For me the story of Slashdot is utterly inseparable from my own life. I built it while still in college: when normal people did their homework or had personal lives, I spent my evenings making icons in The Gimp, crafting perl in vim or writing a new story to share with my friends. I’ll never forgot the nights spent tailing the access_log and celebrating a line from microsoft.com or mit.edu with friends like Jeff, Dave, Nate and Kurt.
Slashdot always consumed all of my time, but as it grew it started costing actual money: first bandwidth, then servers. My friends and I formed a company hoping to simply break even. By the time I graduated from college, Slashdot could afford to pay a single full-time employee: Me. I made less money than I might have otherwise, but I was finally free to dedicate myself to the thing I was most passionate about.
The site grew beyond anyone’s wildest imagination. Soon it had a half dozen employees, and our little company couldn’t keep up. We found one that could: Selling Slashdot was the right decision at the time: we never could have survived the growth, and the lean years after the bubble burst. However, the long term consequences of the decision wouldn’t be clear for years.
Following the sale, we continued an uninterrupted run of golden years: New employees joined us that shared our dreams. Good people who understood intuitively what Slashdot was, what it meant, and just how important it was, usually because they were users too. Many of them continue to be my friends today. Relationships that I value beyond the professional.
Personally, I was given the chance to see the world as a representative of a growing community: Japan. Germany. Spain. Australia. I met the community face to face, and worked with people I liked. We did challenging work, and put the users first. We were unstoppable.
I experienced 14 years of tragedies through Slashdot: Columbine. 9/11. Columbia. Fukushima. Those events and so many others are forever connected to load spikes and irc chats with frantic engineers and editors. Sadness and terror would be temporarily pushed aside as the team would do the best work we were capable of, helping thousands connect with each other when we all needed it most.
For all of the terrible moments, there was much more triumph and laughter. Countless scientific breakthroughs, OMG Ponies, and a unyielding stream of new technologies changing the world around us. Usually for the better. And I’ll never forgot the palm sweating nervousness waiting for a reply when I proposed to my girlfriend on the front page of Slashdot. All of it shared with friends.
In 2007 I took the longest break of my entire career, and for the best of reasons. For 2 weeks after the birth of my son I didn’t load a single page of Slashdot. When I returned, the site was just fine. Slashdot celebrated its 10 year anniversary with me knowing for the first time that it could continue without me…
Which was good because the site had been in decline for a few years. Friends were replaced by strangers. Decisions were made by people who increasingly were not users of the system. They saw Slashdot as a simple business: a P&L, a rack of servers, or a headcount.
As traffic declined, so did the technical challenges. Load was rarely a problem. The moderation system simply… worked. But the code base had aged. It was no longer nimble and maintainable. Our team was shrunk… eventually down to a single engineer! Our ability to ship code evaporated. What little engineering time was left was all to often squandered on projects destined to fail for lack of understanding of the users.
Over the last few years, my light hearted sarcasm was slowly replaced by bitterness. Somewhere along the line became unable to hide my feelings from my friends, family and finally even my co-workers. They saw the writing on the wall long before I did: I had to leave.
That was over a year ago. Giving up a paycheck was scary, but I lost something more important. Before it was the famous nerd hub, Slashdot was simply my homepage. When I left, I was denied the right to continue to post on the page that I still called home. Rationally I agreed with my friends who said the “The Clean Break” was better for me… but emotionally I still feel the loss a year later. Twitter and G+ are great, but I will always feel like I am living in someone else’s house.
Without my familiar editor controls, Slashdot immediately felt naked and wrong. I started to read only via RSS, where my beloved News For Nerds became just one feed in a folder of many. I began clicking through less and less: perhaps because I found better feeds elsewhere, but also because when I do click, all I can see is the changes: Stuff nobody else probably even notices. A few pixels here, a wording change there. Some changes are for the better… but many aren’t. And it makes me sad, even now.
The good news for me is that I haven’t been this professionally happy in years. My work at the WaPo Labs reminds me of the Golden years of Slashdot, when everything felt important. Our team seems to always be reading the same book, even when they aren’t on the same page. My work feels fresh and exciting. Best of all, today I can finally separate “Me” from “My Work” when the need presents itself. I can step away. I can be unbiased and honest in a way that I never could while in the middle of the Slashdot Hurricane.
Recently Slashdot was sold to a new corporate master… putting still more water between me and my creation. I still have a few friends there, but mostly they are strangers to me. But when I happen upon a one of those familiar teal pages, I am often still pleased to find a story that resonates with me, and a discussion that makes it even better. I’d like to close my eyes and pretend that a bit of my DNA is still in there.
I still can’t think of the history of Slashdot without tying it to moments in my life. But with a year between us now, I’ve come to understand that we were just a chapter in each other’s stories.
But damn was it ever a good chapter.