One of the pleasures of being involved with Webstock is the opportunity to meet people like Rob Malda and Matt Haughey. And the chance to get the founder of MetaFilter to interview the founder of Slashdot just seemed too good to pass up!
We’re privileged to present this interview for you. Rob talks about standing on the shoulders of a previous generation near the end of the interview — those of us working in the web today stand on the shoulders of Rob and Matt. Enjoy the read…
Matt: I was a daily reader of Slashdot from about 1997 onwards (I usually ignored the Linux stuff but liked everything else), and it was a key inspiration for me starting MetaFilter. I thought I could combine the new (for late 1998) short link style of blogs like kottke.org, peterme.com, and jjg.net with a community setup like Slashdot, but I specifically wanted a simple comment UI, so I basically looked at slashdot and made sure there was no threading, no ratings, no sorting, no extraneous form elements so it could just be a big textarea and a post button for comments.
What’s your reaction to hearing that? Did you ever wish the UI/design of early Slashdot could be different? What did you think of the big first wave of blogs around the year 2000 starting to take off?
Rob: That’s a lot of questions 😉
Regarding the simpler UI, initially Slashdot had a fairly simple UI as well. For the first 10 months there weren’t even user accounts: all posts were anonymous. But as we grew in size, the other cruft had to be added to allow defensive measures. By mid-1999 we had the roots of our moderation system in place, which existed for 2 reasons: To stop spam/trolling/garbage, and to promote quality content. But the latter was the byproduct of the former. The thing I tend to forget is that from 1997 to 2000, I was basically the entire engineering for the site. Also, I was the primary writer. And I was starting a business. So when the dust settles, the UI was pretty good for the era, but filled with compromises that I wouldn’t have to make today.
Regarding the first wave of blogs, I guess if I’m honest about it, I often feel like Slashdot never got the fair credit it deserved. As “Blogging” became a mainstream buzzword that you’d hear about on CNN, Slashdot simply got lost in the history. From my perspective, we figured out many of the details of Social Media Aggregation years before, and then a second generation came along and got all the credit… and it wasn’t because of their UI or technology or skill, it was because Slashdot was ALWAYS a niche operation. I stuck to my guns for my entire ride that Slashdot was one specific subject. A specific tone. A certain culture. In the earliest years, that niche represented a sizable percentage of the internet community. Blogging was completely mainstreamed by the time the Bush/Kerry campaigns and the networks made it conventional wisdom. At that point, bloggers were no longer “Nerds”, they were just people willing to type.
Matt: Looking back, I seem to recall Slashdot sort of aligned itself with more of a “we are a forum!” mantra back then. I remember in all the weblog early history stuff people would mention Slashdot or The Drudge Report as having some quasi-blog like elements but not really calling themselves that or embracing it. Does that mesh with your memories of the time? I seem to recall that for some reason in the late 90s, a lot of people felt it was important to say they weren’t blogging or blogs, but were instead journals or forums or everything/nothing (remember e/n?).
I recall weblog and blog being associated with a new fad around 1999 and there being some backlash — do you think that might be why Slashdot isn’t really considered an early blog but more of a paleo or proto kind of blog-like thing?
Rob: Slashdot was a lot of things, which is probably why it never gets pigeon-holed into any single bucket. We were a blog, a forum, a community, a social news system, and in fact we were a social network (you can still friend/foe people!) years before the term was popularized by that Book website and others. Since we were all of those things, we’re generally thought of as something else.
I still shun the term Blogging just as I shun the term Tweeting. It’s all just writing. It’s like trying to subdivide Novelist, Columnist, Blogger, Tweeter. Words are words. It’s not really interesting to keep slicing and dicing and sub-categorizing to me. I just write some stuff or share some stuff. Distinguishing between “Journalist” and “Blogger” is a waste of time. I’m all of those things and none of them.
Matt: I know the late 90s were kind of crazy for everyone, definitely including Slashdot, but if you could sum up your time at Slashdot through the following decade (2000-2010), how would you describe it? What were your day to days like during that stretch of the 2000s?
Rob: For me personally, I feel like Slashdot was very strong in the first half of that time. If you wanted to mark a few milestones, the bursting of the dot com bubble and then 9/11 represent sort of the end of Early Slashdot. At that point we knew what we were and what we were doing. We continued down that path for many years. Our traffic continued to grow, and since we were cheap to run, the rest of the business mostly ignored us. I don’t think people really understand how small scale of an operation it all was: we had 2-3 engineers for much of this time, and 3-4 writers. This basically was our entire operation and production teams. We were lean and mean, but it meant that we were unable to perform significant engineering changes. For the first 2-3 years, when I was doing all of the engineering I could simply sit down and build a new feature. But at some point, the mere act of maintaining a stable platform for our users, with our incredibly limited human and hardware resources became problematic. For a former hardware company, we had a remarkably limited amount of hardware. So instead of engineering new functionality for our users, we engineered more optimized systems. We became very scalable. And eventually this caught up with us. By the mid 2000s, the next generation of social media came onto the scene: the Diggs and Reddits of the world, and we didn’t have the resources to compete.
By the end of the 2000s and up until I left last summer, my focus shifted to be more on the editorial side. I wanted the product side to succeed: to add new features for the users, to fix bugs and stuff. But it was really hard to accomplish anything significant. For awhile, Slashdot’s engineering was a single guy. He was responsible for anything anyone wanted. Just one guy. Now he was an awesome engineer: but a solitary person can’t handle all the engineering and operational responsibilities for a site like Slashdot. The system has parts that are a decade+ old. So while the editorial group was able to do some good work, the site itself remained almost unchanged for the last few years save for a few superficial changes.
Matt: Did you have any big side projects during your time at Slashdot? Anything you’re most proud of that isn’t Slashdot?
Rob: These days I spend a lot more time with my 2 boys. I also did some early work on Everything2, I wrote a column for a magazine for several years. But I was pretty intensely focused on Slashdot for 14 years. The job was good to me too. I was well paid, and got to see some amazing things (like a Shuttle Launch and the inside of Pixar!). And it continues to sort of payoff for me: I’m looking forward to going to Webstock. I’ll meet some interesting people, and with any luck get to see something awesome connected to The Lord of the Rings. I’m told New Zealand is lovely in Feb.
Matt: What’s it like these days, I imagine it’s weird to view the site as a user and not have god-like admin controls. Do you still check in on the site?
Rob: I read Slashdot now exclusively via RSS. I’m still pleased with the majority of the editorial work being done. I’ve submitted a few stories anonymously too. But the day that all my admin controls disappeared I basically logged out and it truthfully hurts to go back. I miss it tremendously, and really wish that they had granted my request to be allowed to continue to post as an occasional special contributor or something. I suspect I’ll always feel like a piece of my heart is missing.
Matt: What’s next for you, do you have any general areas of the technology world that interest you these days?
Rob: I promised my wife that I would take a few months off from work before I began looking for a job. That time is now at an end, so it’s basically time for me to start shoving my resume out there and seeing what my next chapter looks like. I’m very interested in the way internet news is created and replicated. I’d love to find a way to work in that field again, but not directly as a news editor. I’d like to perhaps work on the tools that people use to consume. Alternatively, I love photography and writing, so I’d really like to have the chance to do more in depth writing on the subjects that interest me. Slashdot was always pretty limiting: 100-200 words was the typical max. It rarely afforded the opportunity to witness an event first person, or directly ask a question to someone who might add insight. I think it did some bad things to my short term memory- spending 14 years focused on such short snippets of information has done a real number on the attention span. But I’m still following very closely the tech world, especially gadgets, tablets, phones, open source, sci-fi, movies… Slashdot was after all based on the stuff I was personally interested in. That will never change.
Matt: Huh, I think of you as more of a creator and a maker than a guy that has a regular job. Have you considered building your own new thing or collaborating with various news organizations that could use your technical expertise? (I’m thinking of all the database-journalism stuff going on with people like Adrian Holovarty that helped launch Everyblock and what places like MSNBC are pushing and what the Boston Globe and The Atlantic are doing, or heck even what the Poynter Institute is trying to do with pushing reporters to learn some coding to better present data)
Rob: I tend to engross myself pretty hard core into things, so I just had to go cold turkey for a few months. You describe me in a very flattering light. I guess I’ll find out in the next few months if it’s deserved. I think I have some really unique skills and experiences that I hope will be useful somewhere in a way that provides me with interesting and meaningful work. For so many years Slashdot meant so much to me: I felt like the work i was doing mattered so much more than just a paycheck. Anyone who has been lucky enough to be in that sort of position would understand I guess. I imagine your work on MetaFilter might be similar- and since you’ve had the good sense to retain ownership, you are able to continue to shape your creation according to what you think is best. That matters a lot.
Matt: What’s your favorite bit of technology that you’ve encountered in the last year?
Rob: I saw the final shuttle launch. I cried. It’s really such an old technology, but it brought together my childhood and adult dreams in a single moment.
Matt: What’s your biggest disappointment in the tech world these days?
Rob: The internet is simply not as free as it was when Slashdot began. Government is increasingly legislating away our rights and criminalizing actions that are impossible to regulate. I know it’s inevitable, but it’s still disappointing to witness. The joy of logging in to an IRC chat room in the early 90s, to talk to people who were innovating powerful technologies simply for the sake of it was absolutely intoxicating. To be able to talk to the guy who was responsible for some component of your system. We were all pseudo-anonymous strangers brought together by the technology that we loved, and the belief that an open future was spread out before us. The future will be exciting for my children, but I’m afraid that their technology will come in boxes welded shut at the factory. Their software locked down. Linux, and the Internet broke everything wide open. It’s taken 20 years to get a lot of it boxed back up again. I hope there are still air cracks by the time my kids are old enough to jam screwdrivers in there.
Matt: Yeah, I definitely see that trend as well, there seems to be a real push-pull on the consumer side with simplicity and control. The iPad is a technical wonder, but it does have real limitations on what software you can run and what kinds of files you can view on it. People have speculated that perhaps by 2015 you might buy a Macbook that doesn’t have write access to the hard drive, and part of me understands why that would revolutionize computing for a lot of people but be absolutely horrible for power users like you and me.
Rob: And not just to power users, but to the next generation. We all stand on the shoulders of the generation before. This is true in EVERY medium. Writers, Artists, Programmers, Engineers. The trend in the last few decades to lock everything down… be it with rivets and welds, or with patents and copyrights that never expire… we’re crippling the next generation. The joy I felt being able to gut a PC, from the hard drive to the kernel during my formative years… you’re right: an iPad is amazing. I own one and love it. But what I got out of my first PCs in the 80s was more than what my kid will get out of an iPad today. I’m not trying to wax nostalgic, but there’s a potentially dark future out there. We’re crippling the next generation in the name of quarterly profits. Creativity and innovation requires more balance.
Matt: Thanks Rob for taking the time to talk!