How a Michigan geek tamed the online masses
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.”
Slashdot serves its geeky audience so well because Malda himself is among them. ”I've always characterized it as ’me,' ” he says. ”It's people who like to write code and love technology.”
Like his readers, Malda was a self-educated brainiac from the start. Growing up in the bit-size town of Holland, Mich., he started coding on his Radio Shack TRS-80 in fourth grade and never looked back. He spent so much time writing computer games and surfing primitive bulletin-board networks on his 1200-baud modem that his mother once grounded him by locking his keyboard in the trunk of her car. But Malda fought back with ingenuity, as he once described on his blog: ”Since this was the days of DOS, I just added a keyboard error-code check to my autoexec.bat file, which launched a BBS so I could simply get at my data from a friend's house. Sorry, Mom.”
While studying computer science at nearby Hope College, Malda stumbled on a like-minded group: the community that had formed around Linux, the open-source operating system. The appeal of Linux was intense. ”You could pop off the lid and study it,” Malda says. In July 1997, years before anyone knew a blog from a podcast, Malda started posting his technology takes on a site he cheekily called Chips and Dips. Two months later, he renamed it Slashdot because the original URL ”was difficult to pronounce.” He chose his handle, CmdrTaco, from a joke about bad restaurant names in a book by humor columnist Dave Barry.
It didn't take long for Slashdot to unfurl its geek flag. In December 1997, Malda anticipated the marketplace victory of Microsoft's Internet Explorer 3.0 browser and suggested that Netscape's only way to compete would be to cough up its source code. Six days later, Netscape obliged. Although Malda doesn't think he was the singular catalyst, his prescient call earned techie respect--and influential readers.
”That was an era when the plumbers of the Internet had the power,” Malda recalls. ”If you knew a lot about Linux, you could be a major corporation's entire Internet department. I wasn't conscious [of anything] except that I was a plumber, too. So I was making the site I wanted to read, and it turned out I was one of tens of thousands of others.”
By the fall of 1998, Slashdot had about 300 000 daily readers and enough ads for Malda to quit his day job as a PC technician, pay himself a US $40 000 annual salary and run the site full-time, with the help of buddy Jeff Bates. They set up shop in what Malda calls a ”crappy college house.” But the water-rotted ceiling was the least of their troubles. The plumbers piping into Slashdot proved to be just as unkempt.
Although communities had been coming together on the Internet in the form of bulletin-board services and newsgroups for years, the Web's rapid growth was, by this time, testing the limits of online crowd control. New breeds of disrupters began taking to the Slashdot forums: trolls who were looking for a fight, plagiarizers, spammers, copyright-violating cut-and-pasters, and grammar fanatics who savaged every entry with overzealous critiques. After Malda proposed marriage to his girlfriend in a Slashdot forum on Valentine's Day in 2002, one of the comments made was, ”Good luck to you, but bah humbug on valentines day.”
”The ultimate goal is sharing ideas and information,” Malda says, ”and if you're nitpicking about grammar, you're wasting everyone's time.” To survive, Slashdot had to achieve the unimaginable: tame the geeks without turning them away. ”If you put up a billboard in front of all of New York, someone will climb the pole and spray-paint it,” Malda says. ”You can't stop them. You have to gain leverage against them. It's a never-ending arms race.”
In June 1999, at the very height of the dot-com boom, Slashdot was acquired by Andover.Net, the Linux hub, which was itself bought the next year by VA Linux, the computer systems service. Andover.Net went for more than $1 billion, but Malda, who prefers not to divulge his specific earnings, insists his take in stocks was not retirement money and, essentially, ”nowhere near anything impressive.” He remained onboard as Slashdot's chief; he still had plenty he wanted to accomplish.
It's midmorning at Slashdot as Malda bounds into his office. There's a doll of Tim the Enchanter from Monty Python and the Holy Grail on his desk and a lamp filled with marbles. Anime posters cover the wall. When his cellphone rings with the presumably ironic ringtone of Britney Spears's ”Baby One More Time,” Malda taps the mute button. He has work to do.
Every day, Slashdot receives anywhere from 200 to 500 story submissions from readers, but it runs only 20 to 30 of them. To submit a piece, visitors are urged to use the Submissions Bin, an online form, instead of e-mail. Malda instructs users to include concise subject headers and not to submit duplicate stories, but the growing pool of candidates gets harder and harder to wade through. Malda and his team judiciously fish out only the best.
”Machine-learning algorithm fights cancer,” Malda says, reading from his screen. ”We've already run that story.” He taps Delete, then scrolls down and opens up another message. ”Edible RFID? I'm not sure if I'm interested in that; it's sort of overhashed.” Delete again.
To hold back the flood of information, the team has engineered a method to the madness. It all starts with ”Daddypants,” the term given to the person in charge of weeding through the submissions at any given moment and making the executive call as to what gets on the site. Malda isn't the only one who wears the pants.
Each Slashdot worker has a specific shift and expertise, and although the staff has an office, team members generally work from their homes. Bates handles the science and biology beat; Malda oversees the techie stories; an editor nicknamed ”Zonk” covers gaming and Linux. ”We all trust each other's judgment,” Malda says. If the story meets their criteria to be ”stuff that matters,” it gets categorized and placed into an appropriate section of the Slashdot site, such as Linux, Supercomputing or Geeks in Space.
But selecting and classifying submissions is only the first step. Every day, the two dozen or so stories Slashdot publishes elicit thousands of comments from readers. The problem, of course, is that a lot of the comments come from people making off-topic remarks or stirring up arguments just for the sake of arguing. A few such submissions can be tolerated, but enough of them, like spam, can overwhelm readers and make the worthwhile comments too hard to find.
After some experimenting, Slashdot enlisted voluntary moderators to grade the comments and help make sense of the chaos. ”The way the system is designed,” Malda says, ”it's hard for one person to be a tyrant and wreck it.”
Today, Slashdot moderators are chosen from readers who put themselves up for consideration and have been, as Malda puts it, ”actively contributing to the system.” Qualifying activities include spending time on the site, submitting stories that get accepted, and having other readers move you up the scale by rating your comments highly.
Malda's code crunches the numbers and creates a curve representing the statistical distribution of reader activity. Malda then eliminates the outliers. At the highest point of the curve are the people whom he considers to be typical Slashdotters. These are the ones he wants moderating the threads. Malda likens the selection process to jury duty. On any given day, 30 000 readers may be eligible to be moderators, but only a few thousand are chosen. Although some moderators have been around since the early years of the site, newbies can join the ranks in as little as a few weeks.
Each moderator reads a comment and assigns it a numeric value on a scale of 1 (worst) to 5 (best). Readers elect to view only those comments that receive a minimum numeric value of their choosing; the average threshold selected is close to the default value, 2. Moderators also assign descriptive tags from a drop-down menu. If a comment is made simply to start a fight, it gets marked ”Flamebait.” Comments that don't move the conversation forward are branded ”Redundant.” Other labels include ”Funny,” ”Informative,” and ”Off-topic.”
The moderators' assessments carry weight. Each grade affects a member's so-called Karma level--a scale that ranges from Terrible to Excellent, reflecting the person's standing within the community. The better your Karma, the greater your chances of being chosen as a moderator. But to ensure that everyone gets as fair a shake as possible, Slashdot also uses something called ”metamoderation,” a means by which visitors can rate the skill of the moderators. ”It's a way of watching the watchers,” Malda says.
Slashdot's biggest challenges have tended to follow major news events, such as the 1999 Columbine shootings or the levee failures during Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Because the Columbine tragedy touched on popular Slashdot themes of gaming and media, the site's coverage generated huge discussion threads. Although a typical story ordinarily garners about 300 comments, Slashdot's Columbine pieces engendered more than 1000 each--numbers that may sound tame by today's standards but that felt overwhelming in 1999. ”Our system was not made to deal with that amount of comments,” Malda says. ”We had to rewrite it so it would handle thousands.”
By 2001, Slashdot's 10 servers, located in San Francisco, were able to sail through the biggest story they'd ever faced: 9/11. Other online news sources were getting crushed under the weight of traffic that day. Even CNN was crashing now and then. But Slashdot, with its new system in place, stepped up to the plate. ”We knew how to sort through information and run the site effectively,” Bates says. And as word spread, nontechnical readers began visiting the site that day--and the following days--in droves. To handle the tripling of traffic, Malda switched off nonessential features such as the logging of server activity.
But keeping everything in line is a work in progress. In 2004, Malda and his colleagues took Slashdot through its first major redesign. The site, which was originally written in HTML, had to be rebuilt, which proved to be a formidable challenge. They opened up the process to users, calling for their suggestions as to what they thought the site should be. More than 100 readers sent in opinions, and Malda incorporated the best ideas.
While Slashdot gets refined, however, it has become harder for Malda to ignore the impact of competitors, particularly Digg, which positions itself as a populist answer to the top-down model. ”Digg is like your newspaper, but rather than a handful of editors determining what's on the front page, the masses do,” Digg founder Kevin Rose recently said. ”Our algorithms make sure a diverse pool of unique Diggers likes a story before promoting it to the front page.” The algorithms also weight the recommendations of some Diggers more than others.
Malda, however, questions the integrity of that system. People on Digg ”have the feeling that they are the ones determining what goes on the main page, and administrators on the site are all too happy to let that delusion persist,” he says. ”[But] stories randomly disappear. Obviously there are higher powers at work.”
Although Malda says the comparison between the two sites is apples and oranges, Slashdot is experimenting with its Digg-like project, Firehose, to open up the editorial process. The idea came from a mounting problem: how to deal with the increasing flood of submissions, as many as 500 a day. Firehose lets readers see and rate submitted stories just as the Slashdot crew does, before the stories hit the main site. Readers can expand or contract the list of stories and filter those that have already been ranked according to popularity.
”The interface for maintaining the site behind the scenes was old and dated,” Malda says. ”It was designed for me when I was the only one doing it in '98. Right now, three or four people are looking at stories on any given day. Why not make it work for thousands?”
So far, the response to the Firehose test has been ”surprisingly positive,” Malda says. ”I don't know exactly how this will change us,” he adds. ”I want to use the Firehose but still maintain the quality and consistency that makes Slashdot great. Currently I use the Hose as a trusted bit of advice on each selection. Sometimes I disagree, but in general it's a very useful tool.”
Malda makes no bones, however, about the value of the top-down model that has made Slashdot a must-click. ”The stories on Slashdot are ones I chose,” he says. ”They're not chosen by democracy or random voting. I'm not pretending to say it's your opinion.”
Slashdot's latest features are staying in beta for the time being. No matter how progressive the site's readers may be, they're averse to change, Malda says. ”Slashdot people are ornery. When you change things, they get cranky.”
About the Author
DAVID KUSHNER is a frequent contributor to IEEE Spectrum. His latest book is Jonny Magic and the Card Shark Kids (RandomHouse, 2005).
To Probe Further
The ongoing Digg versus Slashdot brush war has beenwidely explored. Back in 2005 Wired speculated in a headline that ”Digg Just Might Bury Slashdot”( http://www.wired.com/science/discoveries/news/2005/11/69568), which ofcourse inspired a long Slashdot thread (”The Rise of Digg.com,” http://slashdot.org/articles/05/11/17/1439224.shtml?tid=95&tid=124).