Rob Malda on Ten Years of Slashdot: Network Performance Daily

Rob Malda on Ten Years of Slashdot: Network Performance Daily

For many years, Slashdot has been the gold standard of technical news online; the most successful blog that pre-dates the word "blog." (By about two months, actually…) It has been a haven for the geeky and the nerdy and a cultural meme over the past decade. We spoke to the creator and editor of Slashdot, Rob Malda, (also known as CmdrTaco,) previously as part of our coverage of Slashdot's Firehose. Now, as Slashdot reaches its 10th anniversary, we speak with him again about the Web site's past and its future.

How would you compare your experiences from 1997 to 1998 - that first year running Slashdot, compared to running the site today? (This post from January 1998 is fascinating and it showed how quickly the site grew!)

I guess the difference is that back then it was a hobby. I'd do it in my living room instead of going out at night with friends. Now it's a job - I do it in an office with my friends. Of course back then there were no business pressures except my time. The hardware was simple (one machine sitting under my desk!) and the software was almost entirely written by me. These days I manage a good number of people to accomplish essentially the same stuff.

You've mentioned that the coolest story was the day you proposed to your wife. What was the lamest?

We've posted like 80,000 stories... I'd never be able to choose from among the thousands of lame stories which one is the lamest. ;)

In 1997, posting a bunch of short articles with links in reverse chronological order was rare and novel. Nowadays, there's an entire blogging industry. How do you feel about Slashdot's role in the evolution of blogging; and consequently, the role of Slashdot in advancing Western Civilization. (I'm only half kidding about that last one.)

Well, there is a lot of content on the intertubes every day.

Slashdot's role is to act as a content filter for all of it. To sift through a thousand rocks and find a dozen nuggets. There are a number of ways to do this task- you can have a single person do it, or let a thousand people vote on it, but we use our own particular method which I think has a lot of advantages. Individuals have taste. They can prevent mob rule. They can enforce editorial or stylistic standards. As for Western Civilization, I choose not to limit us to this hemisphere.

Well, that's kind of my question - to take the metaphor further, when you started searching for the nuggets, there were few places that did. Now you've got a gold rush of hundreds of thousands of bloggers - not even including the social news sites. What do you feel Slashdot's role is - how did your being first to the gold mine influence those who came after you?

Our role is to be a content filter worth having. There's more content now than there was in '97, so there's more need for good filters with integrity and a sense of what matters. We still do that today just as good as we did then, and by many measures, better than anyone else.

Over the past 10 years, what was the most significant change to Slashdot other than selling to OSTG? Well, in August of 1998 we added user accounts and a few months later we added moderation. I think those are pretty significant changes... you used to just type whatever name you wanted into your browser whenever you posted. No checks. Kinda funny that it worked at all. Speaking of which, could you tell me more about the original networking infrastructure of Slashdot and how it grew over time? The original network infrastructure of Slashdot was a T1 into a small corporate LAN, and a DEC Alpha Multia/166 plugged into that network. So simple. These days we have an ungodly amount of bandwidth and dozens of dual and quad CPU boxes. It's ridiculous - all at a co-location facility in California. I asked one of my readers if they had any questions for you, and he said that he wanted to know your opinion on "hot grits" and "petrified Natalie Portman." I imagine that grits are a reference to the breakfast food, but I have no idea what petrified Natalie Portman refers to. Are they some sort of Slashdot memes? Or is my reader just pulling my leg? Those are late '98-'99 memes on Slashdot. Among the first. Portman grew in popularity leading up to [Star Wars] Episode I. I'm not sure really where the grits one came from, although once at a show I spoke at, a guy came and starting throwing handfuls of grits into the crowd. It was funny. I don't have any "opinion" exactly. I find most memes on Slashdot amusing at first, and then ultimately tedious... I mean, after a thousand 'In Soviet Russia' trolls have posted, it's really, really boring... but for a few days there... Why is it that you think Slashdot has been such a breeding ground for these memes? Russian Reversal, Step 2, those sorts of things. Wherever 2 people meet, memes sprout. It stands to reason that when a quarter million nerds gather, there will be a great number of them. About that quarter million - there's a joke that goes: "You can tell anyone anything, but never tell anyone about how you made your first million." How did you promote Slashdot in the early days, or was it just a case of being in the right place early on? I never promoted it really. My personal homepage had a collection of random Linux bits... code I'd written, themes for window managers that I had designed. I also wrote little news snippets on a page I called Chips & Dips. When I launched Slashdot, it was mainly just a place to automate those news snippets, so I linked people to Slashdot from that page. The site started with several thousand regular readers and never slowed down. What about media coverage? Did mass media start paying attention to Slashdot? Did they understand it at all or did they get the story wrong? If they did get the stories wrong, do you think they've improved or gotten worse on technical stories over the past 10 years? I think that early on a lot of reporters were reading Slashdot to get their stories for their mainstream media. It was very common to post something very obscure on Slashdot, and the next day see it on Wired/CNN/Wall Street Journal/New York Times. They rarely if ever credited us, but there were clearly a number of people in influential positions reading. I don't think stories in the mainstream have got better or worse. They were never particularly good and they aren't particularly bad either. They are dumbed down, but probably necessarily so. I think the larger change in the mainstream media in the last decade has not been about the dumbing down of news, but rather about the selling out of it. To see supposedly independent news companies that are part of a mega-corporation essentially shilling for other wings of their company. To watch reporters lazily let a government get away with the abuses they've committed. The last decade has been a serious decline in journalism. That's not about writing dumber science/technology stories for a mainstream audience. That's a minor problem compared to the rest of it. That does kinda get into the other point - Slashdot has changed over the years. I believe you added sections sometime in 2000, and the sections changed. For example, you added, and later - Compared to the other topics (with the exception of YRO,) and considering the idea that Slashdot is "news for nerds" politics seemed a strange subject; why did you add it? We added Apple because that was the transition to OSX, where they replaced a dated OS with one based on UNIX which is fairly standard Slashdot subject matter. We added politics because the readers were submitting a lot of politics stories leading up to the election. We took it offline after the election, but plan to bring it back as the primaries start up again this year. The reason is that Slashdot's subject matter has a huge political bent... things like Net Neutrality, Patents, Monopoly Rulings, etc. are decided by politicians and it would be crazy for us not to discuss them on Slashdot. What will Slashdot look like in 2017? If I win, hopefully mostly the same, except maybe a little more interactive and comprehensive. I hope that we're talking about the same types of things, but 10 years more advanced. I hope that the same level of conversation is taking place. And I hope that they keep letting me do it. What do you mean by "win", what happens if you "lose", and if so, do you think you'd just start over again with a new site? Well, my job is often balancing the economic realities with the desires of the users. There's a lot to that- advertisers want X, sales/marketing wants Y, readers want Z, and I have a certain budget, a certain number of engineer man hours, and only so many clock cycles of DB time. If I lose, it means Slashdot no longer is able to be an independent voice on the Internet, and it is instead overrun by commercial interests. And at that point I'd probably leave. I don't know if I'd consider starting over again. It's a lot of work, and to have done this at the level I have, it would be anti-climactic personally to start over at zero unless I could find something worth doing it. Like a truckload of cash, or some sort of really interesting challenge to make it mentally worth trying. But quite honestly, Slashdot is interesting and on most days satisfying - starting over again would suuuuck. The first time around was 20-hour days for many years! How did you keep your sanity? I was young and didn't know better. And caffeine will get you a long ways. If Slashdot is no longer able to be an independent voice, do you believe others who have come after you might be able to provide that independent voice? It would be egomaniacal to believe that nobody else ever could, but so far I haven't see a single site that does it. They all have problems to me (quality control, scalability, independence, subject matter). So, what do you want from Slashdot? A dozen good stories every day that run a range from really funny, to really important. Stories that tell me what the most important things are in the nerdiverse today. Enough of a summary that I don't need to read 9 other websites to get the idea of what mattered today. Attached to each of those stories, I want to see a few good comments, where smart people share insight into these important stories. When the story is funny, the comments should make me laugh. When the story is important, the comments would give me context and tell me why. And underneath these highlighted comments, I want to see an open/honest/frank/freewheeling discussion about it.

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