A Snippet of Slashdot

Slashdot is one of the seminal Open Source sites and an object lesson in volunteer content creation. This post is a catch-up exercise on my part rather than a case study, but as it may be useful for others who are just joining the new media conversation, I’ll think out loud.

Slashdot features news, comments and links on technology and politics. Items are posted and screened by volunteers. A 1999 article in The Economist said: “moderators rate comments from minus one (rubbish) to plus five (a gem). Readers can configure the site so that it shows them only comments rated, say, three or higher. If a registered Slashdot reader has made sufficient positive contributions, the service’s computers occasionally invite him to rate comments. To avoid abuse, the power of moderators is limited. They are on duty for only three days at a time, during which they rate just five postings.”

According to the (also volunteer) Wikipedia encyclopedia, Slashdot was founded in 1997 by Rob Malda, who would then have been about 21. It quickly became a locus for free or open source software enthusiasts. In 2000, Slashdot tangled with Microsoft when a Slashdotter posted some Microsoft software code. Microsoft demanded its removal. A 2000 Salon article by Anthony Leonard said, “Asking Slashdot to remove posts is like asking a hacker to cut off his or her own hands.”

But in 2001, when an anonymous poster uploaded some Scientology texts to the site, Slashdot had to remove the material, or risk losing a costly lawsuit. Malda (aka CmdrTaco) explained the decision : “This is the first time since we instituted our moderation system that a comment has had to be removed because of its content, and believe me nobody is more broken hearted about it than me.”

In between these two episodes, Slashdot was sold in 2000, ultimately to VA Software, one of the early firms to create commercial spinoffs around Linux. (In an earlier post I noted how another of the Linux commercializers is experimenting with open source media.)

Today Slashdot is part of what VA Software calls its Open Source Technology Group, a group of sites that also includes SourceForge, a forum for open source developers. The OSTG website says Slashdot gets 16 million unique monthly visitors, 96 percent of whom are male, with an average household income of $74,772. Given its focus on tech, I would imagine the site draws enough advertising to be profitable but I don’t know that.

Other interesting things I don’t know include how the moderation system evolved, and how does it continue? Wikipedia alludes to trolling episodes, heated exchanges of postings, often coupled with pranks. I’m sure there’s a fascinating story in ethos of this community which strikes me as a Lord of the Flies meets cyberspace. But that would take a case study and is more than I can blog off today.

Tom Abate