There’s only one technology story that matters to most geeks this week, and that’s the departure of Steve Jobs, the iconic CEO of Apple. But there are other icons in the geek community — although their influence may not be quite as widespread as the Apple founder’s, and they may not run multibillion-dollar companies — and one of them has also announced his departure. Rob Malda, also known as CmdrTaco, is stepping aside from the pioneering online community Slashdot, which he founded 14 years ago. Long before Digg came along, or Hacker News, or even Metafilter, the community Malda created was the go-to spot for geeks to talk about the news that mattered to them. That hasn’t gone away; if anything, it has gone mainstream.
As he describes in a Slashdot post about his decision to leave, Malda created the site with friend Jeff “Hemos” Bates when the two were still in college, running it from an old server stuffed under Malda’s desk where he worked as a programmer. Later, the two began to run Slashdot as a business, and went through a bewildering series of corporate owners over the next decade — first they were acquired by Andover, which then merged with VA Linux, which had gone public in a star-studded IPO that saw the stock climb as high as $239, only to crater along with most of the other dot-com bubble stocks. As Malda notes:
Since Slashdot was founded, my business card has read Blockstackers, Andover, Andover.net, VA Linux Systems, VA Software, OSDN, OSTG, SourceForge, and finally Geeknet. My title has changed several times: from my first card which read “Lies and Misinformation”, until today when my title read “Editor-in-Chief of Slashdot.org”.
The turmoil of ownership didn’t stop Slashdot from growing, however, to the point where it had over 5 million visitors a month in 2006. For years before Digg came along, it was the must-read site for anyone interested in Linux and other open-source technologies, but also in the emerging business of mobile communications — long before everyone had a smartphone — and other technologies that are now thought of as mainstream. Slashdot’s “upmod,” a vote for a smart comment or thread, was the dominant geek status symbol, a predecessor to the “digg” vote and the Facebook “like.”
The “Slashdot effect”
Slashdot was also the first to swamp websites with crippling amounts of traffic after a link got posted, a phenomenon that became known as the “Slashdot effect” (later replaced by the Digg effect and the Stumbleupon effect, among others). Werner Vogels — CTO of Amazon, whose cloud-based servers now host a lot of websites — paid tribute to this in a post to Twitter on Thursday about Malda’s departure:
Slashdot also created what is still one of the best examples of a self-regulating online community, a status it shares with Metafilter (another site that began as a one-man show in the late 1990s, when it was created by Matt Haughey, who still runs the service). In order to prevent “flamers” and trolls from taking over the system and ruining it for others — something new communities like Google+ are also struggling with — Slashdot developed a pioneering moderation system that awards “karma” points to readers for their behavior on the site, and then selects moderators from that group. In true Slashdot fashion, it then open-sourced the code for this system.
Media and news communities that are focused on one demographic or interest group, like sports or entertainment, are fairly common now. But Slashdot was one of the first to show that the web could sustain something like that by focusing on what was then a relatively narrow niche. Says Malda:
Slashdot has been read by kernel engineers and billionaires. By sys-admins and CEOs. By high school kids and government bureaucrats. But what brings so many of them together is that we are nerds.
The geeks took over the world
In some ways, the decline of Slashdot as a force in the geek world has come about not because the site lost any authority or popularity, but because geeks and tech news and the Internet itself have become such a mainstream thing over the past decade. When Slashdot first began, there weren’t many other places to talk about the newest processor from Intel or the development of web technology like Ajax, or concepts like “virtual reality” — apart from the Usenet newsgroups that were the predecessor to most online geek communities. Now, those kinds of topics are everywhere. As Malda notes in his goodbye post:
The internet has changed dramatically since I started here, and that’s part of my reason for leaving. For me, the Slashdot of today is fused to the Slashdot of the past. This makes it really hard to objectively consider the future of the site.
In the media world, the departure of pioneering blogger Jim Romenesko — who also announced his semi-retirement on Wednesday — falls into much the same category. When Romenesko started a “column” (which was really a blog) reporting snippets of info about the media world and linking to interesting stories and news, it was one of a kind. Now, that same kind of thing occurs everywhere, from mainstream media to news aggregators like Mediagazer. Although they were strange beasts when Romenesko started, blogs have become part of the media firmament.
Twitter has become the news network
And for both Slashdot and Romenesko, of course — and plenty of other pioneering news and technology communities — the real competitor that has taken some of the wind from their sails is Twitter. As news events like the Steve Jobs resignation and the fall of Tripoli show, the service has the ability to become a real-time information network like no other. Instead of relying on aggregators or link-sharing sites, users can become their own aggregators, following those who post unique or valuable content and creating their own real-time news wires on the fly. That’s pretty hard to compete with.
That’s not to say there isn’t value to having a community like Slashdot or Metafilter, of course, because there is. The personal touch, the camaraderie among members, the long debates about whether Vi or Emacs is the best Linux text editor — those things can only occur in a community like Slashdot. But that is a smaller game than it used to be, as Digg has found out. In any case, as I mentioned in my recent post about online music pioneer Michael Robertson, sometimes we need to pay tribute to the pioneers, without whom there would be no land to settle.