Geek central

Geek central: By Andrew Leonard. At a site called Slashdot, "news for nerds" draws a passionate crowd.

Published June 15, 1998 7:00PM (EDT)

Three months ago, Commander Taco, the mind behind a Web site called Slashdot, posted a rumor: Blizzard Entertainment might produce a Linux-based version of its soon-to-be-released game Starcraft. The rumor turned out to be false, but within hours, so many Slashdot readers had sent e-mail to Blizzard that a support manager complained it was slowing the company from actually finishing the game.

But that was nothing. Two months earlier, on Jan. 12, Commander Taco -- who goes by the name Rob Malda in real life and is Slashdot's publisher, editor in chief and lead programmer -- published an editorial calling for Netscape to join the free software movement. Eleven days later, Netscape complied.

"Wow, this guy might be a little more influential than I thought he was," Del Simmons, a programmer who regularly submits news items to Slashdot, recalls thinking.

Malda doesn't take credit for Netscape's decision to make its source code available to all and sundry. And he regrets the Blizzard incident. But there's no question that with Slashdot, Malda has created a force to be reckoned with in what, for better or worse, can only be called the "nerd community." Since its official unveiling last September, Slashdot -- "News for Nerds. Stuff that matters" -- has speedily grown into one of the Web's most popular spots to find news about events that concern computer geeks.

Slashdot is raking in the page views, to be sure -- at last count, more than 100,000 a day, the kind of numbers that make advertisers start to pay attention. But numbers alone don't begin to tell the whole story. In a testament to what can happen when geeks get passionate, Slashdot has become a nexus -- a place for them not just to read the news but to be together.

Basically, Slashdot is nothing more than a constantly updated list of pointers to articles posted elsewhere on the Web, combined with a forum for bulletin-board discussion of each of those articles. Malda and other volunteers do contribute original content, but the key to the site's success is its ability to act as a clearinghouse and filter for news about core geek issues.

Malda doesn't do all the work; his readers shoulder the bulk of the load. Each day Malda receives up to 400 submissions from Slashdot readers alerting him to events, articles, budding controversies or raging rumors. Malda culls out what interests him and posts an annotated pointer.

Such collaboration, says Malda, "allows something far greater to be created than I would be capable of alone ... I have hundreds of readers scouring the Net for the coolest stuff. And since I have the coolest readers on the Net, they find it."

What defines "cool" for the Slashdot community? Well, for starters, anything to do with the Linux operating system, or the free software/open source movement. But Slashdot is more than just an "open source advocacy site" -- as a reporter for Wired News dubbed it. Malda and his band of "trusted" cohorts (Slashdot regulars who have the power to add links directly on the Slashdot page without previously clearing it with Malda) will post pointers to anything they feel is of interest. That could mean news about "Star Wars" or computer games or password hacking.

"Mainly I trust my gut," says Malda. "I'm a total geek, and I figure if I like it, so will everyone else."

"I hope to provide a deeper overall vision than what [other technology news sites] attempt," says Sengan Baring-Gould, one of Slashdot's core "trusted" contributors. "Many of their articles mirror the press releases of corporations, which are tailored to cast their story in the most favorable light. There seems to be little filtering: Publish anything you can find to write, rather than determine whether the article will have any historical implications."

Malda is a senior at Hope College in Holland, Mich., majoring in computer science. He's been dabbling with programming since he was a teenager -- in fact, some current Slashdot regulars first met him through a BBS Malda ran when he was 15. He was on the Web right off the bat: There's a nostalgic note on his home page in which he declares that he still remembers Netscape 1.0.

Slashdot grew out of a similar Web site called Chips & Dips, which featured a single "rant" a day, usually written by Malda, on whatever interested him. And nothing interests Malda more than Linux -- the free operating system aiming to overthrow Microsoftian hegemony.

Slashdot's central focus is the free software movement -- a subject many Net geeks feel strongly about. Intriguingly, Slashdot itself has benefited from adopting an organizational structure similar to a free-software development project. The equation is simple: Rob Malda is to Slashdot, as, say, Linus Torvalds is to the Linux operating system. Malda and Torvalds do quality control, provide leadership and inspire the troops, but neither could succeed without the volunteer efforts of hundreds, or thousands, of enthusiastic contributors.

Ryan Meader, president of BlackLight Media, which handles advertising for Slashdot and several other Web sites, says Slashdot is the fastest-growing site in the BlackLight network, and is already "profitable." The coolness factor is paying off, in more ways than one. Members of the Slashdot community put so much trust in Malda that some of them aren't even expecting, or desiring, compensation for their efforts.

"My whole take is, more power to you [Malda]," says Simmons, a regular contributor. "I'm not looking for anything ... I do everything on Linux now, and I'm using resources that the Linux community gave me for free. I don't need you to pay me. You're providing me a great service. I feel I'm giving back."

Some Slashdot contributors feel they are working for the public benefit.

"For me it's the social aspect of software," says contributor Kristof M. Van Damme. "Suppose one day one commercial or political entity controls the basis of the technology we all depend upon and all use on a daily basis ... we just can't let that happen. I think open source software can play an important role in keeping information technology open and democratic. That's why I advocate it 24 hours a day."

But it's not just free-software passion that makes Slashdot work.

"I think that Slashdot is not [just] a focal point for the Linux community," says Jeff Bates, a friend of Malda's and prominent contributor to Slashdot, "but the techie/geek/nerd/whatever community as a whole, trying to unify news that they as a group will find interesting and pertinent."

"Communication is a serious problem for some of the nerd community," adds Dave DeMaagd, another old friend of Malda's who does programming work on the Slashdot site. "For the longest time I had no contact with people of similar interests. It gets lonely being a sociopath. This lets me know that there is a significant number of people out there that like computers in a way that many cannot relate to."

A significant number of people who care about what mainstream society couldn't even begin to care about: That's a recipe for success on the Net, according to Malda. The watchword is "narrowcasting" -- refining your target to such a small demographic slice that you lock up that group once and for all. So what if newbies might be put off by the jargon?

"I don't bother explaining acronyms," says Malda, "so obviously Slashdot scares away the faint of heart. It's a built-in filter -- if you can't understand what's going on, read a different site."

"Web sites make it possible to do any content you please, and target it to who you want," says Malda. "In my case, I posted the content that I wanted to read and soon discovered that others share my idea of 'stuff that matters.' Then things snowballed. My guess is that we could spin the concept off for a dozen topics, assuming we could find masochists to sit and run each of them. And if done properly, they could be successful."

But it ain't easy to do. Constantly updating the site, while at the same time going to school and holding down a part-time job, for an audience comprising some of the most persnickety geeks in creation, can be tiring.

"The time required to maintain Slashdot is immense. My time each week is nearing full-time job status ... It's a pain in the butt," says Malda. "I don't eat/sleep/potty much anymore."

"I would not want to have to weed through his mailbox on any given day," says Michael McLagan, the Webmaster for, "and make the choices about what goes up and what goes away."

Malda says he does have some free time, but not much, and even those non-Slashdot hours are being sucked away by geekly pursuits.

"If I'm not at work or school," says Malda, "I'm probably sitting in my living room on my Poof Chair (like a gigantic beanbag chair, but much more comfortable) pounding away on my laptop, chatting with my roommates and listening to music."

"My free time is dedicated to hanging out with my friends these days -- except that we're all geeks," says Malda. " We sit around and think of crazy things to try to code. We're actually forming a company to try to do some of these projects. These really suck up what's left of my free time ... Even my free time has purpose, but I'm unhappy if I'm not juggling a dozen things, so I guess I'm a happy camper these days. But if Congress ever wants to pass a 36-hour-per-day law, I'll be the first to support it."

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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