CmdrTaco Q&A: 10 years of Slashdot

Through a decade's worth of geeky posts and the ensuing wave of comments, Slashdot has built success from personal preferences and community conscience.

Rob Malda, aka "CmdrTaco," founded Slashdot 10 years ago as a way to share online stories with a small group of close friends.

This month, as Slashdot celebrates its 10th anniversary, CmdrTaco is doing the same thing, except that now his group of friends has swelled to 250,000 readers each day and millions of page views (and 5.5 million visitors per month).

Malda has become a bit of a kingmaker, though this has never been his intention. Slashdot can give a company a massive launch to a new project or can dig it a public-relations hole from which it is hard to extricate oneself.

I spent a half hour talking Malda today, trying to plumb the secrets of how to get "Slashdotted" and to decipher Slashdot's effect on the technology world. In the process, it became clear that Slashdot has succeeded precisely because it exhibits the principles of successful open-source and Web 2.0 companies, including an unyielding focus on the customer experience.

What are the criteria for getting on Slashdot?

It's very simple. Ask yourself, "Would Rob want to read it?" If I wouldn't care, your odds of getting a story on Slashdot are next to nil.

Having said that, there are no hard-and-fast rules and no hard-and-fast criteria. Timing matters. On a Tuesday morning, it's exceptionally difficult to get on Slashdot. On a sunny, slow day in August, your odds are much higher.

Do certain people have a higher probability of getting their posts accepted? The cool kids get to butt in line, in other words?

Not really. There are people who might have a bit more sway in getting a story posted, but we look at stories first. The only time personalities get involved is after we've already essentially decided to post a story. Perhaps the fact that it's from someone that has consistently given good stories over time might nudge it over the edge. But the content has to answer for itself well before we bother looking at the person behind it.

We keep notes on people ("So and so is a writer for InternetNews") and if we see that someone is a troll, this might affect how we view their posts. For example, we're not stupid. We notice when someone resubmits their story every other hour for two days. Eighth time really isn't the charm.

But this generally doesn't affect a person's karma on Slashdot. Karma trends positive if you get a story submitted, but we don't penalize people for submitting stuff. You have to go pretty far into the "I am obviously spamming garbage" to have submissions penalize you, and even that wouldn't likely change your karma. We want to provide incentives for people to submit stories.

What about the Firehose ? Does the community trump CmdrTaco when it comes to picking stories?

I'm absolutely willing to trump Firehose if I think a story with zero votes is more interesting than one that has been voted up 1,000 times. The story with 1,000 votes may well be interesting, but maybe it's also all over the Web already, on the landing page of CNN.com, etc. At that point, it becomes less interesting to me as an article for Slashdot.

Does Slashdot care more about big-name publications than random writers? Meaning, will a story from The New York Times have more likelihood of finding a home on Slashdot than my blog?

The role of the mainstream media used to be about selection and distribution, but it's now more about reputation distribution. Slashdot's role is often to serve as a counterbalancing force to this reputation distribution. In other words, a story from The Wall Street Journal on Linux may tell a story that everyone on Slashdot already knows, but submitting it gives a knowledgeable Slashdot community the opportunity to discuss its accuracy, factors that might have led to its publication, etc.

Why hasn't Slashdot branched out into other areas beyond geekdom?

Slashdot is all about community, and our community is not interested in other subject matter. We could start a new Web site (say, on knitting) and start from scratch, but then we lose the value of Slashdot: its built-in community.

The process we use on Slashdot could be used for other sites and other content, but I have no interest in doing so. I'm already doing what I enjoy doing.

Would it be fair to compare Slashdot to Digg and other "user-generated," Web 2.0-ish sites?

We're somewhat unique. Digg is not Slashdot. We have the community submit stories but maintain editorial control over what gets seen. Digg is lowest-common-denominator media. The problem with all of these user-generated systems is that they start small, with a focused community interested in the same things, but as they grow, they tend to move away from the core that made the site interesting in the first place. At Slashdot, our core is our editorial team that maintains quality.

Look at Reddit . It started small with smart people. As it's grown, the stories went from links to interesting stories with well-thought-out articles, but now it's denigrated to "Here's a neat picture." The attention span of the crowd behind it has degraded over time.

The question comes down to how much of a layer you want to put down between the crowd and the core. As an example, during August, a slow media month, we slow down our stories (to maintain the level of quality). But the voting sites keep the same velocity and so are universally crap during that month. They're spewing out lightweight garbage and far too much of it.

Slashdot isn't a purely automated system. People are behind it. People who read and care what content hits the site. As a result, we maintain a consistently high level of quality.

How have you managed to maintain the ethos of Slashdot and not sell out to the business interests that surely have come knocking?

Over the past 10 years, the company name on my business card has changed roughly eight times. Andover, OSTG, Slashdot, VA Software, etc. My job has not changed much: I still have editorial control.

I'm in Ann Arbor, Michigan. All of the business of Slashdot is based in California. There's not much interaction between the two. I keep aloof from the business side--I really don't want to know who is advertising on the site. I don't want the business to affect my editorial decisions.

What do you think Slashdot's impact is? You have the opportunity to make and break reputations (both corporate and personal). Does that responsibility weigh heavily on you?

I'd like to say we're all lofty and big about this, but I'm not at all concerned about the submitters. My concern is with the readers. I'm not worried about questions like, "Can their Web server handle it? Will this piss someone off?" I just ask myself the question, "Is this worth putting in front of 250,000 people?"

Our desires are incredibly simple: We look for stories that will generate a good discussion. I'm not looking at big-picture, long-term repercussions from our posts.

When I look back at 10 years of doing this, it's nice to see all the good we've done. But that's not the goal. The goal is to provide interesting content for our readers.

I am continuously amazed that as many people care as they do. It boggles my mind that a site I started for a small group of friends now gets more daily visitors than the population of my hometown. I feel a large burden of responsibility to maintain the quality of it. I don't have a lofty "this is what it all means to me" statement. I'm just glad I get to do what I love all day and get paid for it.

Which is, when you think of it, the same sentiment that many an open-source developer would share if asked why she writes code. I'm convinced that the principles that have driven Slashdot's success are much the same principles that make Linux, Google and other open source or Web 2.0 success stories. These projects and companies put the end user first and figure out the revenue model second.

Funny, that. Good money seems to follow happy customers. In Malda's world, a happy customer may be reading about the rise of open source in one post and the fall of the penguin population in the next. And they'll be loving every minute of it.

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Tech Culture
About the author

    Matt Asay is chief operating officer at Canonical, the company behind the Ubuntu Linux operating system. Prior to Canonical, Matt was general manager of the Americas division and vice president of business development at Alfresco, an open-source applications company. Matt brings a decade of in-the-trenches open-source business and legal experience to The Open Road, with an emphasis on emerging open-source business strategies and opportunities. He is a member of the CNET Blog Network and is not an employee of CNET. You can follow Matt on Twitter @mjasay.

     

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