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The History of Slashdot Part 4 - Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow 277

Today, on the last day of our 10 year anniversary navel gazing spectacular, I present the final (thank god!) chapter in my 4 part history of Slashdot. I've written about the creation, the explosion, and the corporatization. Today I talk about where we are today, and what I see as our future, and how I feel about it. Clicky click the magic link below to read the last "thrilling" chapter, and celebrate with me the fact that I won't have to spend this much time writing about Slashdot for another decade.

As the dust settled following the dot-com bust, we would see only minor changes to Slashdot. Hemos moved to Boston both to be closer to Andover HQ, and to get his wife in commute range for her grad school work. Nate went to California when his wife got a teaching job. Both moved to Ann Arbor a few years later, as did CowboyNeal, Samzenpus & I. The band was back together, and has been for the last several years.

These days we have a little office in A2 where we do much the same things as we have always done. Jeff spends way to much time in conference calls with corporate offices. He's got a fancy VP title which means he makes the big bucks in exchange for radiating his head on a cel phone. But he's always been a people person so I think that suits him just fine. Nate is an engineer for SourceForge and working on his own advanced degrees. CowboyNeal is on leave right now, but we're looking forward to his return. Samzenpus still sits at the receptionist desk scaring away the door to door salesmen that still seem to show up randomly with no clue what we do. We conduct most of our affairs via a jabber channel where people on both coasts work together.

At the end of all of it, I'm happy that I still get to work with my oldest friends, as well as a number of really honestly great people we've had to good fortune to meet up with in the last decade. And beyond that, I've had the good fortune to work with a number of other smart and cool people that have gone on to bigger and better things. On some level, the memories and people are the most important part of life, and I'm very happy with how that has gone.

As for Slashdot itself, there's a theme in the discussions about Slashdot jumping the shark. That theme has resurfaced regularly for our entire lifespan. From the creation of user accounts in 1998 on, every action we take on Slashdot provokes a 'This is the end of Slashdot' from someone. But what this tells me is that we actually haven't jumped the shark at all- if we had, they'd stop saying the same thing every time we do anything. You learn a lot in my position about large communities: Most of you never say a word... only the most passionate of you ever post. And an angry user is 10 fold more likely to post than a happy one. And when nobody can agree on anything... well there's meaning in that too.

At the end of the day, we've done some reasonably great things over the years. Take for example Sep 11. On that day the mainstream news websites buckled under the loads, and although we had to turn off logging, we managed to stay up, sharing news in a time where it was often difficult to get. That was the day where the team of engineers that make this site happen pulled together and did the impossible, forcing our limited little hardware cluster to handle traffic that was probably triple or quadruple a normal day.

Or take Columbine. When this tragedy hit, our readers took it a differently. Instead of blaming video games, we looked hard at the culture of abuse that drives high school. We talked about how the jocks beat us up. We knew that the terrible events of that day are almost inevitable when you stick kids into a system where certain groups of kids are given free reign to beat up others based on extra curricular activities. During that series of stories many people had a place to talk. It was cathartic. Our role was small, but it mattered.

Darker moments like those are rare, but there are countless other moments good and bad. Many you see on the page, and others you don't. From little successes like trading banner ads for office chairs or the time Gamara chucked Hemos's cel phone into an empty ice bucket... except it wasn't empty. Or the time the crazy guy showed up at our office and offered to give Samzenpus his car in exchange for 5 minutes of time with CmdrTaco, where he would "Reverse Engineer My Life". I proposed to my wife here... and she accepted and now years later we have a baby. I couldn't begin to enumerate the countless moments that have made the last decade here awesome.

I have other thoughts that are perhaps more bleak. There's a possible dark future for Slashdot if corporate interests take over. There's constant pressure from within the company to create new "products". Sometimes these mean new/more/bigger ads which usually result in people installing junkbusters. Far worse is the occasional attempt to create some sort of content partnership that blurs the lines between legitimate Slashdot content, and the paying advertiser's message. I hate these meetings because I have to constantly be the guy that says 'No'. My worst fear for Slashdot is that someday someone with deep enough pockets comes along with a check so big that someone in the company with a shortsighted view of the future is willing to cash over top of my objections.

Likewise, there is pressure for us to grow as a site, but this has 2 major problems. The first is that our audience was here in the 90s: we were the early adopters that made the internet great in the first place. Our growth will never match the population of the net because we are a small group that isn't growing: we were here first. Second is my personal feeling that marketing is just icky: read if you want. Or don't. If you don't find us on your own, you probably weren't meant to be here. That's my Gen-X showing I think, but it's still how I feel. And it really doesn't help when people on-line regard Alexa as legitimate and definitive. We could gain traffic by posting boobs or covering other subjects, but that would distract us from our real focus. And it would drive you guys away.

Similarly, new websites and technologies arise regularly. From Kuro5hin to Digg to Reddit, there have been dozens of websites that do similar things to Slashdot with varying degrees of success. Some have surpassed us, while most have faded into obscurity. From AJAX interfaces to alternate methodologies of content selection, they all have ideas, some good, so bad... some right for Slashdot, and some wrong. Distinguishing one from the other is tricky: you guys all deserve a modern web application, but at the end of the day, our story selection and discussions are what make this site unique. Drastic changes would alienate our long-term user base, so we need to tread cautiously.

A 10 year anniversary is a good time to think about what a 20 year anniversary would be like. And I think that the only way that Slashdot in 2017 is as good as Slashdot in 2007 is if we continue to maintain editorial independence, moderate advertising quantity with a clear distinction between advertising and content, and of course, that we continue to select the right stories to appeal to our existing audience... not to spend our time courting other audiences that would only dilute the discussions that bring so many of you here day after day.

For me personally I've spent a lot of time this month reflecting on Slashdot and my role here. Every day, 7 days a week, from my first cup of coffee until the moment I close the lid on my laptop, Slashdot is a part of my day. It's most of my browser tabs, most of my chat windows, and most of my inbox. And that's fine because I love this place: the readers, the content, and the people I work with. I'm honored that I continue to be the caretaker of this place.

Of course I've been here my entire adult life and I doubt that will always remain true. Certainly to leave would leave a hole in my life. But it's a constant struggle to maintain the site up to my standards. It's a struggle that I often win, but occasionally lose too. On some level, what keeps me here is knowing exactly what would happen within a few months of my departure. I don't like that one bit.

But let me end on a high note: I am very aware of Slashdot's unique place in the history of the internet. There's no way I could thank everyone that made that possible, but you all know who you are. I dream that in 2017 we can look back at 20 years and be just as proud of our second decade as our first. Keep reading. Keep submitting stories. Keep posting, moderating and meta moderating. If it isn't to much trouble, click on a banner ad every now and then. And hopefully I'll see you then.

Rob Malda
Pants are Optional

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The History of Slashdot Part 4 - Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow

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