Dexter, Mich., population 2338, is not the sort of place you'd expect to be one of the hotbeds of Planet Geek. The downtown, located 10 miles west of Ann Arbor, is a one-block strip of mom-and-pop shops. Tiny kids in white outfits file out of the Dexter Karate Academy. The yeasty smell of hops and barley wafts from Jolly Pumpkin Artisan Ales, the local microbrewery. But behind the front door of an unmarked beige warehouse on Broad Street, you'll find an übernerd hunched over a desk precariously stacked with books on network security and ASP.net development, choosing the technology news stories that half a million fellow geeks will read that day.
On the opposite wall, there's a satirical ”demotivational” poster. ”DEFEAT,” it trumpets, over a sweeping photo of marathon runners, ”For Every Winner, There Are Dozens of Losers. Odds Are You're One of Them.”
”The company that makes that poster was going out of business,” Rob Malda, a 31-year-old with a pointy beard and glasses, tells me as we pass by. ”But then we linked to them, and they survived.”
That's the power of Slashdot, the Web site Malda runs from here. Launched long before blogs and news aggregators ruled the Internet, Slashdot has spent the past decade cherry-picking and linking to what the site bills as ”news for nerds”--the cool and crucial science and technology stories that Malda and his crew of nine think you must know: a massive cave found on Mars; artificial intelligence used to train firefighters; a ”chairbot” that walks you around while you sit. The site has run more than 78 000 articles since it launched in 1997, and it is still growing rapidly.
As a result of its erudite linking, Slashdot has built one of the most feverishly loyal and influential communities of geeks online. Each day the site gets about 500 000 visitors, who view some 2 million pages. And as it is the early adopter's tastemaker, its power is mighty. Getting a link from the site--getting ”Slashdotted”--has a viral impact. Just ask the makers of the demotivational posters or anyone else who has experienced the so-called Slashdot effect, which can sometimes be too much of a good thing. Slashdot is the 800-pound gorilla of discussion sites, and a single mention there can generate enough traffic to overwhelm a smaller site's servers with traffic, temporarily killing it with attention. Fortune magazine once called Slashdot ”the future of media.” In 2001, Time named Malda one of the top innovators of the 21st century.
The online landscape has changed, though. The selection and linking that Slashdot pioneered has since become the stuff of the blogosphere, and now news aggregators, like Digg, have been stealing its thunder. Taking into account a combination of page views and users, research firm Alexa Internet, in San Francisco, ranks Digg's site close to 100th, whereas Slashdot falls near 600th. Business 2.0 recently listed Malda as one of 10 ”People Who Don't Matter.” ”The buzz has moved elsewhere,” the story said. ”Slashdot's editor-driven story selection model is being supplanted by user-generated systems such as Digg.”
Not everyone agrees. ”Obviously, Digg is much bigger than Slashdot,” says Barry Parr, media analyst at JupiterResearch, a technology research firm in New York City. ”But the truth is that every day the home page of Slashdot is a must-read for a certain part of the online community in a way that Digg is not.”
The value of Slashdot in the age of online social networks is precisely in its editorial capacity, the fact that techies--whether astrophysicists or toy designers--can count on Malda and his discerning squad of geeks to sift through the Web's vast detritus for the worthy nuggets. And if you want to know what Malda counts on, it's the unabashed certitude of his position in, and contribution to, the online ecosystem. ”I want to tell my friends about the 15 things that matter most,” says Malda. ”If we pull that off, then we're doing our job.” He says Digg's recommendations are haphazard and that the two services are ”apples and oranges.”
Although Malda's site has been criticized for lagging on redesigns--it's had only one major overhaul since its inception--it has succeeded by harnessing and, in a sense, gaming the tyranny of the masses. Behind the scenes, Malda and his team have designed and coded a unique system for keeping information and opinions flowing but under control.
Malda has plenty of work still ahead. In the wings is another big change, a system called Firehose, which will try to meld the assessments of knowledgeable moderators with a popularity rating. Just don't call it the ”D” word. ”This idea was pre-Digg,” says Malda. ”The wisdom of crowds is a good thing, but mob rule is a problem,” he adds. ”The successful way of dealing with that is to be a little of both.”