What was written on Slashdot
"The user comments are really important"
Slashdot became one of the most important websites for the open source community soon after it was founded in 1997. Slashdot popularized the concept of readers becoming authors themselves. You can write articles yourself, which are then put online by the editorial staff - only to be commented on and supplemented by the readers in sometimes very long discussion threads. In June 1999 the site was sold to the Linux service provider Andover.net, which in turn was taken over a short time later by the Linux company VA Linux. Rob Malda, also known as ‘CmdrTaco’ and founder of Slashdot, talks about the situation of the Linux scene and the problems of online journalism in an interview with c't.
|Rob Malda, also known as CmdrTaco, founded Slashdot in 1997, which has become one of the most important online news sites and also a rumor mill for the open source scene.|
c't: How do you feel when you look at the problems Linux and open source companies currently have with their finances and the stock market?
Rob Malda: I am not following the stock market properly. So I'm not really qualified to comment on that. It's a little sad, but I don't have any of these intense feelings about it or have much to say about it. I'm more interested in what's actually emerging - not what the stock market does, which is so arbitrary and random. But the whole technology sector went down. It's hard to say that Linux was the only one to blame. You really can't say that.
c't: Do you think there will be fewer Linux companies in the future?
Malda: I think most of them are fine. But what really annoys me is that there were a lot of companies that had just started and are now suffering from the fact that the enthusiasm for the technology sector has evaporated. Now many companies will be a whole lot more conservative before they decide to rely on open source projects for their advancement. One good thing that came out of all the IPOs, however, is that the world could hear the words "Linux" and "Open Source". It grows. The fact that there are publicly traded companies that have sprung up around supporting Linux means that there are some companies that actually use it. That was of course really good PR for Linux.
c't: Can you describe the ownership structure at Slashdot? Things are looking pretty complicated now.
Malda: Oh yeah. Many fish eat other fish. I originally owned Slashdot. We then started a company called Blockstackers, which eventually sold Slashdot to Andover. Andover, in turn, was swallowed up by VA Linux. So we had to deal with new ownership three times. It doesn't really matter who owns me, it's just whose name is on the paycheck. Nobody has said so far, don't do this or you have to do that. Andover and VA Linux never had their hands in the game. They gave me the support I needed and otherwise avoided me.
c't: Let's talk briefly about VA Linux. The service provider now owns quite a few important open source sites?
Malda: VA has been pretty cool so far when it comes to letting the sites exist in their current form. VA Linux lets people continue to do what they have been doing before. They wouldn't particularly like it if the company started stomping around and changing things as a whole. For example, I have very good contracts. VA Linux is not allowed to tinker with Slashdot while I am running it.
c't: Some people say the company now has a kind of Linux media monopoly on the Internet.
Malda: That's not true because there are many other sites out there. Slashdot isn't really a Linux page either. That's not all we do. VA Linux owns Linux.com, a Linux site. Also NewsForge, but this is more of a general open source site. In any case, they don't stand in our way as long as we are displaying the banner advertisements and generating a lot of page views.
c't: How did the Slashdot project start?
Malda: I did a lot of website programming when I was in college. It was my part-time job to pay for college and food. I also did a lot of things on my own homepage. That was trendy at the time, I think. Then when I assembled Slashdot, I had this free computer. Then I found someone to whom I said, Let me hang the computer on your T1 line and put a website on the net. ’And that's how Slashdot started, that's how it was hosted for the first six or seven months. That was at the end of 1997. It grew straight out of a section on my homepage called ‘Chips and Dips’. It had a similar concept.
c't: Why did it all go so quickly?
Malda: First and foremost, my personal pages were getting a lot of traffic because I had a lot of things on them - Linux code that I had written and stuff like that. So when Slashdot finally started it had a decent number of users. I wrote about things I was interested in. It was programmed well enough to work properly. Some sites are just well designed but poorly written, others well written but missing something else. We were pretty lightweight at first. There was only me, afterwards Hemos came along. It was probably one of those stories with the motto ‘at the right time in the right place’. I like to think of it that way, that we did things a little differently. Many news sites were too full or talked about things that didn't interest me. I wanted something like a reputable newspaper, but done in a relatively informal way. People liked that. One could also discuss on the site. Not many servers offered that back then, at least not the big ones. We took a similar approach to Usenet. Also, Linux was relatively unknown when Slashdot launched. Most of my readers were Linux users. The people discussing on our site were qualified accordingly.
c't: How did Slashdot's editorial system come about?
Malda: When I had my own website, people kept emailing me material. It was fun and I gave their names on the page in return. When Slashdot came along, it made sense for me to find a way to centrally coordinate these postings. Originally, a large part of Slashdot consisted of a system that ensured that all material did not come in via email. Reshaping a story from an electronic message can be tricky, it takes time. With a web form people filling out, all I had to do was click a button. I was able to edit the post, correct the spelling and that's it. Links are also very important to me. This is what the whole internet is about: Link as much as you can. Unfortunately, some people's business opinions don't necessarily align with this idea. My philosophy is, if I link to anything that is interesting, people would come back tomorrow to find more links. Other websites think that a link means that you leave too. I'm not worried about that because I think we're doing pretty good things and the user will come back anyway.
c't: Do you feel like a journalist? Is what the writers at Slashdot do journalism?
Malda: That's always the magic question. I dont know. I'm not a journalist, but I write pretty well. I don't know if I have journalistic integrity. I don't know if I'm just a programmer writing to post things on a mailing list. I depict a lot of different things. Slashdot isn't exactly journalism, but it steals some of his best ideas from him.
c't: What about the correctness of your reports?
Malda: We don't go out of our way to check facts and be completely accurate, but it is important. For me, when I post a story at Slashdot, it means trying to write some kind of introductory paragraph. The users will read it and then add what is really important and complete it. The moderation system throws things up a bit. When everything is done, you usually have a few thousand words that are really intelligent and worth reading.
c't: Do you have a problem correcting something?
Malda: It depends on the story. If I wrote a paragraph that contained an error and there were hundreds of comments about that error, fixing it would make those comments pointless. The user comments are really important. If you don't read it, it's like just looking at the beginning of a New York Times article, not turning to page 8 to read on.
c't: Will there be Slashdot versions in languages other than English?
Malda: In the new code base of our content management system ‘Slashcode’, we will allow several languages. But I think you couldn't run Slashdot in a language other than English because its readers speak that language in large pluralities. A different language would give it a different taste. But there are a few dozen sites that use slash code that is not in English.
c't: Slashcode is itself an open source project?
Malda: Yes. Our moderation system is already pretty good. There are a few more things we want to change. Most of these changes that we've made over the past six months are pretty fine. People don't notice. Right now we're in the middle of a major code rewrite. We had a shaky foundation with a lot of dirty code (because it was written entirely by me), now we have competent programmers who know how to write great programs. It's an open source project that has a lot of people involved, we're paying some of the people who work on it.
c't: How do you like that other sites use your software?
Malda: I think that's cool. At one point I wanted to make Slashdot a generic system where you could talk about anything. Then I realized that I wouldn't be able to take care of it. I think there could be a Slashdot site for almost any topic and I hope people do. I love the idea that every major industry has a site like ours. There is a list on Slash.com that shows that there are around 100 sites that use Slashcode. Some are in languages I don't speak and on subjects I don't know anything about.
c't: Is Slashdot profitable?
Malda: Actually, I don't really know. When we sold it we made a profit, not a huge one, but a profit. We never had to take out a loan, we were never in the red. We paid our rents and it was our job. I don't know how it is now. We have a professional sales team selling banner ads and I think we're doing pretty well doing that. My job is to make sure people like and read the site. It's not my job to get the costs covered (grins). That's why, among other reasons, we sold Slashdot to Andover in the first place.
c't: What technology does the site use?
Malda: Slashdot runs on a lot of hardware. We have six web servers, two database servers, a file server and a load balancer. There is also a dedicated switch. The whole system is attached to a gigantic network, a real ‘fat pipe’. The machines are all boxes from VA Linux that we had before we were taken over by them. The database servers all have memory in the gigabyte range and dual processor technology - simply incredibly huge computers.
c't: What is your preferred Linux distribution? Do you conduct surveys about this in your office from time to time?
Malda: This is what we do. It's just like a holy war - my language is better than yours. There is no such thing as the best or the worst distribution. Of course, that's just my official opinion. Debian is the best there is - that's why I use it (laughs). (jk)
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