Ten Questions with CmdrTaco: Slashdot, Digg and Conspiracy Theories

Rob Malda, aka CmdrTaco and founder of Slashdot, kindly agreed to be interviewed as part of my series on influential and interesting people in the software industry. We talked about Slashdot, Digg and conspiracy theories.

Davidson: Social bookmarking sites are very fashionable at the moment. How much of a threat are they to Slashdot?

CmdrTaco: I think that we provide a good balance between the wisdom of a crowd and the tyranny of a mob. Some people may be ok with what the social bookmark websites provide. When I use them, I see far too much garbage mixed in with the quality. Developing a system where everyone participates is very difficult because everything goes to the middle.

Davidson: Yet the firehose clearly brings some kind of social element to the editorial process. How does the firehose influence you? Do you ever post / withhold stories against your better judgement because of what the firehose is telling you?

CmdrTaco: I use the firehose as a tool. It can influence my decision making process, but it’s only part of the big picture. A stupid story is still stupid even if 100 people think it’s great. Likewise many stories which are valid news are not appropriate for Slashdot. My role is to maintain that continuity.

Davidson: I agree with you about the garbage. For me, sites with strong editorial focus such as Slashdot and Boing Boing are far more interesting than, say, Digg. However, it’s impossible to deny Digg’s popularity. On the principle that competition can be good both for customers and producers (it reduces complacency and forces you to sharpen your game), has this changed your behaviour?

CmdrTaco: "Popularity" is only one measure of success. Personally I find Digg’s story selection to be shaky at best. Reddit does a much better job, and it is less popular. But both sites are struggling with their growth. Their value was the focused nature of their community. As each grew, that focus diluted, and with it the quality of their story selection. I like the speed that those sites can operate with. I like the large volume of content that they can work through. But I like the quality control measures that I can impose. That’s what the Firehose stuff we’re working on is for.

Davidson: As a founder of something as visibly successful as Slashdot you’ve got to deal with others bitching and sniping about your opinions and decisions. Is there anything in particular that irritates you the most?

CmdrTaco: One of my biggest pet peeves is the conspiracy theory. Anything that I do can be interpreted as a conspiracy. Anything that happens on Slashdot can be interpreted as a conspiracy. Honest bugs in our system are interpreted as a concerted effort to oppress someone. Lack of certain features is interpreted as malicious when the truth is that we don’t have much developer time. I’ve long ago had to give up on addressing every one of these ridiculous theories in the forum, but they really are a type of virus. People love to assume the worst and it can really be frustrating when you’re really trying to do your best.

Davidson: Do you think that’s human nature, or is it exacerbated by the slightly cynical nature of your readers? Or maybe that’s a gross over-generalization?

I think it’s largely human nature, but generally speaking Slashdot readers are just conspiracy oriented to begin with, so I’m never surprised when that trait is directed back at me. But it still hurts when someone thinks your best efforts are of malicious intent.

Davidson: Do you think participatory journalism will one day make traditional media outlets obsolete?

CmdrTaco: Nope. Traditional media still provides a trust network that participatory journalism lacks. Until we figure out that problem, the two will exist side by side.

Davidson: Do you think participatory journalism will ever earn that trust? Or does it require a professionalism (professional writing, editing, fact-checking etc.) that only an institution can provide?

CmdrTaco: I don’t know if it will earn "That" trust but it will earn "Some" trust. My level of trust for Fox News is different than my trust for Encylopedia Britannica. Each is flawed in some ways, just like "Participatory Journalism".

The real issue here is trust. "Fact Checking" and "Editing" is not something that "Only an institution can provide". Wikipedia can do that for example. So can a responsive blogger and a discussion forum.

The traditional role of mainstream publications was that of distribution, but the internet removes that. But another less understood role of those publications is to provide a sort of trustability rating. "Bob writes for the Wall Street Journal, therefore I trust him more than a pamphlet I was handed by an unshaven man on the street." There are many ways to define trust… for example having 10,000 MySpace friends. Or perhaps just knowing that your friend vouches for a guy. All of these things mix together to provide trust-ratings.

Davidson: Does Slashdot provide all the news that you personally need? Or do you ever kick off your slippers, lie back and read a newspaper?

CmdrTaco: I still read a bit of mainstream news, as well as "Silly" news. Slashdot covers tech news extremely well. And when you read the full, uncut submissions that come from our readers (which are available at http://slashdot.org/firehose.pl) you really get a surprisingly diverse sampling of subject matter and perspective. But if you want silly news, comics, or just a good top 5 international news headlines thing, you need to go elsewhere.

Davidson: If you didn’t run slashdot, what would you do?

CmdrTaco: I’d probably just be doing web development for a mid-sized company.

Davidson: One last question. Would you prefer to be stuck on a plane for 8 hours with Steve Jobs, Richard Stallman or a bunch of Slashdot readers?

CmdrTaco: To be fair, I’m sure both of them have read their share of Slashdot and I wear headphones on planes 🙂 But I guess it would depend on which Slashdot readers – I’ve met some great ones, and man have I met some freaks!

If you enjoyed this interview, then read my interview with Robert X. Cringely where he talks about the Web 2.0 Pillsbury bake-off