I agree with you Josh, online discourse is awful.
Just look at any instant messenger program -- how many times has someone misunderstood me (and not just because I can't write...)? How many times have I said something that I maybe shouldn't have because the medium is so anonymous ... you're talking to a name, not a person. Maybe this will improve if we get video, sound, something to make online discourse more human.
As an information source, online discourse is just as bad. People deride the media for slanting this or that way, but it's all we got to make the world seem cohesive. The "mainstream media" is what makes sense of the world around us, enabling a common background as a foundation for argument. Social movements sometimes go under the radar, but the media is all we got. The alternative is much worse.
And yet, we're moving to that alternative. A place where someone can tune out what bothers them Brave New World style, or flip it around 1984 style. What people assert is a blip, not paid attention to when the next story or argument comes along. Most amateurish information sources such as blogs, bulletin boards, the Drudge Report, etc ... traffic in rumor, sensationalism and speculation to get the story/argument out there, rather than getting it right.
In an ideal world, we could have a dominant idea brought forth through the internet's users, all having dialogues, to create a dominant idea -- sort of like open source. However, it rarely works out that way, as people have different motivations in seeking media. And there's no group to gauge the dominant opinion. So we're left with extreme polarizing opinions, scattered about, reaching around frantically in the dark, or a mainstream media that doesn't allow new ideas much airtime.
On a user level, we're left with people who shout you down in bulletin board or seek out hyperbole to further an ideology or belief in place of truth. As satirist Juvenal said, will shouldn't take the place of reason ... but that seems to be the case in most online information sources.
So I guess here's my questions...Josh asked if we can carve out a place where intelligent discourse can take place. My question is, do we want to? Or, is it like the paperclip again, we have to suffer the bad things about current technologies because it's a stepping stone for something better. Is what's better, less anonymity and ... more accountability? If so, what'd be lost -- would you kill your boss in Habitat, for instance? Post a ranting post to a weblog if your name was attached? oh i guess i did that one...