If Isaac Newton lived 50 years ago he would have difficulty finding others interested in physics outside of his immediate area. If he lived today, he still couldn’t read research at no cost, but he could find groups of those interested in physics easily and even find those close to him in intelligence.
The kid that tortures animals has less difficulty finding other animal tortures 50 years ago since there are probably more kids that torture animals than Isaac Newtons, but if he lived today he couldn’t post a pro-animal torturing facebook. He is basically in the same place today he was 50 years ago because of the social stigma. Taken to the extreme, To Catch a Predator and the government help eliminate those that go after kids on the internet.
I’d say the internet helps all collaboration, but it helps collaboration of positive activities far more due to social pressure.
When Isaac Newton came home to spend a summer thinking, he brought a collection of books that contained most of the latest published research in the areas of math and science he was interested in. Then, he spent some months poring over them and secluding himself for some deep uninterrupted thought.
Someone with that level of intelligence and ambition today would have some interesting challenges, I think. Published journals are expensive and exclusive and inconvenient to get, so maybe he'd ignore those entirely. The internet, no doubt, has a firehose of such info from many sources worldwide. You couldn't consume more than a percent or two of the stuff being published on any given day. And you'd still want to tear yourself away and spend some uninterrupted hours on your own work.
In some ways, it seems like Newton had it pretty easy!
Newton returned home (from Cambridge University) due to plague outbreak. If this occurred in modern times, he'd have University-granted access to all the top journals in whatever field he wanted via the web -- not just access to the selection of books he brought with him.
The doom-and-gloom about modern times is unnecessary. Where there is a will, intelligent minds will find a way. Hell... a motivated high-schooler can moonlight in a grad school lab and (pretty much) any of us would dole out authentication credentials for him to download whatever papers he'd like...
Citation count wouldn't be useful for recent papers. Beambot mentioned university-granted access - I think ACM can be expensive for individuals (depending what kind of access you buy). http://papersincomputerscience.org/ was doing something closer to what you wanted, but it seems to be dead now. It only had abstracts and discussion though. It's hard to find full text due to publishing agreements and copyrights.
I disagree. If you live any where near a university, you can usually walk right into their library, even if you aren't part of the university. I don't do it on a regular basis, but the breadth of knowledge available at say, the UW, library is vastly greater than whatever Sir Isaac Newton had access to.
it helps collaboration of positive activities far more due to social pressure
Instead of 'positive' activities, I'd say, 'societally approved'. Social pressure did Galileo no good. A concern is that the internet might enable enforcement of whatever orthodoxies are dominant at the time more than it helps free thinkers. But it certainly doesn't yet.