Behind the Slashdot phenomenon

Nearly five years ago, a 21-year-old computer-science nerd made his first postings on a Web site known as Slashdot. Those messages marked the beginning of what would become an Internet phenomenon.
Written by Robert Lemos, Contributor
Nearly five years ago, a 21-year-old computer-science nerd named Rob Malda made his first postings on a Web site known as Slashdot. Little did he know at the time--those messages marked the beginning of what would become an Internet phenomenon.

Malda, who goes by the alias "CmdrTaco," today oversees a must-read Web site for anyone trying to read the collective pulse of the tech industry. The site features reposted links to news stories about technology from around the Web. At the same time, Slashdot.org functions as a no-holds-barred community sounding board where readers post some 7,000 comments every day, offering their opinions and analyses on issues du jour.

"It's sort of evolved over the years to include topics like Linux, open source, rights the people have on the Internet, and also more silly stuff of a somewhat geeky nature, like 'Star Wars,' maybe 'Tron,' Lego," Malda said. "You know, whatever--it's a pretty wide subject matter.

News site, opinion forum or bulletin board--Slashdot is many things to many people. Malda even used its pages to propose marriage. She accepted.

ZDNet recently caught up with Malda to find out more about what the digerati commonly refer to as the "Slashdot effect".

Q: Where is the primary value of Slashdot--in the audience or the fact that the audience participates and acts like your eyes and ears on the Internet, getting you stories first?

A: I think there are a lot of ways to answer that, depending on who the reader is. To a lot of people, Slashdot is nothing but 12 links to new things every day. To half of our readers, in fact, that's all Slashdot is. But to some of our readers, it's a community that's here to discuss issues that are relevant to this community. There is a lot of value. The bulk of our content comes from other people. There are 6,000 or 7,000 comments on a busy day that other people write and just a dozen stories of just a paragraph or two that we actually generate, that are ours. It is a weird symbiosis of things that are given to us.

Why did Slashdot become so popular?

I think it was a matter of the right concept at the right time. When I started Slashdot in '97, there were a lot of things happening in this area, but there wasn't a Web site that was dealing with the issues that we were dealing with on a sort of formal level. There were some sites that were kind of dealing with it, but they were too formal. Then there were other people doing it that were like "Joe and his Web page." We were somewhere in the middle.

There was also the discussion system.

We also had an open discussion system where we would allow pretty much anybody to say anything. The other systems that were out there either had no system or would become very filtered. That didn't foster a sense of community and participation. So our model was sort of unique in that we were too lazy to actually maintain the comments, so we just let anything go. And that made people participate. And there were other things that were lucky. There were a handful of substantial stories that we broke early on.

A lot of the more mainstream tech publications started reading us because we were getting a reputation for posting weird things that would come out and be much more important in the mainstream news, but we would be ahead of the curve. That still continues to this day. We break a story and a week later, MSNBC will pick it up. And then it goes the other way around, too; we are always pulling stories off of Web sites.

Do you think it also mattered that you just didn't build pages in HTML but also built an infrastructure behind it?

I don't think it really mattered. Not in the early days. I think that is part of it now. The fact is that our infrastructure is designed to handle traffic loads far beyond what...most informal systems can handle. So that's a pretty big deal. But Slashdot was based, at least conceptually, on a Web site that I ran on my personal home page, which was HTML. There was no system. It was just me pasting into text files.

I think that it really comes down to the content. If you have content people want, they will tolerate a system that is inferior. Now our system is solid, but back in the day, it wasn't. Look at eBay: That system is the most hodgepodge and clumsy user interface that you will ever find. People use it because it was first and it worked. And there are many other Web sites that are just like that.

Were you surprised by the "Slashdot effect"--that people went to your site, saw a link to a story, and inundated the original site where the story appeared?

I wasn't really surprised because it was very gradual. When we were small, no one noticed us. And as we got larger, we knocked down an occasional server. And then it became a whole thing unto its own, where we just started pummelling boxes. By then, it had already been going on for so long, we weren't really surprised by it. We realised, "Oh yeah. I guess we are kind of smacking people around a bit with the bandwidth."

Do you think that Slashdot is fairly unique out there?

There are others, but we are certainly the leading example of the sort of community-maintained, or a community-built, news system. But there are others that are trying. I think what it comes down to is that...somebody has to design a system that does this in the future. So far no one has pulled it off yet. But our system has limitations, one of the most practical is that our subject matter is very niche-oriented.

Can you envision somebody borrowing the Slashdot concept for other subjects?

There is the potential for a similar site in a thousand different subject matters. The thing is that no one has really taken on to that, because my readers are the kind of people that are used to using the Internet this way to discuss, to share, to build.

Because these are the open source and Linux guys, doing news this way was natural to them. There is not necessarily the same skill set, the same understanding with, say, quilters. Sure, things happen to quilters, but they are not used to sending a hundred emails a day to discuss whatever thing it is they are interested in discussing.

Fifty percent of Slashdot's traffic consists of people that just check out the headlines and then click through. But the other half goes into the discussion boards and actually takes part in the community. Besides the common love of technology, do you think they have a common thread in there?

I think we are talking about a pretty diverse group. (laughing) And the only thing that they probably have in common is that they all have opinions.

How much value do you see in that portion of Slashdot?

To some people, that is the only value in Slashdot. And my goal is to try and make as wide a group of people as happy as possible. The truth is that half of our readers never care about comments. So I have to make sure that half is happy. Only a couple percent of our readers actually post comments. I have to deal with that too. It is a weird mix.

There is a lot of comment that gets posted that falls below the threshold line. How are you developing that technology to deliver comments so that readers get some information out of the boards?

It's an ongoing project. It's just been evolving over the last four years. We are always changing things. We are certainly not done. The system works pretty well, but it's definitely not perfect yet. If you design a foolproof system, you get a bigger fool. We have a constant problem with people who are trying to break our system for no other purpose than they have nothing better to do--like their bosses haven't assigned them enough to do at work today, or that their mom hasn't made them mow the lawn, in most cases!

So what's in the future? What going to happen with Slashdot?

I hope that it continues to be as close to what it is today for as long as it can be.

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