumb stuff. They point out what is misleading. They dont' tolerate baseless, ideologically driven nonsense. When they think they are right they don't back down but argue their point. But calmly, afraid of looking foolish or be downgraded--and hoping to be upgraded and notices as a sensible head. All that stuff is pretty much what we do in everyday life. But the web has been missing those amenities and slashdot goes a good way toward giving them back.
A long way to a short point: Once folks have good, solid net access they figure out ways to make it more useful.
It'll work the same way here if we get cheap universal access. Once we get used to it we'll figure out how to make it more useful...and good discussion groups will be the least of it I am willing to bet.