Good news came this past Sunday in the funding of a new software project that could become crucial for skeptics. The Kickstarter fund-raiser for Hypothes.is exceeded its initial goal of $100,000 for initial startup funds. With a matching pledge by entrepreneur Sunil Paul, the project now has over $230,000 to begin work.
The purpose of Hypothes.is is an ambitious one. It hopes to be a peer review layer for the entire Internet. It is designed to address many of the shortcomings of the current state of the art in commenting online. I blogged last month about how important I feel this will be for skeptics when it becomes available. I believe it will allow skeptics to post criticism of pseudoscience and the paranormal in such a way that the people who need it the most can see it.
Will Hypothes.is fare better? Only time will tell, but it does seem to have some advantages over past approaches. It is being launched as a non-profit and the technology will be open-source, so there will be no gatekeeper (like Google) who could unilaterally shut it down. They've even enlisted the help of the Internet Archive to provide permanent archival storage for the content. It will be designed to be transparent and auditable, so it can detect and resist attempts to game the system. The content will be community moderated and based on merit, again to resist problems like astroturfing and bullying. I think the project leader Dan Whaley and his team have carefully thought through what it will take to build a system that will work.
What Hypothes.is will need is strong support from the skeptic community. That means financial support and a commitment to use the software and participate in the community around it. This has already begun - among the list of donors on their website, there are the names of several prominent skeptics (including myself). I hope it continues.
I've long been a proponent of building custom software to assist skeptics in their work online. Indeed that is why my personal blog is called "Skeptical Software Tools". We've already seen this year how the Fishbarrel software by Simon Perry has enabled skeptic activists to file complaints about false claims on the Internet. I hope skeptics will also rally to support Hypothes.is as a powerful tool for online skepticism.
Tim Farley is a JREF Research Fellow in electronic media. He is the creator of the website What's the Harm and blogs at Skeptical Software Tools. He researched the dates in JREF's Today in Skeptic History iPhone app and has presented at three TAMs. You can follow him on Twitter here.