Jeff Bates co-founded Slashdot.org with Rob Malda in 1997. He's now the VP of editorial operations and executive editor of the site. He spoke recently with InformationWeek's Thomas Claburn about online publishing.
InformationWeek: What has Slashdot's impact been on traditional media outlets?
Bates: I think that the most interesting thing about Slashdot in terms of its effect on the traditional media is that it really is, and was, a harbinger of things to come. When the site was started, now we're talking almost six years ago at this point ... the blog simply didn't exist. Slashdot is kind of the grandfather of blogs in many ways. It's different in that there isn't just one voice. There's kind of the voice of the site, but it's not just one person posting on there. But I think that at first, traditional media was unaware of the fact that it existed. And what has most interested them, in talking to people at lots of different media organizations ... is how involved the community of people are on the site. Do you know Dan Gillmor at all?
InformationWeek: Yes, not personally, but I know his blog and that he used to write for the San Jose Mercury News.
Bates: I've known Dan for a while now. Dan got really, really interested in this kind of grassroots, this kind of open-source approach to journalism. Rather than it being a one-to-many message ... my co-founder Rob Malda and I have always kind of viewed running Slashdot as, "We run the pub." We run the menu. We know what we're going to serve at the bar, but really the real meat of it is people coming in and talking about things, looking at things. And I think that that part of it is the part that's most unique. ... I think it's that community involvement that has been the biggest shift for traditional media to come to grips with.
InformationWeek: Traditional media outlets have to deal with legal issues from time to time. Has Slashdot had to confront that?
Bates: There have been a number of different issues. One, several years back now, was actually a confrontation with Microsoft, because they embraced and extended an open standard called Kerberos, which is part of encryption. And we had posted a story about it. Someone had posted the code in one of the comments on the story. And Microsoft came and said, "We want that taken down. That's our intellectual property." Our response was no, it's not, it's an open standard, so it's not yours, we're not going to take it down. And in that case, we didn't take it down. And they, after sending over their initial salvo, then backed off because they realized they were in the wrong.
However, there have been other occasions in which we have had to comply with that. The DMCA, the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, has a lot of bad stuff in it. But one of the good things it does have in it is a standard procedure for companies to deal with, in terms of, "hey, this is our copyrighted content" or whatever the case may be, for filing that. We take those out and we look at them and sometimes they're valid, sometimes they're not. The more colorful have always been when it's individuals involved in something--he said this about me and I don't like that. Well, you know, that's part of free speech. And that actually, considering the hundreds of thousands of comments that have been posted, is something that happens surprisingly little.
I think that people go in, they know that they're talking to other individuals and that kind of gives it that community flavor. I think that as well, the moderation system that really is the heart of Slashdot, also deals with a lot of that stuff by putting stuff which is garbage at the level where it should be.
InformationWeek: Do you get interest from lawyers with cases where technical expertise is required?
Bates: We've had some involvement over the years. It's kind of been on a more ad hoc basis. The one type of area that we have been more diligent in following is the EFF, The Electronic [Frontier] Foundation, [and a project of theirs] called Chilling Effects. And what they're doing is cataloging DMCA requests to try and show a real log of ... the chilling effect that the legislation has had. So we have cooperated with those folks and I really strongly feel that they are doing good work with a capital "G." So we've followed along in those areas.
In areas in which we've had people come specifically to us on technical issues ... we have a section on Slashdot called "Ask Slashdot," which is a way of soliciting a response from the editors, [and] also a response from the readers. By and large, that proves amazingly effective because rather than just one person's response, they're able to take thousands of people's responses and sift out the really good ones inside of there. And there have just been some phenomenal cases of really, really top-level people being involved in discussions.
A good example would be that we recently beta tested switching Slashdot from HTML to CSS [cascading style sheets]. And we posted a test and said, "Hey, everybody come bang on this, check this out." And one of the comments in there was 15 errors in our CSS, but the guy who posted the comments is one of the gurus of CSS. He's just posting as this everyday guy on Slashdot and just adding his commentary in there, and that's the stuff that really, even after all this time, keeps me interested and excited in it ... is just seeing people like that and the knowledge that they have and the sharing of that. It's a really cool thing to see.
InformationWeek: Given the value in terms of traffic of a "slashdotting," have online publishers or representatives of particular outlets approached anyone at Slashdot in the hope of getting "slashdotted" more often?
Bates: Oh, absolutely. That's something that happens if not on a weekly basis, you know, a couple times a month or so. Really, what I've always said is the way that the submissions thing works on Slashdot, if you make a good submission, it will get posted. We get so many submissions in there that I don't even really look at who is submitting it in there. So I've always encouraged, you know, if they're media outlets or whomever, look, write me a good submission and put it in there. Odds are it will get posted. ... The submission that has the most useful information is the one that'll win.
InformationWeek: What makes a good Slashdot post?
Bates: It's being able to state things well, actually being able to write and form coherent sentences, which is a surprising task for many people, far more challenging than one would think it is. But also having good links ... not just having one link to the story but if there's supporting information. This is the World Wide Web. Let's use it for that. ... The other major characteristic is trying to remove, or make obvious, bias. ... Because what we're trying to encourage is the discussion. ... I don't want to host a flame war, I want to host a discussion.
InformationWeek: What would you say that Slashdot gives back to the community?
Bates: For one group of people, seeing their name appear on the front page when they submit a story is something that's really cool to them. But I think for most people it's the sharing of the information. It's going in and knowing that someone like them may very well have been the one who submitted the story, of being able to talk with their peers about technology and ... culture. The third thing I think is the speed of it. Being [able] to go and get, in a very short amount of time, a fix on what's happening, of what's important in the field of tech.
InformationWeek: Are there any features that you're contemplating adding to Slashdot?
Bates: Yes. ... As I mentioned, we migrated over to CSS, and we're actually in the process of hosting a contest for readers to send us a redesign of the site. ... It's time to update the site. It's been a very, very long time, and we want to have something that looks more "with the times," perhaps. But in terms of functionality, we're going to be doing a lot of work in the journals in terms of how to really make it so those can be areas that are almost sub-Slashdots in and of themselves, that you can get people posting inside of there and get people discussing journal entries. ... And also finding ways of taking some of the good content that appears in a journal and having that appear [with] main Slashdot stories. ... Having ways to make that more readily apparent to the general readership and being able to find that, because I think that just improves the overall collaboration and creation of content that the user and readers do.
InformationWeek: According to Alexa.com, there was a large spike in Slashdot traffic at the beginning of August. Did anything significant happen? Or was that just a reporting anomaly?
Bates: It's a reporting anomaly insofar as that's when Linux World occurred. ... I think it was Linux World and MacWorld, in fact. When you get some major show events like that, with a lot of new announcements coming out, you can really see a lot of people coming, they're flocking to discuss this stuff and really hash through it and talk about it together. We see those throughout the year, as major new events happen. We have people come because they want to talk about it.