Back in the 1990s, I spent a lot of time reading and posting articles on the various physics and astronomy Usenet newsgroups. For those who don’t know, newsgroups are forums in which people can discuss a huge variety of topics. They allowed freewheeling electronic communication back in the days before blogs, and even before the invention of the Web. Last time I checked, Usenet newsgroups still existed, but with all the other options out there nowadays, they don’t play the same role they used to.
Newsgroups had participants with a wide variety of backgrounds and interests. Participants in the physics newsgroups included graduate and undergraduate students, professional scientists, and tons and tons of interested laypeople. The freedom of anybody to participate was both a blessing and a curse. It made for a lot of variety, of course, but it also meant that discussions could easily be hijacked by crackpots. Some of the crackpots were highly entertaining, but eventually most serious people would get frustrated with all the noise and go away.
One solution to this problem was moderated newsgroups. I was one of the moderators of the group sci.physics.research for quite a while. One of us moderators would have to approve each post before it could appear in the newsgroup. The big problem with this, of course, was that it was labor-intensive.
OK, that’s it for the history lesson. What reminded me of all this is the Web site Physics Stack Exchange, which aims to produce a similar sort of forum for discussion of physics questions. The site has moderators, but they don’t approve each post manually as we did. Rather, the participants in the group vote answers up or down, so that the ones that are deemed most useful rise to the top. There’s a complicated set of rules whereby only people who have earned the right (through useful participation in the past) are allowed to vote.
Once I started looking at it, I couldn’t resist posting some answers of my own.
There’s a lot of good stuff there. Check it out, and participate if you’re interested!