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Some thoughts on that resignation

Some time in 1997 I decided to get a modem for my home computer and try and get back on the internet. I hadn't really been online for a couple of years by this point. I'd spent a good 60% of the time I was supposed to be at university exploring the net, at approximately the same time the world-wide-web was being invented. Subsequently, a few of the offices I'd done contract work in were high-tech enough to have an internet pipe, but the majority were not, and by 1997 I was a year or two into the embryonic stages of what I then imagined to be a high-flying enterprise IT career. There were are few dial-up terminals in the office, but they were proper walled-garden, pretend the web isn't happening, CompuServe accounts, and I mostly ignored them.

By the time 1997 came around, the internet was seriously encroaching upon the real world. URLs on product billboards, mainstream magazine articles, entirely dedicated consumer magazines, even. Java hype was everywhere in the trade media, and was getting a further boost up from the growing sense of discomfort about the disproportionate amount of influence Microsoft now wielded over the PC industry. I was pretty grumpy about Windows by this point. I'd cheerfully embraced it's third generation, as a standard way to build what were for the time fairly advanced interfaces for DOS, with a built-in graphical toolkit, and I was making my living building client/server applications for businesses, using a 4GL called 'Gupta SQLWindows', and a smattering of C and Visual Basic. The IDEs and the Win16 API were probably rudimentary, but I didn't know much better, and it was the closest thing to NEXTSTEP I'd found in a professional context. Then came Windows95, which promoted itself from a graphical shell for DOS, to a full-blown OS, which I found tremendously exciting until I'd worked with it for six months. All my tools and APIs were now yesterday's thing, and this new shiny Windows came with ridiculously inflated hardware requirements, and was frustratingly unstable. The joke term "Blue Screen Of Death" started to grate with familiarity. I grew insufferably contemptuous of Microsoft and everything it stood for.

At home I'd been running a linux system for a year or two. Linux had grown up fast since I'd first encountered it as a barely installable joke UNIX passed around the office one day on a handful of floppies. I'd spent a day installing it on a COMPAQ laptop then, and quickly judged it to be no competition for SCO. It improved and spread rapidly, and within a couple of years I was sufficiently inspired by reports to acquire a cheap PC clone and install, break, reinstall a succession of linux distributions, starting initially with a Slackware 2.something from a magazine coverdisc (Computer Shopper, I suspect). Now I had a religion; I'd periodically switch distributions, usually from a CD/Book bundle in the bargain bucket of the local waterstones, sometimes from a CD set ordered by mail.  No net connection at home at all. Well, hardly anyone did, and there weren't yet any flat-rate or free dial-up systems.

By 1997 though, I  felt I was ready. I bought a discounted 33.6 external modem, subscribed to an ISP that sounded platform neutral, and didn't rely on bundling DOS or Windows software dialers (Direct Connection, as was), and spent a surprisingly effortless afternoon figuring out how to connect my little linux system to the internet. This seems like it ought to have been a frustrating process, given that this was RedHat 2.x or whatever I was running by this point, and I had no internet to search for help, and no local experts to ask, but I seem to remember it being fairly trivial to set up and script a PPP connection. I think the first thing I downloaded was Netscape Navigator. Or maybe Doom. I remember setting up an offline USENET server, and then feeling my way around the web, hungry for more linux information. I would download any interesting software source code bundle I could find, and try and build it. I periodically toasted my linux box this way, inexpertly installing new homebuilt versions of libc or XFree86 with little attention to package management or change control, and not much more appreciation for the software build process. Outside of USENET the linux web community seemed disjointed. Little islands of conflicting information, often hanging off university home pages.

One day I found this amazing sort of crowd maintained combination of a news feed and a bulletin board, already populated with a peer group almost custom-fit for me. I think I can remember how I found it. I was using a little desk applet for the Afterstep window manager called asmodem that let me toggle my modem. I was very big on customising my desktop then. I looked up the author's home page, to see if there were any good links to other AS wharf applets. One of the links to there was to this other place. I remember I spent a couple of hours there, browsing around what passed for the archives. It wasn't just linux and X, there were other nerd-friendly topics. I don't remember much about the content. I remember being engrossed, and following stories and commentary back and forth, drinking in content. Unluckily I didn't make a bookmark, and a couple of days later I realised I couldn't remember what the site was called.

I think it took me as much as a couple of weeks to find it again. It had a stupidly hard to remember URL. http://slashdot.org/. I re-visited it frequently. It had a clever page construction, where the updates floated to the top, like a reverse INBOX. It aggregated interesting content, seemingly focused around linux, and GNU and other cool Free software like this new nuclear-mega-awk scripting language called Perl, and other nerdly content about movies, and sci-fi, and super-computers, and spaceships and BeOS. Stories were posted, usually based around a couple of links with commentary, and the users could add their own discussion in a threaded hierarchy, unmoderated, uncensored and even fully anonymously. I quickly became a compulsive visitor. Soon it was the first site I'd load after dialling up to the net.

The anarchic commenting community sort of worked. You'd recognise the same usernames in discussions. Actually, I'd recognise sigs before names. Most of the discussion was lucid and informative. I'd usually get as much from links in the comments as I would from the submission or editorial. Even the trolls seemed funny and community-minded. It had a sense of culture, of community. First Post! Duplicate submissions on the front page, Hot grits down your pants, The naked and petrified guy, Mae Ling Mak, Natalie Portman, the caveman user I'm struggling to recall the name of (urk?), In Soviet Russia,  a Beowulf cluster, and all the rest. Memes, I suppose, but we didn't really call them that much then. The 'slashdot effect'. I remember every time there was a stable linux kernel point release, which was pretty frequently, they'd post a story about it, and I'd dutifully download the source, spend a couple of hours compiling it, and then install it, ruining my precious uptime in the process. JonKatz and his floundering attempts to become one of the gang.

I remember frequent stories about all these futuristic new desktop interfaces that were in the pipeline. GNUstep was well on the way to bringing my idolised NEXTSTEP frameworks into my home, cost-free. Futuristic new graphics display technologies (Berlin, Fresco). The amazing (and almost functional) eye-candy of the Enlightenment WM with it's realtime miniwindow pagers and overlayed virtual desktops. Some new initiative called GNOME which was going to bring a CORBA-based networked component GUI desktop framework to run on top of traditional UNIX some day. Funny submissions, hoax submissions. Disappointingly frequent pseudo-science stories about perpetual motion machines and cold fusion, and the like. Crack dot Com were writing their new game "Golgotha" that would blend the large scale RTS wargame with the cutting edge first-person mouselooked shooting genre, and they were targeting linux as a first class platform at launch. It was all intoxicating stuff, and I spent hours immersed in it, genuinely feeling some part of a community.

I was never a frequent poster. Initially I lurked, and dabbled with anonymity. I was very cautious about revealing too much of my personal information online in those days. I remember feeling really regretful for ages that I'd held off registering once I realised that people were competing over low UIDs. Still, here I am – user 24640 – 5 digits, not too bad. "scrutty" was the character I used to use on Perilous Realms MUD in my polytechnic days. I can't see any easy way to find my earliest comment by this account, and I can't remember what it was. Probably something embarrassing.

I remained pretty obsessed with the site for years. My friend Tim was reminiscing on Twitter yesterday about my introducing him to it. I can remember coming home from holiday abroad, internet-free of course, and deliberately reading the previous seven days submissions to make sure I hadn't missed anything. I quit my boring career and got a job at a cool dot com startup, just as things were bubbling up. Everyone there seemed to read slashdot reloading dozens of times a day. Important technology stories broke there hours before the mainstream news sites got hold of any of it, we were always days ahead of the 'suits' with these information nuggets. Famous people had accounts and posted amongst us (John Carmack! ESR! Bruce Perens! Neil Stephenson! Wil Wheaton!) which seemed really bizarre in those days long before twitter or official facebook accounts. Comment moderation arrived, and I remember submitting comments and then reloading frequently to check my karma score, which used to be visible numerically. Karma whoring inevitably arrived, and brought meta-moderation along with it. I was the first in our office to be selected as a meta-mod, and I remember feeling proud or cool or a massive nerd,  or some composite emotion made of all three. I loved that the site was billed as news for nerds, a term I felt far more comfortable with than the more US-specific 'geek', which still grates on my ears a little.

I remember their IPO conducted in some kind of interestingly nerdy dutch auction system. I remember watching the stories of subsequent corporate ownership and acquisition and nervously watching the site for signs of imported cultural spoilage. I remember the Slashdot PT Cruiser. Slashdot was just a daily part of life, reflexively checked and rechecked. I submitted a handful of stories, but I don't remember ever getting one accepted. I remember Jim chuckling one day across the desk from me, because whilst running HEAD requests against slashdot.org to test a proxy server or something, he spotted that slashdot was inserting Futurama quotes into it's HTTP responses, as X-Fry or X-Bender headers. I remember feeling I was drifiting a little out of touch with the herd when they posted their famous iPod launch story.

I particularly remember that infamous afternoon in September, TeeJay looking over his screen at me and saying something about the Net being broken, and the World Trade Centre. All the news sites were down, but Slashdot just about stayed up enough for me to read about what was happening in New York city, and dash to the office kitchen to remain clamped, open-mouthed to the BBC news feed.

When I was formulating the boards at IMDb, slashdot was a gigantic influence on my design. Most obviously in the nested table thread structure, and the view options, but in some other subtler ways, that lead me to eschew the fiddly point scoring and filtering, and implement constant post expiry to try and prevent the conversation ossifying around the earliest, most repeated subset of views. We inadvertently spawned the GNAA, who went back to slashdot, forming a particularly weird and unpleasant slashdot troll subculture. The first time I watched as IMDb was in a slashdot home page story (probably LotR or a Star Wars prequel) I remember my disappointment at the somewhat smaller than I'd imagined size of the slashdot effect, I don't think they even made it into our top 100 referrers report. I was already visiting the site less often, I had my own enormous forum to worry about, and I'd switched back to using a Mac (which had become consumed by the latest iteration of my beloved OPENSTEP). I was still probably reading it most days a week, but posting far less.

I never quit completely. These days I'm probably down to a couple of visits a month, perhaps less than that. It still feels like an important part of my life, and I think it also represents an under-appreciated contribution to internet culture. It was the first blog-formatted site I recall ever seeing, although nobody called it that for years. It was the first successful news aggregation site to find a mainstream audience, and it unquestionably forged the the user-sourced content and discussion model template used by subsequent sites like Digg, Reddit and HN. I think it was a peer group for a huge number of people much like myself, and an important bridging stage for internet community culture in between USENET and the all-encompassing web. It was "Web 2.0" and "Social" years before they arrived. It really promoted a sense of belonging. I have never met Rob Malda, but I remember feeling elated all day, when he used slashdot to successfully propose marriage to his girlfriend, and yesterday when the surprising news broke about his resignation from the job he invented at the site he founded, it gave me far more pause than the more famous, wealthier man who grabbed all the headlines by resigning the same day.

Slashdot will endure, and I expect I will still visit it, sporadically. I'm not going to pretend it's as important to me today as it was even five years ago. I only just realised yesterday, that Rob Malda is one of my heroes, and I never even said "Thank You". Well, I have done now.

This entry was posted on Friday, August 26, 2011 at 20:28 in history, internet.
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