The alchemy of a comeback is hard to define, and even harder to perform. At the headquarters of long-running IT and Geek news social media platform Slashdot, everyone involved is mounting an all-out push to break through the relative obscurity the name has faded into within recent years and jockey to the forefront of the collective Internet consciousness. It could be like Muhammed Ali’s comeback tour. On the other hand, it could just as easily fade into the Wayback Machine. But the chips are down, and on its 15th birthday, Slashdot is earnestly attempting to get back in the game.
The most difficult part, of course, is that the tide is against them: How do you save a company that was pushed into acquisition a mere month before its projected rebirth?
Chips, dips and dial-up: The early years
“The most awesome stage”
Last year, Facebook's VP of Design thought the TNW Conference main stage was the best she'd ever been on.
It’s difficult to portend the future of Slashdot specifically because the company has spent its entire history pushing against the odds. The website sprung forth from the heads of Hope College computer science students Rob “Cmdr Taco” Malda and Jeff “Hemos” Bates as Chips and Dips, a a personal website of Malda’s that often parsed the active Unix and design Listserv and Usenet cultures he actively partook in. As the website grew, it transformed into Slashdot — an ultra-geek play on words (h-t-t-p-slash-slash-w-w-w-
“I really always think back to the earliest days of Slashdot, where it was me and a few friends and a few thousand users,” Malda, who served as Editor-in-Chief of the website before departing in 2011, says. “It’s such a close, tight-knit community and I have such a fondness towards that era.”
While a majority of Americans were still connecting to the Internet through AOL, Malda and Bates became uber-moderators in the finer points of hacker news, coding sorcery, Linux tweaking and tech discussions from their Michigan home base. This technique cut through the general noise and conversational buildup of the Listserv model, attracting users far and wide and multiplying rapidly. In February of 1998, Slashdot was receiving an average of 20,000 pageviews per day; just three short months later, it was 120,000.
“I would say in the Spring of ’98, that’s when we said, ‘We have to do something different here.’ It was starting to cost us real money. That was for me when I knew we had something,” he says.
Slashdot quickly carved out a much-beloved and loyal following of finicky tech geniuses and IT nerds eager to not only give feedback to Slashdot, but also to submit tips, begin discussions, and police others into contributing meaningfully to the news at hand. The Slashdot system, described by Malda as “meta moderation,” empowered users to boost good comments from others and knock poor ones. In hindsight, meta moderation serves as a sort of proto-upvote that can curb the noise of the standard trolling and off-topic blabbering that plagues all online discussion.
“I acted as a valve, letting out just the best, which made it palatable to people who were not going to subscribe to mailing lists,” he explained. “We got it to, ‘Here’s a new screenshot and here’s a new release.’ That made it more palatable for strangers to read.”
At that point, the level of power and influence that Slashdot held was one rarely seen in Internet history — it even became a verb. “Slashdotting” was the colloquialism for “The Slashdot effect,” a noticeable phenomenon that involved a website’s servers becoming overloaded as a result of being on the other end of a link on an interesting Slashdot article. It’s also something of an Internet folk tale that Malda, in Slashdot’s first editorial, was a driving force in convincing Netscape to release its browser for free to the public. In short, Slashdot’s influence had already expanded well beyond the reaches that Malda, Bates and crew could have foreseen, and it was only getting bigger.
The creative freedom of acquisition
Within two years of its inception, the sheer weight of Slashdot’s userbase had overwhelmed Malda, Bates, and the small team that had coalesced to keep the website running. Malda had already shifted his full-time focus to Slashdot, using meager ad revenue to support a dogged endeavor as programmer and de facto choke point of the thousands of comments streaming through Slashdot’s servers. Then, in late June of 1999, Malda announced what would be the company’s first of three acquisitions: a sale to Linux website Andover.net for $1.5 million in cash and $7 million in Andover stock at IPO price. The deal allowed the Slashdot team to expand and begin lifting the burden off of Malda and Bates to a more manageable (if still heavy) load.
“The site still remained fundamentally the same, for many years after that, frankly,” Malda says. “But there’s definitely a transition from hobby website to the livelihood and careers of a dozen people.”
However, the time under Andover.net proper was short-lived, as the company merged with Fairfax County, Va.-based VA Linux Systems — Linux portal, benefactor of the biggest IPO during the dotcom boom and creator of open source code database SourceForge — in 2000 in a $1.4 billion deal. While critics at the time were wary of the viability of a fully consolidated Linux portal system (a prophecy later fatefully met) and members of the Slashdot community expressed concern for an even larger risk of an audience full of newbies and trolls, Malda looks upon the time as the support structure that kept Slashdot afloat in the turbulent dotcom era.
“Had we not sold Slashdot, we would not have weathered the dotcom collapse,” he says. “We would not have had the structure or the finances to weather the entire ad market basically disappearing overnight.”
For Malda, one of the high points in his eight-year run with the company occurred on one of the hardest days in American history — September 11, 2001. “The World Trade Towers in new york were crashed into by 2 planes, one on each tower, 18 minutes apart,” Malda wrote at 9:12 AM, ten minutes after the second plane had hit the World Trade Center South Tower. “Nobody really knows who did it, but the planes were big ones. Normally I wouldn’t consider posting this on Slashdot, but I’m making an exception this time because I can’t get news through any of the conventional websites, and I assume I’m not alone.” The post alone received more than 1200 comments, and Malda and crew worked to keep Slashdot servers up and post information as it developed throughout the day.
“We stayed up and CNN had crashed. So, our readers were talking about what was happening and trying to make sense of everything,” Malda says. “Meanwhile, I have engineers in a chatroom and we’re turning massive chunks of the site off and tweaking code to make it run faster. It was, technically, pretty amazing that we managed to survive that.”
But Slashdot’s fame wasn’t solely from its coverage of earth-shaking news — it benefitted from its rich community of IT experts and the occasional joyous moment.
“There’s so many things I could say. My one selfish moment is that I used the website to propose to my wife, which isn’t necessarily typical of the community but it was more typical of my role within the community,” Malda says. “It was the center of my existence until I had kids.”
After this, Malda stops waxing nostalgic.
The creative casualties of acquisition
The time between Slashdot’s heyday in the early 2000’s and the events of last year are somewhat of a mixed history in Slashdot’s existence. Between the words left unsaid by Malda and current Slashdot Editor-in-Chief Stephen Wellman, it’s clear that all parties treat the time as a still-healing wound that’s better left untouched.
What is known is what ended up in trade headlines. VA Linux Systems took a major hit in the dotcom burst and was forced to truncate its hardware division in 2001, becoming VA Software. Then, in 2004, the company sold its Animation Factory Software to Jupitermedia Group (which later became WebMediaBrands, the holding company of MediaBistro), and its enterprise business to cloud-software company CollabNet just two short years later. The company rebranded to SourceForge after its sales, but continued to struggle making revenue. A separate company, Geeknet, was established and the remaining assets — Slashdot, SourceForge and Freecode — were subsequently merged.
During this tumultuous period, Slashdot was also experiencing its first slump. While it managed to remain a steadily popular source throughout its parent company’s identity crises, tides turned in the late 2000’s. As the traditional geek community became outmoded by other, more Web 2.0-focused social platforms such as Myspace, Digg and Twitter, less users were joining the system. And, while the longstanding community held fast, traction was harder to come by. Malda said that though he continued to contribute in the tradition of Slashdot’s voice, it often became difficult.
“By 2007, Slashdot isn’t even an interesting place for people to troll,” Malda says. “By then, you could really see Slashdot in a declining era.”
Wellman also indicated that the situation was dire.
“I think, if anything has happened within the last eight years, the website lost some of it’s magical luster,” Wellman says. “There’s a time when Slashdot was approached with the kind of awe that’s now only reserved for younger destinations.”
But as Malda and Bates left in 2011, a new regime angled to recapture the glory it once had.
Slashdot at 15
2012 has been a year of changes for Slashdot — a sign of a fitful reemergence into the Internet consciousness. With nearly two years in his position, Wellman has done plenty to introduce the website to the present and grow the 3 million uniques per month the site is currently pulling in.
“My role here has been two-fold,” he says. “One has been to expand the level of coverage on the sites and the other is to provide the social media destination site for IT professionals and technology enthusiasts.”
Wellman began this updating process with the introduction of SlashdotTV in March of 2012, a multimedia hub that infused the website with videos focusing on interviews with well-known tech figures as well as “explainer” pieces on larger IT concepts. From there, Wellman and his team implemented “channels,” a delineation of content previously missing from the Slashdot ethos. First came SlashBI, a site that specifically curates stories dealing with the business intelligence sector. A mere nine days later, SlashCloud debuted with articles relating to cloud computing software and implementation. Finally, in June, SlashDataCenter launched as an arena specifically catered to IT specialists.
“I wanted to help the site become new, fresh and exciting,” Wellman explains. “But at the same time I wanted to respect the power of the brand and to continue to let that community drive the destination — the community powers this site.”
Now, as Slashdot enters the month of its 15th birthday, the team has been working on more surprises to excite its community — and hopefully attract new users. First, the company is holding interviews with some popular Slashdot users, including celebrities and tech luminaries. For its community, the website is helping to coordinate global gatherings of users via Meetup and offering special merchandise in the form of a 15th anniversary t-shirt. While it’s available via retail channels, users can earn one via a successful submission into the website’s logo redesign contest; a monumental occasion, considering the website has only been redesigned three times in its existence.
But its biggest push is to confidently establish itself in a completely new arena: mobile. While receiving feedback from the community, Wellman said that one of the biggest pain points for the Slashdot user experience laid in the rendering of the website in a smartphone browser. In response, the team worked to develop a mobile platform, with the guidance of some of Slashdot’s most prominent power users. The company used HTML5 to develop a mobile version that worked seamlessly across all smartphone devices — something that the diverse Slashdot community could appreciate.
“In addition to make the core site better, we wanted to do a clean-sheet on a mobile experience,” says Jeff Drobick, CEO of Geeknet Media. “We have implemented many REST APIs and embraced leading trends of mobile technology apps — particularly the emergence of HTML5.”
But more than satisfying the needs of the community, the mobile application is meant to serve as a gateway for casual readers to get a better insight into the Slashdot community. The company is hedging its bets on the viability of mobile, hoping that the new redesign will lure new eyes onto pages.
“Let’s be honest: mobile is driving global adoption,” Wellman explains. “We have to think about a community that’s more mobile-focused than desktop-focused. As we’re evolving Slashdot, we need to think about that.”
Wellman indicated that a mobile version is just the first of many steps in creating a new and modernized Slashdot. The layout, in combination with the new (future) logo, is a sort of grand update that will continue with a future tablet app and perhaps even a full-blown redesign to better suit the company’s more diverse goals.
Of course, there’s also the third acquisition to consider.
On September 18, 2012, Geeknet announced that it had sold Slashdot, along with Freecode and SourceForge, to Dice Holdings for $20 million in cash. To followers of Slashdot, it didn’t come as much of a surprise: rumors of Geeknet’s intentions began swirling as early as May. When asked for the reason, Geeknet Chairman Ken Langone indicated that Geeknet wanted to focus full-time on ThinkGeek — a reliable source of profit for the company. The news is poetic in a way, considering that ThinkGeek — a company with roots in the late ’90s — broke through when it was Slashdotted in September of 1999. Slashdot, along with the last vestiges of Geeknet’s non-retail properties, is now managing a transition on top of it all. On paper, the editors felt strong about the decision.
“Obviously, I can’t see the future, so I don’t know how it’s all going to play out. But my initial impression is positive,” wrote editor Jeff “Soulskill” Boehm in the comments thread of the original acquisition announcement. “I’m thrilled at the possibility of getting a bigger investment into Slashdot, both from an engineering perspective and an editorial perspective.”
When speaking on the acquisition a few days after the ink dried on the agreement, Drobick still was hesitant to separate the identity of Slashdot with the entirety of the Geeknet umbrella. Furthermore, his eye towards the future of the company still had a “long-game” attitude — that Slashdot is bound to make the comeback because the company put in the work to make it happen.
“I view it as expanding the portfolio of content we can put in front of our community, and if we do it well, then people will engage with it,” Drobick says. “I’m excited for the company, excited for the employees and even for the community, because we know the Dice Holdings team is very eager to have us continue on the mission.”
What’s left to be seen is how the effects of the transition will really play out in real time.
The next steps
If ever there was a performance moment for Slashdot, the final quarter of this year will be it. Now in the full process of a transition over to Dice Holdings, it’s unclear how things will truly look once the dust settles. On a call with Michael Durney, SVP, finance and CFO of Dice Holdings, said that the company’s intent was to keep Slashdot as-is.
“Our chief goal in the near term is for them to excel on their own,” Durney says. “I don’t think you’ll see any immediate direct instances where we’re involved in the look, feel and operation of the site. They have good stuff in the pipeline.”
While things look relatively set in place on Slashdot’s end — as of this writing, no employee has publicly left due to the acquisition — there’s still a question of motive. As a predominantly jobs-board focused holding group, Dice Holdings is entering new ground with its first foray into a publishing platform. Durney said that the intentions are relatively simple: Dice Holdings was interested in Slashdot and its ilk not only for its long running reputation on the Internet, but also its community.
“When we look at Slashdot, what you have is this vibrant interaction within the community where people have the ability to pose issues, post questions or ask for advice from people within the community, and we think that really fits with managing your career and just helping you do your job on a day-to-day basis,” Durney explains.
The positive discussion around the community — particularly in reviving it, restoring it, giving it the tender consideration its gone without during the website’s rough period and implementing its strategy to form new communities — can feel like its backed by winning enthusiasm. But, it’s hard to trust for sure. The level of unknown obstacles that could be ahead of Slashdot, already scrambling to make a play that could put it back in the game, could just as easily toss it back into jeopardy.
In the day-to-day, Wellman is hoping to push Slashdot onto the side of victory: “We want to grow the pie. We want to continue to serve an existing community while also bringing in new users.”
And, while he’s stepped away for more than a year, Malda sees the challenge ahead and hopes that his little-website-that-could can beat those odds and make itself a star again, if only to its own community. But, in perspective, he’s also proud of what it’s accomplished.
“I think it’s pretty cool. If we had an innovation, it was just the idea of taking the Listservs and the Usenets of the world and putting them out into the broader community,” he says. “Ultimately, we all stand on the generations of the shoulders that came before us.”