There was a sober atmosphere on the day Linux Magazine’s Robert McMillan visited the dynamic duo behind Slashdot at their headquarters in Holland, Michigan. Slashdot’s co-founders Rob “CmdrTaco” Malda and Jeff “Hemos” Bates were busy packing up their now-famous geek compound (a serendipitous collection of butt-ugly half duplexes fronted, on that day, by a brown metal dumpster filled with O’Reilly books) for a move to more civic-code-compliant digs in the center of town. Bates himself was moving from the town that he and Malda had grown up in to live the life of an urbanite in Boston, Mass.
THE BAND WAS BREAKING UP.
Or was it? If Slashdot has proved anything, it’s that physical location doesn’t really count for that much in the modern world. After all, how else could a couple of punks in their early twenties, working out of a small town in Michigan, become two of the most important voices in Linux? Since Rob Malda’s Chips and Dips Web site morphed into Slashdot three years ago, it has emerged as something of a civic center of the open source movement. Journalists and computer executives now hit the site to get a snapshot of the community’s take on issues of the day. Though Slashdot has evolved far beyond its original dimensions, it still retains a strong sense of both Malda’s and Bates’s character. Where else can you find news on scientists breaking the speed of light, an analysis of a new open source license and an in-depth expose on Lego all in the same place?
Linux Magazine: I guess the question that everyone wants me to ask you guys is, have you sold out?
Rob Malda: Yeah dude. We totally sold out. Look at us. What does sell out mean?
LM: It means that where once you were “of the people and for the people,” now you’re “of the Man and for the Man.”
Jeff Bates: The International Monetary Fund and Rob and I have gotten together with the Elders of Zion and soon we’re going to control the world.
[Seriously] We do things exactly as we always have.
LM: So, you don’t think the money changes anything?
Malda: I got a better guitar and I lease a car. I didn’t even buy the car. I bought a house, and I would have bought a house anyway, cause I would have had a good job. I was a programmer. I was a computer science major. You can get a pretty good job in that field.
LM: If the person you were three years ago could see you now, what would he think?
Bates: I think the person from three years ago would be like, “Excellent! Get the job that you want.” Really though, that’s what it all comes down to. I’m totally happy doing what I’m doing.
LM: What’s the most significant story you’ve posted?
Bates: There are a lot of them. I wrote an editorial on why Netscape should open source their browser, and I think six days later they did just that. Now, I was not the deciding reason, but it didn’t hurt.
I got e-mail from all the way up to the top at Netscape saying, “We’re reading this. We’re thinking about it.” When the news actually broke, we got linked all over the place, and a lot of people credited us as being one of the major reasons. Eric Raymond was the biggie, but a lot of people credited us alongside that.
Because of that story, we got a heap load of publicity, so that was the story that really made Slashdot. Since that, there have been others. The Hellmouth series [on the anti-geek backlash following the Columbine High School shootings in the spring of 1999] being one of the more significant ones.
LM: So do you look at what happened there and think, “Wow, I’m actually doing something important with my life?”
Malda: You make a difference in a lot of people’s lives every day. If you get e-mail, then you make a difference. Not necessarily a good difference and not necessarily a bad difference. But I get e-mail from people who tell me that I suck, and I get e-mail from people who say that I really helped them out. In both cases, I have made a difference in their life. So that’s pretty cool.
Bates: With the DeCSS [software, considered illegal by the Recording Industry Association of America, that allows Linux users to read CSS-encrypted DVDs], I really feel like that will set the tone for the next 40 or 50 years, and I’d like to think that, at least, we are fighting the good fight.
Malda: Yeah, you know, it sure would be nice if we could take apart our own property.
LM: What are the other “good fights?”
Malda: This comes up with MP3s too. I should have the right to take a CD and convert that to an MP3. No question. I should have that right. I should be able to have a hard drive with 40 gigs of MP3s. Should I have the right to give you an MP3 that I ripped off of a commercial CD? Probably not.
So, some Slashdotters disagree with that. I don’t think that you should pirate software, and I don’t think that you should pirate trademarks. But, I think I should be allowed to take a DVD and burn that off to my hard drive, and code it as an MP4 and watch it on my machine.
More important than that, I don’t think that linking to code that does this, or writing code that does this, should be against the law, because that says reverse engineering is wrong. If you can’t reverse engineer, that’s not an inconvenience. That’s telling me: You’ve bought this car, congratulations. It comes with the hood shut and if you open it, you go to jail.
Bates: When VCRs started coming out the movie industry was like, “Oh my God! No! Bah!” Well, look what happened. It actually turned into a revenue stream.
If the music and video world would get off their damned asses and make it so that micro-payments would work…I’m not going to sit and throw CDs in to be ripped if I can listen to all this for $20 a month. Their revenue would get much higher because they wouldn’t have to pay for anything at all — except bits. That’s my major frustration with those industries. They’re just like, “Oh boy, we’ve been doing it like this for a long time. We don’t know how to do this any other way.”
LM: They’re making money. Why change something if you’re already making money?
Bates: Yeah, but I think that if they really looked at it, they’d be like, “Oh, holy sh**! We can make a lot more money, because we wouldn’t have to have a distribution channel other than a bunch of bandwidth.”
With DeCSS, the movie industry said, “We created this special format. We’ve encrypted it. No one will ever get it.” That won’t work. There are enough people out there who want it, and they’ll make it happen. You can not lock something away like that forever.
LM: Do you think that the MP3 format can be stopped at this point?
Bates: No. Because even if you shut down Napster, try shutting down GNUtella. You can’t.
And, all they do by suing people is further create an enraged class that is just like, “No. Screw you.” Even people who aren’t following the DeCSS or the MP3 controversy, they all hate the recording industry.
CDs still cost fifteen dollars. Come on! You can make a perfect CD for two bucks.
Malda: Luckily all the artists hate the recording industry.
Bates: It’s like what Courtney Love says: The real pirates are the recording industry. She’s totally right on, and a lot of artists feel that way.
LM: This whole issue of morality is interesting, because I like to think of you guys as having a kind of moral compass. Where does that come from?
Bates: A lot of it is from reading.
Malda: I never read.
Bates: He never reads. One of the things that really got me thinking about the corporate stuff is reading William Gibson and Kim Stanley Robinson. If we don’t do something, then we’re really going to be locked into the corporate republic. It’s common sense, really.
LM: You mean, there weren’t books you read as a kid like science fiction or Thoreau?
Malda: I stopped reading once I found computers.
Bates: A lot of it was science fiction for me.
LM: What do you think gave you your sense of what’s right and what’s wrong? Where do you think that came from?
Malda: I just think it’s common sense, so I don’t know where it came from.
LM: It’s innate?
Malda: I think that people shouldn’t screw with other people, and everybody should be fair and play nice. I don’t think it’s that hard.
Bates: Ultimately the rule of humanity or life can be boiled down to this: Don’t be an ass. Frankly, almost everything in life, if you actually look at it can be boiled down to this: No. That’s being an ass. Don’t be an ass. Don’t try and create systems in which you can exploit other people.
LM: There are a lot of people that have a sense of what’s right or wrong, but not a lot of people decide to be as public as you guys have been about it. It seems to me there must be something…
Malda: It wasn’t as much a conscious decision as an evolutionary one. Chips and Dips was the same thing. I was making crap and putting it on my Web page and talking about what I like and how I felt. I didn’t say, “Today is the day that I start being the voice piece of the Libertarian Movement.” That’s full of crap. This is how I feel about something. Here it is.
LM: So was it more about personal expression, or was it all about informing others?
Malda: Six of one, a half a dozen of the other. I didn’t verbalize it.
Bates: I think there definitely was the point of, “Hey, I have something to say. This is how I feel about this. This is something that I think other people will care about.”
Malda: But we’re old school BBSers [Bulletin Board System]. Back in middle school, it was all about writing on message boards. So, this is how I’ve always operated.
Bates: Of course, you talk about something. Of course, you engage.
Malda: Of course, you talk about if Mac OS is better than MS DOS 4.
LM: How did the whole Andover thing happen? Did you approach Andover, or did they approach you?
Bates: They approached us. We actually never approached anyone.
LM: Were you looking to sell the site at that point?
Bates: We were looking for a way to try to finance Slashdot and not necessarily finance it in a grand, venture capitalist sense. We’re really not business people.
Malda: It was like, all we want to do is to be able to buy beer, and run our Web sites and not worry about day jobs while we’re trying to do these things.
LM: What convinced you that Andover was the right company?
Bates: Politics. They were Linux neutral.
Malda: They weren’t a distribution company.
LM: Why didn’t you want to sell to a Linux company?
Malda: It wasn’t that we didn’t want to sell to a Linux company. It was that we didn’t really have one that would have been a good marriage. We wouldn’t have sold to VA either.
Bates: Going from independent directly to VA would’ve been bad. I think what we have proven while we have been owned by Andover is that we’re still us. We haven’t changed at all. So, hopefully people can understand that.
LM: So, why is it okay to be part of VA now when it wasn’t a year ago?
Bates: It’s the public perception issue. We haven’t really done anything different at all since we’ve been owned by Andover.
Malda: Hopefully people will trust us.
Bates: Hopefully they learned that we’re trustworthy. We’re not going to do stuff differently.
Malda: Our contracts apply just as well under whoever owns us. Every time we mention VA or Andover in Slashdot, someone will comment, “And what happens when Microsoft buys VA?” I’m like, who cares? I don’t really care. I’ll keep posting exactly what I’ve been posting.
LM: So wait a minute…If Microsoft bought VA, they couldn’t fire you guys?
Bates: They could, but that would be an economically stupid thing for them to do.
LM: What do you mean by that?
Malda: It would effectively destroy their site. It would violate our non-compete’s and allow us to start a new site somewhere else. It all goes away. Say Microsoft buys VA tomorrow. I send you, and I send LinuxWorld and I send The Washington Post e-mail saying, “We just started Slashdot2. com.” It’ll take me a half hour to bring everything back up. We’re back where we were, and what do they have? They have a domain name.
LM: They’ve got a brand.
Malda: They have a domain name and a lot less people who are going to read about it as soon as every news publication on the planet tells them they ousted the founders.
Bates: That’s the thing. I think they would still get a significant amount of traffic, but it would be much, much less significant because so much has still been retained in the fact that we still work on it, and there’s so much personal identification.
LM: I think that you guys have a new media attitude because in the traditional media world, the brand that you build with your publication is the really important thing. Founders and contributors will come and go.
Bates: But, in the traditional media world, when you build a brand you build a brand. You build a name brand whereas Slashdot…
LM: Slashdot is a very popular and very powerful brand.
Bates: Slashdot has a huge amount of identification with the people behind it, and I’m not saying they would go down to 500 hits a day or something. They would still get a significant amount of traffic, but it would drop off a lot.
Malda: The fact is, it took us months to train each of the guys who post Slashdot stories. Months of, “You can’t post that story. It ain’t gonna work. This is how we want you to write it.” You couldn’t just hire five guys and do that. You might try, but the readers are going to know the difference because they’ve been reading for three years, and if you just pull a couple of random guys and they start writing, they’re not going be able to do it.
LM: Has Andover or VA ever tried to mess with anything you guys have posted?
Malda: Once, and they won’t again because we posted it anyway.
LM: What was that?
Malda: That was recently when Microsoft sent a cease-and-desist letter to us over the Kerberos stuff [Microsoft demanded that Slashdot remove reader posts containing information on its Kerberos implementation].
Bates: Andover actually had sustainable reasoning. When there’s a legal thing going on, traditionally you don’t talk about it. Well we weren’t talking about it. Some reader submitted an editorial that they wrote with their opinions on it, and we were going to publish it, and we did. They told us not to. We did anyway.
LM: How did you convince them to not withdraw this editorial?
Bates: I just did it anyway. It wasn’t so much convincing as it was saying, “Well, we’re posting it. Sorry. Your day’s going to be worse.”
LM: What are your favorite Web sites? I know that you guys read The Onion.
Bates: Old Man Murray. Old Man Murray is funny as hell.
Malda: Old Man Murray is great. Filthy Critic’s good too.
Bates: Filthy Critic is movie reviews that are just like [gasp].
Malda: “This is the biggest f***ing piece of sh** I’ve ever seen.”
LM: Do you get any tree magazines? Paper magazines?
Malda: Well, I do get Rolling Stone and Playboy.
Bates: I get New Scientist from Britain, actually. Somehow I ended up in there. What other publications do I read? U.S. News and World Report, Scientific American.
LM: Are you guys local celebrities in Holland, Michigan?
Bates: No. Holland is…this whole West Michigan area is known for office furniture, automotive stuff, things like that.
LM: So you’re kind of unknown here?
LM: The local papers have never written you up or anything like that?
Malda: I’ve actually turned down their requests.
Malda: Because, I don’t do local media. I don’t want to talk to local press, because I just don’t want them in my face.
Bates: Privacy. In the entire greater- Holland area, anybody who would be interested in Slashdot we have probably already met or know through the grapevine. So, we’re not going to gain anything at all by doing local media.
Malda: There are a lot of Slashdot readers in Holland. If they read an article about us in Linux Magazine, that’s no problem. But if my neighbor across the street saw my picture in the newspaper…well, there went my privacy. Because every one of those articles ends up pulling numbers out of their butt about exactly how much money they think that I’m worth.
Bates: They totally screw it up every time. They just make numbers up. Arbitrary numbers. It’d be nice if they’d been correct.
LM: You guys are worth something though, right?
Bates: Sure, but we’re nowhere near where what the local media claims. It’s ridiculous the numbers that have been thrown around.
LM: I read in Wired that you sold Slashdot for something like $7 million.
Malda: That’s not a valid number either. The contract actually says $7 million stock, $5 million cash. That is all public information. But, we don’t actually have that, and there’s no guarantee that we’ll actually get that. It’s attached to all sorts of different things. Also, they always attach it to me not realizing that Slashdot was bought from Blockstackers [Bates and Malda's umbrella company]
LM: So to a certain extent, you’re not a local celebrity by choice?
Malda: There’d be nothing to gain from it.
LM: Have you ever been recognized on the street around here?
Malda: Theoretically. I was at Circuit City buying some Christmas presents, and some dude just walked right up to me and said, “Hi Rob!” and just kept right on walking.
LM: So only once?
LM: How did that make you feel?
Malda: It took me about an hour before I realized why. I was trying to place his face before that. I still half-believe that he actually knows me, because he graduated the year before me from high school or something.
Robert McMillan is executive editor for Linux Magazine. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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