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Interview with Rob "CmdrTaco" Malda

Article Rating: Excellent (# of votes: 1)
Author:      ravn
Submitted:      13-Jan-2006 20:13:04
Imported From:      zZine (original author: ravn)


An interview with Rob "Cmdr Taco" Malda, of Slashdot.
Rob "CmdrTaco" Malda of Slashdot has kindly agreed to do an interview with us here at zZine, covering such topics as Intellectual Property, Open Source, and Intelligent Design. I'd like to take this opportunity to thank him, not only for agreeing to the interview but also for his very fast and thoughtful responses.

In case you dont know who he is, CmdrTaco is one of the founders of the popular geek news website Slashdot. He also writes a monthly article for Computer Power User magazine. A brief (but excellent) biography is available on his personal website, cmdrtaco.net.

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Ravn: I'm not going to waste everyone's time asking about how and when you started Slashdot, since that is found in your bio and many other places. However, the question I will ask is WHY did you start Slashdot? What was your motivation for it? Did you realize just what you were doing?

CmdrTaco: It was an organic thing. It was just something I was doing because it was fun. Chips & Dips was a blog I was writing in the mid-90's - they weren't called blogs then, but it was just where I wrote stuff every day and people read it. When I moved to Slashdot.org, my intent was to consolidate the bits I wrote about technology. "The News for Nerds", if you will... but it was as much to have a vanity domain name and email address. And it just kept growing as others found out that the stuff I liked mattered to them too.

Ravn: Your main focus with Slashdot seems to be the moderation system (though recently you've been asking questions about the story approval process as well). What makes the moderation system so important to Slashdot, and why (despite the moaning of a few) does it work so well? The comments really seem to be the draw of the site, beyond the stories themselves.

CmdrTaco: I just think that many-to-many communication is an unsolved problem.
The Slashdot article submission and approval process is ultimately a balance of speed, taste, and preference. You can go more dynamic and participatory, or more controlled. It doesn't really matter. But trying to figure out how to let tens of thousands of people discuss an issue, and let hundreds of thousands more skim the discussion and glean something of value... that is interesting. Our system works well, but it has many fundamental flaws I look forward to fixing.


Ravn: Very rarely are there stories on Slashdot that are actually written by the staff. They are generally all user/reader submitted. You yourself, however, write articles for a dead-tree publication - Computer Power User Magazine. What do you think of the two different systems (that is - submissions vs. creating yourself)? Does one method work particularly better than the other?

CmdrTaco: Slashdot gives me more real-time feedback. Something I write there can give me a thousand emails in my inbox before the sun sets. Writing for dead tree has months of lag time, and far less communication. But most people are fairly uncomfortable bringing a laptop to the toilet.

Ravn: The number and quality of comments a story receives on Slashdot can vary pretty widely. Some stories get very little community attention, while others are practically overwhelmed by it. Do you think that the feedback an article receives from the participation of the community can be seen as an effective gauge of the relevance/accuracy of the article itself? Or is it just the more controversial topics draw more attention?

CmdrTaco: If you don't have something to say, you won't bother saying it ;)

Slashdot articles serve 2 purposes - one is to point you at something interesting, and the other is to give you a place to talk about it. Not every article is posted with both of these in mind. Of course sometimes I'm surprised when a story I think is a throw away gets a thousand comments. The opposite happens too. Thats part of what makes the site still interesting after 8 years.


Ravn: Slashdot is well known for its bias (if you'll forgive the term) towards Open Source Software. Slashcode itself is Open Source. Why is this? What was involved with the decision to make Slashcode OSS? Why do you think it is important? What, in your opinion, makes Open Source Software so great?

CmdrTaco: I'm a very biased person. And I bring many of my biases with me to Slashdot. No apologies are necessary ;) Slashcode is open source because my readers clammored for it in the late 90's. Today thousands of websites use the code. That's very cool. Unfortunately almost none of them contribute anything back, so while it was great for them, it continues to be a burden for us. Not every open source project is the kernel ;)

Open Source software is critical on many levels - from an educational level it's just important that I am able to get into the guts of my system. From an entertainment level, making things do exactly what I want is personally very satisfying. But from a social, cultural, and technological level, the ability to do these things is critical in order to maintain a balance between personal privacy and needs, and the often contradictory desires of government and big business.

In short, if we lose open source software, we lose our freedom.


Ravn: What do you think is the future of news delivery online? In 5 years will anyone still be going to CNN? How about Slashdot? Where is the industry going? Why?

CmdrTaco: People will still be reading CNN and Slashdot, but how they find the content on those sites will change. Aggregation services and filters will become the standard.

Ravn: In various other interviews you've done, Intellectual Property and copyrights have come up. You seem to take a pretty firm stand that there are serious issues there. Can you elaborate on that? Why do you think IP as it is today is flawed? What can be done to fix it? Is there any hope left?

CmdrTaco: There are a number of problems, so it's tough to get them all out in a paragraph or two. One issue is software patents. Most (all?) of them are stupid. They will cripple the industry. Another is public domain and copyright. Each generation of creative work builds on the body that comes before it. We've historically had a system where, over time, content becomes Public Domain, but in the corporate universe nothing ever does. The third is fair use: if I buy a "Song" should I be entitled to burn that to a CD, listen to it on my iPod, share it with my friends, or share it with the world? Still yet another is outright piracy - the theft of the intellectual property of others online.

The problem is that all of these areas have a murky grey area and a legal battle. The industries will pull us towards the ridiculous - not allowing you to discuss a CD, much less sharing the lyrics. But none of these address the real problem which is that the industry is bloated. A garage band can make a great album for a few grand, make a million dollars, and do all of that without the record label machines. The rise of inexpensive home recording systems and video systems will give birth to a new generation of independent art, produced for a song, but ultimately more profitable because they have almost no cost, and the industry will fight against that tooth and nail - especially in the courts.

The ultimate loser in all of this is the individual whose rights are challenged, and whose software becomes spyware.


Ravn: There has been a great deal of discussion lately about Digg. A lot of the comments I read on Slashdot are essentially just people pointing out how the story they're commenting on ran days/weeks/whatever earlier on Digg. Of course, this is largely due to Digg being a completely user-driven site without the editing that takes place on Slashdot. Is the Slashdot model better? Why? What do you think the pros and cons are of their setup?

CmdrTaco: I've spent a lot of time thinking about this one, but I think the difference comes down to something quite simple. We both start at the same place: taking content from readers. We choose what to post, they choose what to remove. It's subtle, but key. But both sites have editors working behind the scenes, we're just more honest about it I think.

Ravn: Despite the huge success of Slashdot, you yourself aren't a household name. It seems, in fact, that you try to dodge the spotlight a bit. Is this correct? If so, why? And expanding on this question: has your fame ever caused you problems?

CmdrTaco: A dude recognized me at my gym once. I was naked. I do my best to avoid the spotlight. Many websites are built on a cult of personality, and I've never wanted that.

Ravn: Slashdot has been your baby for a long time now. A few other staff members have come and gone since the beginning. Have you ever considered leaving/moving on? What would it take to steal you away? Has anyone tried, and if so, why weren't they successful?

CmdrTaco: Nobody has offered me anything better. It's a good gig- I'm well paid to write about things I like. Someone asked me that question like 5 years ago and I said that I doubted I'd still be running Slashdot when I'm 30. I'm almost there. So we'll see.

Ravn: From your biography on cmdrtaco.net I see that you went to religious schools for both High School and College. How does this background affect your impressions of things like the Intelligent Design debate (which gets a lot of attention of Slashdot)? Do you think it gives you a different perspective than many of the other folks who read the site?

CmdrTaco: I'm not particularly religious, but at least I am informed on the matter. If anything, my upbringing has taught me just how wacky a good number of people are when it comes to religion. There are so many good people who do the right thing on these matters - it's really frustrating to see so many swooped up in the wrong thing.

Ravn: Slashdot is probably one of the favorite ways that IT workers kill time on the job (I'm guilty of this myself). For you, however, Slashdot IS your job, so what do YOU do when you want to kill some time at work?

CmdrTaco: World of Warcraft, baby. There's always an auction to check on.

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Once again, I'd like to thank CmdrTaco for taking the time to do this interview. I know that I really enjoyed reading his replies, and I hope we'll be able to do this again in the future.

Ravn



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