The web and what was once called "web publishing" is a wonderful thing by and large. Some have said it's as significant a development as movable type and offset printing. This may well be true.
Traditional publishing is a very expensive one-to-many information distribution system. The high cost and resulting centralization of the publishing industry guaranteed that the commercial realities of the industry control content. This has two effects. The first is that the system acts as a filter of sorts. Non-commercial or unpopular ideas simply don't see the light of day. This is a problem if you mean to bring about social change or announce that the emperor isn't wearing any clothes. The second effect is that before something gets into print, it is likely to be pretty thoroughly checked. In the scientific community this is handled by the peer review process. Journal publishers distribute manuscripts submitted to them to other scientists in the same field for comments and suggestions. Thus, if something does see publication in the pages of a scientific journal, it has to some degree at least been validated against the larger context. In the popular publishing industry this validation is performed by the marketplace. Reputable authors are something for publishing firms to fight over.
The denial of access to publishing for the unpopular viewpoint was often a bad thing. Sexual, religious and political minorities in particular were denied a voice simply because there were not enough of them to make a significant market. There was even a synergy at work-there was no perceived minority viewpoint because there were no publications, and there were no publications because there was no perceived minority viewpoint.
While it is easy to argue that the denial of access to minorities constituted elitism at best, there are some compelling reasons to value peer review. With the coming of the web, the traditional formula has been turned on its head. Far from being an expensive proposition, web publishing only requires that you have 20 bucks a month and something to say. When that web page hits the server, no matter how absurd it may be, you've made yourself the equal of every major publishing house on the planet.
And this can be a good thing. At its very best, disenfranchised minorities, otherwise too thinly spread to have a political impact, can work together for their common interest. Support groups for rare afflictions can form. And a government can be opposed from anywhere with a phone line.
The down side is that there is no way of knowing who's behind what you are reading, or whether or not there is any merit to it. Given the amount of credulous crap foisted off on the unsuspecting by traditional publishing ventures (most notably but not entirely the tabloids) the web has the potential for even greater abuse. There was a time when you could fairly accurately gauge the first-order validity of a printed piece by the quality of its printing and the scope of its distribution. (there was even a time you could reliably distinguish far east printing jobs just by the characteristic ink odor) Traditional quality clues are absent from the web. Distribution on the web is immediate, and at least in theory (hit counts aside) equal for all. As far as perceived "quality" goes, there are plenty of examples of rank amateurs creating better web pages than major corporations.
All of this poses the question-how are we to judge what is placed before us? It is sadly true that we aren't very good at this now, and the web has only made it worse. How are we to protect ourselves from plausible charlatans with good webmasters? The responsibility for peer review is now squarely in the reader's hands. Given time we will (one hopes) be forced to learn to judge for ourselves. And that, I think, will be the best thing to come out of the web.
Dale Austin, 2003
All images and text Copyright Dale Austin, 1962-2008