Anyone who can make even the vaguest claim to be a geek, and certainly anyone in the IT industry will know Slashdot: a remarkable, innovative and popular website that covers virtually every angle of the technology market, from amusing tabloid tales to in-depth technical papers.
But while Slashdot’s star has been in the ascendency for more than five years, its impact is on the wane as new websites using the latest Net technologies have started out-Slashdotting Slashdot. As a news editor for an online IT news site, I have a pretty good idea where people are getting their tech news from, and the fact is that Slashdot is showing signs of being out-of-date and, frankly, on the way out.
Slashdot.org is remarkable in that it was the first website that really worked as a community portal – where a small number of people who had no journalistic training as such managed to provide a hardy news service, albeit a news service that didn’t create its own content.
In fact the site was the first great example of how Internet technologies were revolutionising the filtering and display of content, a role traditionally played by the organised media. Individuals – anyone at all – can send a link to an article found anywhere on the Net to Slashdot with an explanation over why they think it is interesting and an editor will decide if he agrees, and if he does, post it on the main site.
This process is easy enough in itself but it was Slashdot’s unique technology that made signed-up members feel a part of a community and this was its success. If you log-in, you are allowed to post comments on the article. As demand grew, Slashdot developed technical solutions to the problems this threw up: it allowed ratings of comments, it issued karma points, it let registered users see stories before they appeared on the main site.
It was so successful that a new phrase entered the online world’s vocabulary: to be “slashdotted” was when a website, linked to by Slashdot, couldn’t handle the sudden load, fell over and disappeared from the Internet. It happened constantly.
Perhaps the fact that I’ve not heard of a site being slashdotted and wiped out for at least a year was a portent. I certainly used to know as soon as a site that I worked for (The Register, now Techworld, but with a fair few freelance shifts on other titles in between) has been linked to by Slashdot. It was always remarked upon. In the early days of Techworld in particular, a good link would see thay day’s traffic literally quadruple.
Even if you weren’t looking at the stats, you could often sense something was going on when a sudden stream of emails would arrive and the site would slow down under the weight of visitors. I remember coming back from a lunch at The Reg once, clicking on my inbox, finding at least 150 unread emails there and looking up to see a fellow reporter nodding and smiling with a mixture of glee and malice.
But these days are over. Techworld was linked to by Slashdot a few weeks ago and although traffic jumped, there was none of the impact it used to have. The flood of emails has slowed to a trickle. Slashdot readers have started wandering off elsewhere, and I know where – Digg.
In just the past month, Digg has become the new Slashdot. This “Web2.0” site gives its readers even greater freedom. It doesn’t insist on editors approving or not approving links you send it. It accepts your links and stick them out there to see if others are interested. If they are, you can register your interest with a simple click. Depending on an automated balance of freshness and interest, these stories then appear on the front page.
You can comment on the story. You can see who else has “dugg” the story. You can see other stories that each of these people has dugg in the past. And you can do it all with an absolute bare minimum of fuss. It has provided people with the same sense of excitement that they used to get when Slashdot accepted a post and when your comment on an article was rated highly by the Slashdot community.
But the fact is that Slashdot – and it great rating technology (which is open source and available at slashcode.com) is out-of-date. Because Slashdot doesn’t produce its own content, it lives and dies on the quality of its service, and the fact is that people prefer what others are offering.
There have been complaints about Slashdot for years. The site was so successful and the people behind it so young that youthful excitement descended into foolish arrogance for a number of years. I remember the venerable Mike Magee falling out with the Slashdot crowd some time in 2000 because they got upset with some perceived slight from Mike.
I also recall a lot of companies despairing at the attitude they faced when trying to do business with the site. Everyone when young swears they are going to usurp the corrupt old world before them and tell companies they are going to play things on their own terms. And then, every time and with much heartache, the realities of money and cost hit home.
But Slashdot got over both of these. What it never got over was its continuing sense of superiority, fostered, born in, and repeated back at it by the readership. You send a pitch to Slashdot and only if it is accepted do you hear anything back – and this is just a “your pitch has been accepted” email. There was a time when that was enough. It no longer is.
People have also been increasingly bemused by the selection of stories. Sometimes you have something accepted but other times what you think is a better story is rejected for no discernible reason. It doesn’t help the Slashdot editors refuse to give any indication into how posts are chosen, ostensibly because they claim it will cause people to concentrate on trying to fix the system.
The categories used to split up posts haven’t worked for years. Sometimes it’s impossible to know where your pitch is supposed to go. Slashdot has added categories where it has made financial sense to do so, yet neglected the core news side which has grown musty.
There was a resdesign only in June this year and yet somehow Slashdot with its predominant dark green and range of greys already feels a bit old-fashioned. The latest website designs have more, lighter colours and they feel more accessible. Likewise, the Slashdot style of filing the screen with information makes it feel overloaded. Maybe it should have shifted to a two-column design and let the new technologies cover the shortfall.
And of course the Slashdot comment board long ago became unusable. There’s just too many people commenting. Even with the rating system, you can’t be bothered to wade through it all. What’s more, what was once a community with a strong sense of self, now feels like a clique of insiders. A strange hyper-critical culture has grown up where no matter what anyone posts, there will always be someone who will explain why it is 100 percent wrong. Childish aggression and name-calling is the norm and people have grown sick of it. As soon as an alternative reared its head, people were off.
It’s not just Digg – although Digg is the shiny new equivalent of Slashdot. Google News acts an aggregator – and an aggregator that covers much more than just technical news. And then there’s Del.icio.us (interestingly, Digg, Del.icio.us and Slashdot posts are combined at http://diggdot.us/). And then of course there is the huge sweeping impact of blogs and RSS feeds.
People no longer need Slashdot to tell them what links to what stories they should follow. They have their own way of highlighting stuff of interest to them on their own blogs. And thanks to RSS technology, and sites like Technorati, as well as community sites like MySpace and Bebo and Facebook, they get more than enough of a news fix every day by following what others have posted individually. Slashdot has competition – big competition – and it doesn’t appear to have realised.
Time for a change
Not that Slashdot is no longer a force. It still has a huge number of readers and a massive and loyal following but the fact is that it is becoming less relevant, its figures are falling, and it isn’t showing any signs of adapting to changed circumstances.
Perhaps that was always it. Perhaps Slashdot was always meant to be a medium-sized site with a niche readership but its software brilliance catapulted it far higher. Or maybe Slashdot will wake up in time and change to make itself more open, less controlling, more welcoming, and it will last another five years as one of the lead IT sites on the Internet.
Only time will tell but at the same time there doesn’t appear to be that much time remaining.