Web Masters Episode #45: Rob Malda

Before everyone got their news from sites like Twitter, Facebook, and Reddit, they got their news from Slashdot, the pioneering social news aggregator. Hear the full story in an interview with Slashdot founder Rob “CmdrTaco” Malda on Web Masters.


Slashdot Logos

Rob Malda:

In the early days, I thought of us as an open source project. And it took a couple of years for me to realize, no, I’m actually building like a news platform. And that has a different set of requirements. An open source project has sets of rules and a news platform has journalism rules, which are different from what you might need if you’re just talking about the latest release of some software, something like a Quora or are we something more like a CNN, a news platform type thing. And we were picking and choosing from both things.

It was a few years before I even really truly understood all of that. All I was thinking was, there’s a dude who just wrote a script and he’s posting 600 comments an hour to every story on the webpage and so nobody can read any comments anymore because every comment is just him posting ASCII art of genitals. How do you solve that quickly? And then you’d solve it, and then tomorrow it would be a completely different problem that you’d never thought of.

Aaron Dinin:

The internet, a place where countless people spend their time spamming the comment sections of popular websites with ASCII renderings of genitals or they spend their time trying to stop it from happening. It truly is a magical place, isn’t it? Of course, if we’re being honest, one of the reasons the internet has become a place where such strange interactions happen is because of social media. And one of the people most responsible for social media, as we know it, is the guest on this episode of Web Masters.

Rob Malda:

Oh yeah, you should definitely give me all the credit. I invented the social media, moderation systems, that’s usually one that I get credit for. And then there’s a couple of other ones. But I mean, I’ll joke about it, but it’s one of those things, it’s in the ether. I mean, I’m sure that there’s a guy out there who’s like, “Yeah, I invented the Phillips head screwdriver.” But I mean, you’re just putting stuff together. There’s only so many ways to do this.

Aaron Dinin:

Okay. So maybe he didn’t invent social media, but he definitely played a critical role in its evolution. His name is Rob Malda, better known as CmdrTaco, and he was the founder of Slashdot. Are you ready to hear the story? Let’s get dialed in.

[INTRO]

Aaron Dinin:

Welcome to another episode of Web Masters. This is the podcast that explores entrepreneurship by talking with some of the internet’s most impactful early innovators. My name is Aaron Dinin. I’m a serial entrepreneur. I teach entrepreneurship at Duke University and I study the history of the internet with a particular focus on social media. I know I say this about pretty much every guest on the show, but again, I’m really excited for the person we’re about to hear from. I’d introducing myself, but I don’t think I can do his accomplishments justice, better to let him introduce himself.

Rob Malda:

I am Rob “CmdrTaco” Malda. I do nothing, I’m an unemployed bum for a decade. But long time ago I made a thing called Slashdot, which was a forbearer, I guess, of the modern social media, social news, aggregation services, etc. So I totally invented the internet.

Aaron Dinin:

If you were an early-ish Slashdot user, the first decade or so of it’s existence, you’re surely familiar with Rob. If you weren’t an early Slashdot user, well, not to worry, we’re going to learn more about Rob and what he built. Either way, I think you’re all going to really enjoy this episode, which you’re going to get to listen to right after I tell you about our sponsor.

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I’ve been thinking about this a lot and I’m pretty sure the most important thing we have to understand on this episode of Web Masters is why someone would refer to himself as CmdrTaco. By the way, that’s spelled C-M-D-R Taco just in case you’re Googling. Anyway, let’s start by tackling that critical question.

Rob Malda:

It’s a Dave Barry reference. He had a book that I probably read in middle school and in it was a list of restaurants that you should never take on a first date, and you should never take your date to a restaurant called The Commander Taco. And I just thought that was silly. I used the name Icarus when I was in middle school and in high school. And then as I began to become increasingly internet savvy, I discovered that there were approximately 100 billion Icarusae that already existed globally. So I had to pick something that was more unique.

Aaron Dinin:

Well, it’s definitely unique and memorable too, I suppose.

Rob Malda:

It might not be the best idea either for that one, because here I am now, it’s 2021, and who are you? I am Rob “CmdrTaco” Malda. Cool.

Aaron Dinin:

For what it’s worth, I’m pretty sure my childhood screen name is more embarrassing than CmdrTaco. More importantly, Rob screen name evolution hints at how he grew up with technology and the type of interactions that shaped his early digital years.

Rob Malda:

All right, activating monologue mode. I was one of those lucky kids that had a middle-class dad who used a computer at work. So he would drag home computers on weekends to do spreadsheet things. So my childhood was filled with various PC XT and then later PC 286 era technology that would show up on my house on weekends. So I would play spaceship games or like little shuttle simulators or whatever, and taught myself basic throughout the ’80s.

Maybe 1989, I got my own computer and a 1,200 baud modem and began connecting to the local BBSs, at which point I was capable of accessing the internet because you could route email requests through servers that would then send back contents from Usenet or FTP servers. And I had an email address that you could technically email me through the internet.

And that continued for a few years. I learned how to program door games for BBSs. I ran a BBS for a while out of my bedroom. Ultimately went to college where I found I could get access to Unix SPARCstations. Basically chose my school based on the place that I could get closest access to very fast Unix SPARCstations. And over the course of college, I animated a couple of short films, got super into Linux, learned how to program in many more languages, took on part-time jobs repairing computers for people, and then eventually working as the engineer for an ad agency building small budget websites for local clients.

As my college years went on, I continued to be very interested in web development and web pages. And just that I could clearly see by ’94, ’95, that the web was where it was going to be, so I built home pages for myself and for other platforms over the years. My roommates at the time were mostly guys that I knew from middle school and from high school and we all went to the same college together, several of which had useful skills in the same space.

And over the course of ’96, ’97, I learned Perl and built the thing that became Slashdot with the help of several friends. Then over the course of the following year or so, we had to spin up a business in order to support that endeavor because it turns out it’s expensive to build a website that is going to be used by hundreds of thousands of people and you didn’t really expect that because you’re a college kid and you make a couple 100 bucks a week. And yeah, I guess it took off from there. Things got real big real fast.

Aaron Dinin:

Did you intend for Slashdot to be a business when you created it?

Rob Malda:

Slashdot was not an entrepreneurial thing at all for the longest time. It became an entrepreneurial thing because it had to. I was always a builder or maker type person. I built a BBS in high school, I programmed shareware tools and made almost no money. Throughout high school, I was building things and I guess selling them. But never selling them for entrepreneurial reasons, only selling them because it seemed like that’s what you were supposed to do with things that you built. It was more about giving me an excuse or a justification to build the things that I wanted to build.

So I had built a personal webpage in order to host all my random crap. I had a bunch of Linux stuff that I had coded that I expected other people might be interested in and I had a couple of short films that I had animated. And so my homepage was essentially just a home for that. But my part-time job was building actually more complicated application level type things for clients who needed things on the web, like real estate agencies, that sort of thing. You need your home listings on a website, all right, fine, in 1996, you’d get a 18 year old to do it.

Aaron Dinin:

So if it wasn’t a business idea, why just start building Slashdot?

Rob Malda:

So basically for me, it was just, “Well, these are the things that I’m playing with.” And what had happened for me was that the thing that was on my webpage or one of the things that was on my webpage was what in 2001 or so you would start calling a blog. But prior to that, that term didn’t do exist.

Aaron Dinin:

For the record, the term “blog” was actually coined in 1999. That was still after Rob started posting on his personal website. But this is a podcast about internet history and we’ve talked with blogging pioneers in episodes 2, 9, and 31 who were all operating before 2001. Anyway, I’ll stop being annoying and pedantic. Back to Rob’s story.

Rob Malda:

And it just became a real hassle for me to update that. Every day you’d go and you’d write your 10 paragraphs or whatever you were putting into your little blog entry. My buddy and I wrote a Space Invaders clone for a college class. He wrote a double buffering sprite library in Java and then I did all the graphics and then wrote the actual game logic. I had it up that you could play with it. And a guy contacted me and says, “I work for a popcorn company. If you replace all the graphics with popcorn instead of aliens, I have this whole DEC Alpha Multia that’ll just give you.” At this point, this was not a particularly generous gift because it was a really old computer, like a slow 486, fast 386 era computer at a time where you would not consider anything slower than a Pentium for your processing power.

So I got this thing and I was like, “All right, well, I like to build things. I’m going to convert my blogging thing, I’m going to automate it and just built back.” So again, there was never a business case behind anything that I was doing. It was purely just, “I want to learn about this. I will build the thing that teaches me about this.” And for whatever reason, Slashdot resonated with a lot of people and took over the course of the following six months and ended up dominating my life for the following decade.

Aaron Dinin:

And for the second you have listeners who maybe aren’t as familiar with Slashdot, would you mind briefly describing what it is in your own words?

Rob Malda:

Slashdot is what you would maybe think of as a blog. It’s essentially a sequential list of short news blurbs in the format that every mom and pop website on the internet looks exactly like now and back then essentially didn’t exist. It was a lightweight newspaper. The special sauce there, I guess, was that the story selection process was a combination of the readers submitting things to me, and then me picking and reworking, editing the stories to share out with a wider audience. And then the community interacting, engaging, chit-chatting, flame warring in a comment discussion system that in 1997 was not the norm.

So it was odd because I was just a dude and I was doing what a newspaper did, but way faster, because I could post 20 times a day. I mean, your newspaper generally only presses print once a day, you’re always reading yesterday.

Aaron Dinin:

So Slashdot was basically the start of what today we call social news, is that right?

Rob Malda:

It’s one of those things it’s hard to say that any one site invented any of these things. That it was in the ether, there were other places doing many similar things. Slashdot was absolutely one of the very first things that would be recognizable today as social news. But I don’t think that you would even recognize it in the modern sense of the term because the modern sense of social media is dominated by Reddit and Twitter, both of which have relatively thin filtering on top of their systems. If you join an arbitrary subreddit, a subreddit with 100 people following it, everything that they post is appearing and shared by everyone.

In the Slashdot that I designed 20 odd years ago, you would submit things to me, they would go into a black box, and then my team would join count the ones that we thought were great. We had a filter pass that didn’t exist today. So some people would argue that the modern interpretation of social media Slashdot does not apply because we had that extra filtering pass. I disagree, but whatever, I want to take credit for inventing everything.

So if you want to give me credit for all that stuff, then yeah, I’ll totally take it. But it’s not really a fair thing. There were other websites doing things that were all vaguely in the same space, like Wired was doing it with HotWired. And there were tons of websites that had small-scale discussion forums. And I mean, before that too, that was Usenet and all that. I mean, all I was doing was gluing together a bunch of things that existed in other places. And I’m sure that there were 1,000 other websites doing more or less the exact same thing.

Aaron Dinin:

If lots of other websites were doing similar things, why do you think Slashdot became so popular?

Rob Malda:

I hit a lucky streak because Slashdot itself was built out of the Linux community, which I was really active in at the time. It was largely populated by people who hung out in IRC, in chat rooms and on mailing lists, but all Linux developers. So they tended to be engineering types and they tended to be technically savvy. There was enough of them that had a history of complaining with each other on the internet that the idea that you would interact with a community in a public way as Slashdot was doing was not foreign to them.

The example I always used was knitting. The knitting community is really active today. You see them trading patterns, there’s whole storefronts built on trading patterns. That audience didn’t exist on the internet in 1997 because the technology was really only available to people who grew up in the ’80s and we’re fortunate enough to have dads that brought computers home for them to play with. It was a rare toy for you to have that kind of access. I had 24/7 internet access in my dorm room in 1995, 1996. That’s not something that anybody had back then. It was basically you were an MIT kid. That wasn’t what was expected. Now, literally everybody in this country has internet in their pocket. It’s the universe apart.

Aaron Dinin:

Okay. So you launched this thing to the techie Linux community, but it gets significantly beyond that pretty quickly, right? How were you growing it in the early days?

Rob Malda:

Slashdot initially was populated almost entirely by just my friends from IRC, people from mailing lists, people who were aware of the open-source software that I had been coding in my free time. One of my hobbies was working on Window managers for old Unix systems. At the time, I guess, contemporary Unix systems. I would do the design and little bits of code on that stuff. So people would come into my webpage to see, is there an update for this little thing? I built like in your toolbar how there’s all of those little applets that are doing all your little things, your little volume controls and what have you. I coded things like that. But mine let generally looked pretty because I had an art background or they were at least flexible enough that if you didn’t like how they looked, you could change them.

So the people that were coming to my personal homepage were vaguely connected to me through that stuff. But also what was on my homepage would be like, “I saw this Sci-Fi movie and I will tell you what I thought of it,” that sort of thing, the news for nerds angle. And Slashdot itself then expanded on that. It became all of the things that were being covered on my personal blog pages, but then we expanded out and tried to reflect back what the community was submitting, but always giving it through my personal lens of what I thought was interesting or of value.

And it turned out that the sort of things that I was selecting at the time were very resonant with this particular population, so the word of mouth spread very quickly. I mean, I had thousands of users within the first week. I was up to tens of thousands of daily users in a few months. Within a month or so, I was basically bottlenecked by the hardware and bandwidth that I had available to me and not by the desires of an audience.

Aaron Dinin:

It sounds like it basically just grew through word of mouth. Were there any types of things you noticed that were particularly effective at getting people to spread the word?

Rob Malda:

I had a couple of stories. There’s maybe like a half a dozen stories that I posted over the following year that to use the modern parlance, you would say go viral. But in that era, such a silly terminology did not exist. But I had several of these stories, each of which brought in an influx of users in a few cases like let’s double your population kind of things. I’d say that the last major event of that nature was actually unfortunately 9/11. When that occurred, we were already a pretty well-established platform at that point with hundreds of thousands of daily users. But a lot of the major mainstream news sites started crashing that day and we managed to remain mostly stable. So we picked up a pretty substantial boost in population. And that’s the last event in the growth phase of the Slashdot history.

Aaron Dinin:

As Rob alludes too here, by September 11th, 2001 Slashdot was fast becoming one of the most popular sites, not just for techie news, but for all sorts of important news and information on the web. It had become more than just a niche tech community, it was part of the mainstream media environment. And for Rob and his team, supporting that kind of immense user growth was an enormous challenge.

Rob Malda:

Hang on as tight as you can and don’t fall off because it’s a bucking bronco, man. I had a lot of really strong feelings, but it wasn’t until I quit 10 years ago, for me to have any sense of perspective about the whole thing. The first five years, it really was just, this thing is growing so fast. It takes everything that we have simply to keep it stable and fast and usable for the audience. So the population is growing, and with a growing population, you get new people who don’t necessarily understand the rules or new people who might want to intentionally break set rules.

And so the first five years of the site is basically us doing everything in our power to install more hardware where we can to make it faster, write better code to make it faster, and then write the code that we need in order to defend ourselves against a ever increasing population of users who want nothing more than to poop on our parade. That’s a blur, man.

Aaron Dinin:

How many people were helping operate the site in the early days?

Rob Malda:

In the early days of Slashdot, it was essentially me and my roommates, mostly guys that I went to middle school and college and high school with. We all lived on the same floor of the dorm that had internet. And then we rented a very cheap house. Our rent was like $450 a month and I think it was split four ways. Then there was another 50 bucks for electricity and then another 100 bucks for internet. That was the deal.

And we had a good set of skills scattered out throughout the household. One guy, Mr. Jeffrey Bates, would be somebody who could talk to people, a schmoozer type. Kurt understood finance, so when the time came for us to actually start a business, he was capable of doing those sorts of things. Nate and I had more of an engineering and nerd background, I suppose. So for the first year or so, it was these guys.

Aaron Dinin:

And so you were all just living in a house together, running Slashdot 24/7? Was that pretty much the setup?

Rob Malda:

We started a business called Blockstackers to contain Slashdot, but also to contain other things that were being invented by us. We invented a website called Everything2, which still exists today in a weird form. And we invented an MP3 jukebox that essentially it was not that dissimilar from what like a Spotify would have become 10 years later. But we had that in 1997 in our house. We invented lots of random little things.

And the idea was we were going to use Blockstackers as an incubator to build things. And we tried. Several random things came out of it. We had an anime review site, we had the PerlMonks website that still exists. We built all these random things. And that went for a couple of years. And at some point we sold Slashdot to a company called Andover. And then we took the proceeds from that sale to primarily fund these other inventions at which point Slashdot enters a second phase. Andover is a much larger company. Blockstackers is between five and 10 people, Andover then is 50 to 100 people. And then that gets bought out by another company called VA Linux Systems, both of which have IPOs, at which point you’re talking about a business with hundreds and hundreds of employees.

Aaron Dinin:

You stayed with the company though, right? How did having a bigger team and more resources change things for you?

Rob Malda:

The actual Slashdot production staff is still more around the 10 people range. That’s one of the main things that I don’t think people quite comprehended about Slashdot at the time is that our competitors were businesses that had dozens of employees, and my engineering staff was generally like four people. We’re serving millions of web pages a day and we’re doing it on broken hardware. And we were amazingly understaffed for what we were doing today.

There are funded startups today that have millions of dollars in funding and can hire staffs of dozens of people. We never had any luxury like that. Slashdot never ran a deficit. We only could operate in the black because nobody borrowed any money and we still had to pay for internet and we still had to pay for our own rent. We were paying to rent our house that we were all living in and doing all the programming in. Yeah. All right. It would’ve been cool if somebody would have come along and said, “Hey, maybe here’s a couple of million dollars, you should build a modern server set up every couple of years like you would do if you were a real business.”

Aaron Dinin:

That brings up a good question. How are you thinking about monetizing particularly back then when advertising models on the internet weren’t as mature as they are now?

Rob Malda:

I have come to realize that as a child of the Gen X grunge era, I have a natural aversion to self promotion, a natural aversion to advertising, a natural distrust of the corrupting influence of money. It was very difficult for me and it was also very difficult for our audience. I always felt that I was the proxy for my audience in this regard. And if it offended me, then it would probably offend them. So I always drew a really conservative line with the advertising.

We rolled out ads, we tried different partnerships over the years. We tried things for a year or so. We got all of our hardware by just trading servers for banner ads, things like that, like a lot of barter. But that’s not scalable, you can’t pay employees. And at some point, you have five or six people that want to eat and buy beer and they can’t do that with 64K dims.

So we tried a lot of stuff. We had a subscription model, which I actually am still really tickled about and I wish that people would use it. But basically whatever an advertiser would pay to show you ads, we just let you pay that and then you wouldn’t see ads. And it turns out, if your monetization for a user is $10 a year, which is not an insane amount of money for a publication to want to draw off of their population, you will pay me 10 bucks and you don’t see ads.

And that worked out, but only for relatively small people. This is still… Remember in 2002 or so, it’s not like you have your credit card just constantly plugged in to charge people online. It’s not really until the Amazon rise in the mid 2000s where e-commerce and everything just becomes like, well, yeah, that’s how you do everything. Back then, I’m not going to give my credit card to the sketch little website that is run by a guy who has taco in his name. That’s not cool.

Aaron Dinin:

So advertising and subscriptions were pretty much it, and that kept things afloat?

Rob Malda:

We tried lots of stuff with varying degrees of success. I mean, the real thing that was tough for us is that when the .com bubble burst, at that time we were owned by VA Linux Systems, which is a hardware company, which made all their money by selling servers to .coms. And so the hardware business went into a tailspin and the marketing or the sales department had been making their money by selling ads for hardware because our audience was all Linux, Unix, techie people. They were basically internet plumbers from the mid ’90s. They were people like me, people who were building websites and they were the guy in the basement of the corporation who was the only one who knew how the whole damn thing worked.

It was actually fairly lucrative at the time because you could target that very useful niche audience for advertising, and that faded over the following few years. And then you see a rise of much more sketchy things which did not sit as well with my personal sensibilities, like sponsored content, advertorial type things, things that very quickly become at best suspect and at worst chip away at integrity, which became a dominant theme for me in the second half of Slashdot’s existence.

Aaron Dinin:

Let’s pause to talk about this for a moment because we’ve already heard a similar story. Back in Web Masters, episode number 20, we talked with Drew Curtis founder of a similar or be it more satirical social news community called fark.com. It seems like early community-based websites like Slashdot and Fark were largely held together by the personalities and choices of their founders. In these cases, optimal monetization and growth strategies seem to come into direct conflict with what Rob is describing as personal integrity.

Rob Malda:

I mean, I always just operated under the assumption that I knew what was right. And it was just purely a trust my gut, do I find this distasteful? Okay, then I don’t do that. As time went on, I think, I tried to hold myself to a higher standard because what I found in the forums is that no matter what I did, some percentage of people would assume that I was acting in bad faith. And whether they were doing that from a position of trolling or whether they were doing that from an actual position of malice or whether it was jealousy or whether they were just having fun, it was never particularly obvious. You can’t always tell the difference.

But what that meant to me is that I had to, at least in my own mind, be unassailable in my actions, so I would always err on the side of caution, which is a mixed bag because it may take longer to make decisions, you leave money on the table for deals that might be highly profitable, maybe you don’t post a story that would be fantastic clickbait, but you question its integrity or its truthiness. These became running problems for me and I started holding Slashdot to an incredibly high standard.

And from the outside, it might not appear that way. But I think that it was very clear to me in the mid 2000s what was going to happen to the internet as you watch Digg and Reddit and then later on Twitter rise up where these filters that I imposed on myself didn’t exist. It was very clear to me that the bottom of the barrel tends to float up. People are incited by anger, they’re incited by outrage, they want to shake their fist. These are powerful forces. They drive clicks, which drives profit. And that was always something that I really hated.

Aaron Dinin:

How did you combat that kind of stuff on Slashdot?

Rob Malda:

The Slashdot submissions process was, I would take 100 submissions from a users in the morning and pick three. That process that I knew what the other 97 things that I didn’t pick were. And I knew that maybe two or three of them were fine, but I also knew that 90 of them were garbage. They were either copies of other things, factually wrong or people with a massive ax to grind, like a pickle chip on their shoulder. And I knew that as the next generation, the web 2.0 era sites started rising up, I knew exactly what those sites were going to be. They were going to be all the garbage that I didn’t want.

And the part that I couldn’t reconcile for myself internally was the fact that the job that I was doing, the editing job, the job of weeding through all of that garbage, I felt that I was doing a service, I felt that I was serving up to you a delicious breakfast of fun things to eat this morning. Turns out what I forgot was that I really, really, really liked my job. I really enjoyed this process. And it turns out everybody really likes that. You get to weed through a massive glut of information and you’re only finding a handful of nuggets in that pile, but you enjoy that process. And this is not everybody, but enough people do that.

That tastes tend to shift. And where I drew my bar at three stories out of 100, somebody else might draw their bar at seven stories out of 100. And story number eight is probably horrible and it’s probably an unfair political ideology or somebody acting in bad faith, that needless attack on power for the sake of it and not for the facts of it. I mean, essentially the internet in 2021.

Aaron Dinin:

You don’t seem to be a huge fan of the current internet climate. What do you think has gotten wrong?

Rob Malda:

I like to say that it’s the post Google reader internet. I waved this banner really hard and my friends laugh at me for it. But I think that every reporter worth their salt in the 2000s was using an RSS reader to keep on tabs of all of the publications, all the major publications. And so you’d always know what was happening at the Washington Post, but you’d also know what was happening at that obscure niche blog that only posts two times a month.

And I think that when Google reader got the ax, I think that all of those reporters were like, “Well, now I don’t have any other choice but to use Twitter.” And Twitter acts in many of the same ways but with this whole other tier of problems, like you don’t have reliable delivery, you might miss the cool thing that you wanted to see because it’s drowned out in 38 copies of something else, the anger, the hostility, the pylons, all of these negative crowd behaviors. All the reporters shifted into that and their work began to be reflected by it because they were getting the feedback that their corporate overlords cared about. The feedback being the click-throughs to articles, to news content that perhaps is more inflammatory, less factual.

I’m not saying anything new. This is well-documented, well tread. But man, you could just see it. I remember thinking about this in the 2001, man, I was like, “99 of these stories are garbage copies of each other where angry people are yelling at each other and I am doing good by saving you the trouble of having to read them.” But it turns out, no, you want to read those 99 pieces of garbage because it gets you angry and angry is what you’re paying for now with your time.

Aaron Dinin:

Since Slashdot was basically the forbearer to sites like Reddit and Twitter that are feeding all these issues you’re describing, is there anything you’d want to say to the people running them about how they could be doing things better?

Rob Malda:

None of them pay me, they should all be chipping royalties into my mailbox. I wish that the people that came after would have learned from our lessons and done better. Each of the systems that followed us made decisions which make sense individually, but taken as a whole, they’re often chasing… how do I put it? They’re trying to maximize the equation. They’re trying to optimize for time on site. They’re trying to optimize for click-through rates. They’re trying to optimize for virality and that was never, ever, ever what I was trying to do.

One time we computed how tightly we were posting stories like, “Should we post stories 20 minutes apart, 40 minutes apart, an hour apart? How fast should we do it?” And I computed what was the peak of the curve for comment posting. I could get more comments if I posted more stories, but I would have fewer comments per story because people would move on to the next story. Rather than optimizing for the maximum amount of traffic, I optimized to maximize engagement in these forums. So I served less banner ads because I wanted to maximize for the stories that I was selecting to have the discussion, the commentary, the engagement that I wanted users to get.

And I feel like the platforms today, they just cynically optimize for the basis to human nature. And that’s why Twitter is what it is today. And it’s easy to see why. It’s easy to see why Facebook can theoretically swing elections. I mean, you only need to move one or 2% of people, you only need to change one or 2% of people’s minds. I mean, it’s weird how this stuff works, but that’s not how I ever wanted to operate. So when I look at the modern generation, probably shouldn’t have just taken all the venture capital money and then optimized for whatever the three lines were on your slides that said, “These are our metrics for success, and you did a great job optimizing for them.” Yay, 2021 is awesome.

Aaron Dinin:

Fair enough, I guess. Does that mean you regret selling Slashdot back in 1999? Do you wish you still had full control of a social media platform you could be running how you believe they should be run?

Rob Malda:

A lot of mixed emotions. The simple factual reality is that the way that we were operating Slashdot in 1999 would not have survived the .com burst. Our advertisers would have dried up, revenue streams would have been gone. I don’t see how the site survives without being owned by a company that at the time had millions of dollars in the bank. If I had Patreon in 1998, I think we probably could have done it. That would have probably been enough cash to get us through that year or two where things were really dry and found a middle ground.

My problem is that I associated Slashdot wholly with my existence, and there’s the value for your entrepreneurial type classes. I was unable to separate myself personally from the thing that I created. I thought of it as my child. And it was not until I had actual biological children that I was even able to wrap my head around how wrong it was to think of things that way. I thought of the Slashdot audience as my family, I thought of the platform that I was building as my service. I felt it to my core.

Maybe in hindsight, I shouldn’t have sold the thing and washed my hands off the rights to be the ultimate decider in certain things. I signed a contract that I thought would guarantee controls, which was probably naive of me for that era of my life. If I’m truly honest about it, I probably should’ve walked away. The contract that I signed had some number of years that I had to stay there, I probably should have walked away a few years after that.

And I definitely should have walked away around maybe the 10 year mark when I actually started having my own kids. And at that point, I had to wash my hands of parts of the job because it was soul crushing because of the stuff we were talking about earlier, how I felt about choices you have to make to run, not even a profitable business, but a let’s maximize our profits. In the name of maximizing profit, you have to make some dirtier decisions that you might not want to make. I didn’t have the control at that point to stop it. I should have probably walked away. It was not psychologically good for me.

But I cared about this thing to the core of my being. I could not abandon my family, I could not abandon this community of people. I cared about this. I wanted to make sure that every story that appeared on that site was the best thing that I could possibly have on that site and not the thing that just gets the most clicks. I wanted to make sure that the little arguments that people had in the forums were honest and where the good would win out in these forums and not just the anger.

Building the tools to facilitate that kind of discussion, I cared. I cared way more than I should have, especially for the last few years. That was when I definitely should have been out of the picture just so that people who didn’t have that emotional attachment to the thing could have made better decisions. Of course, every decision I made was flawless and perfect, but somebody else could have made a different flawless and perfect decision that might’ve had better outcomes.

Aaron Dinin:

And just to put a bow on things and wrap up the full story, how and why did you eventually tear yourself away from this project that was so important to you and I guess your personal identity?

Rob Malda:

It was just too hard for the last few years. And there were layoffs where the people that I liked to working with were let go. There were things that were happening, and I don’t mean to be cagey, but it’s not any specific thing. There were ad products that I didn’t feel met my standards for what I thought the site should be. But also I could very clearly see the site wasn’t going to get bigger, the site wasn’t going to become anything more than it was. It was only going to decline into the future. And I could see that that decline was going to cause people to compromise in ways that I was going to only be more and more uncomfortable with. It was making me personally unhappy. I never got diagnosed with depression or anything, but I was not a happy person for several years.

And in parallel of that, I had kids and I was plenty busy doing those things, it felt like maybe now it could be time to move on. The truth is that I definitely should… If I could time travel and tell myself what to do, it would probably be something to the effect of, “You should probably quit when your contract allows you to. But if you don’t do that, at least quit when you have kids.” But that’s me knowing the emotional toll. I would just go home and be sad. I couldn’t calm down. I was just so disappointed with the choices that had to be made. And I could segment it because I loved the journalism part, I loved the writing part, I loved the community part, I loved being able to sift through 100 stories, find three that are interesting, share them with people who care and then go in and watch the discussions that were happening between these people. I love it.

I mean, these are things that… This isn’t unfamiliar to somebody in 2021. This is something that happens for people who are on Facebook all day. Every now and then they get that Facebook thing that they share and it gets likes, all that social engagement. It feels good. I was addicted to all of that back in that time. But on that scale, I mean, I guess a modern influencer would understand. But at Slashdot’s peak, millions of people were seeing what I was doing. That’s really powerful and it’s really, really fun.

But also when I would shove that aside, then I would have to have the meetings and discussions where it was like, “Well, here’s this ad thing that you don’t like. Here’s this business decision that you don’t like.” If you were to post this email publicly, it’s not illegal, it’s not unethical, you just know that it’s wrong. There just came a point where I couldn’t deal with that anymore. And I was definitely not a happy person to be around for those last couple of years.

Aaron Dinin:

But looking back, it sounds like overall, you built something to be really proud of. At least that’s my probably highly uninformed gloss on the story you’ve shared so far.

Rob Malda:

I’m proud that for the first decade or so, I stuck to my guns and built the site that I wanted to build. I built the website I wanted to read. Till this day, nobody out there builds the website that I want to read. I have to duct tape together subreddits and Twitter feeds, and I still don’t get the website that I want to read. I get all this other garbage along the way. The site that I wanted to read was the news that I cared about 20, 30 minutes and it’s got what you would expect from a printed newspaper if you were like a dude in the ’80s who got the paper thrown on their driveway.

And I’m really proud for most of the time that I was there that I was able to achieve that. I mean, sure August sucks because the news cycles become talking about Bigfoot or whatever. But at its core, we got to talk about issues that I cared about. We talked about monopoly powers squashing individual tech innovators, we talked about civil rights as they were going to pertain to the internet going forward into the future, into this unknown future that we don’t know what’s coming.

And some of that stuff ended up being remarkably prescient. Not that long ago, there was the whole thing about the FCC, our telecom providers allowed to throttle internet under all these different circumstances. We were having those discussions in 1999. We were talking about what happens when you give the power to the monopolies versus the individuals. And that would happen in discussions about APIs, that would happen in discussion about open software versus closed software like cloud providers, like what does it mean when you host your server in the cloud and then the FBI comes knocking? We were having really interesting discussions mixed inside of all those fun stories about people building weird things, inventing weird things like gadgets and playing video games and having the kind of fun.

The theme of Slashdot for me was the joy of technology and the fear of people taking it away. And that was central to all of that. And it was so fun and so satisfying. And the platform that we built was effective. We had thousands of people interacting with each other every day, all day, in a way that was far more effective than anything that exists today. You log into a Facebook forum, it’s garbage. You log into Twitter, it’s so mixed in with hate and noise. It’s just not as effective. So I was so proud of the work that we had done for so long.

Aaron Dinin:

Hard to argue with that assessment. Rob and his team really did some amazing work. They built a community for millions of people to comment and engage online about the topics they cared about back before just about anyone knew that was even possible. And by doing it, they set the foundation for many of the future digital communities that would follow. Sure, those communities have their faults, but they’ve got a lot of benefits too.

So if you enjoy them, next time you’re posting a comment somewhere online, don’t forget to thank Rob Malda. In fact, if you’re looking for an excuse to post a comment somewhere, why not open your podcasting app right now and leave a great review for this podcast. You can even thank CmdrTaco in it. I’d like to thank him too for taking the time to share his story and the story of Slashdot.

If you’d like to see what Rob is up to today, yes, he still lurks around his old site, but you probably won’t notice him, instead, you can find him on Twitter. He is, as you probably would guess, @cmdrtaco. Remember that C-M-D-R Taco. This podcast is on Twitter too. We’re @WebMastersPod. You can message us there to let us know what you thought of the episode. You can also message me, I’m @AaronDinin. That’s A-A-R-O-N D-I-N-I-N. I also write lots of articles about startups, entrepreneurship, and digital innovation. You can find everything and subscribe to my newsletter on my website, aarondinin.com.

As we wrap up here, I want to thank our audio engineer, Ryan Higgs, for his great work. And thanks to our sponsor Latona’s for their support. If you’re looking to buy or sell an internet business, be sure to start the process over at latonas.com. Lastly, a thanks to all of you for being part of this community. I’m glad to have you here and I look forward to sharing another episode of Web Masters with you. Make sure you’re subscribed so you get it as soon as it’s released. Until then, it’s time for me to sign off.