by Rob Malda
A Pre-History of Slashdot on its 20th Birthday
I registered the domain name “Slashdot.org” 20 years ago today. I really had no idea.
Jeff chipped in a few bucks for the fees. Kathleen told me the name was stupid. I thought, “That’s kinda the point!”
I originally used the name ‘slashdot’ on my desktop a year earlier when I got my first static IP in the Voorhees Hall dorm room I shared with Dave. Back in 1996, our floor was the first in all of Hope College to be granted 24/7 high speed internet access.
Since then I had been maintaining a little news section on my homepage called “Chips & Dips”. It was a primordial Slashdot: rants, reviews, and URLs often seeded by friends via email or IRC. I quickly got annoyed with the tedious process required to update the static HTML that powered it.
This was early in the days of “The Web”. The notion of “A Blog” was years away, so I wrote my own code. I didn’t have huge ambitions so I stored the data in flat text files loaded from scratch, on every… single… page… view. I knew this was grotesquely inefficient but again, I had no idea what was coming.
I took a rejected template from a project at work and retooled it into something more in keeping with my personal aesthetic: lots of high contrast black, white, and teal. A drop shadow on almost everything. A sweet torn paper edge down the right hand side of the page. And of course that slogan.
Maybe it doesn’t look all that good by today’s standards, but in 1997, it was pretty sweet. The oldest entry in the Wayback machine is from January of 1998 and features a lot of broken graphics, but the essence is still there:
The server was a well used DEC Alpha Multia. I got it free for skinning a space invaders clone that I had originally built in a graphics class the previous semester. The game engine was based on a sprite library written by Nate. I re-did all the graphics clicking one pixel at a time in The Gimp. A little spaceship shot hot butter at endlessly descending rows of popcorn to promote snacking or something. I was never really clear on that.
The machine itself was no faster than a typical 486, but it ran Linux. I was excited to have a new architecture to play on besides my 486 and the CompSci SparcStations. My employer (The Image Group) let me host it on their network: they needed an email server and this machine would serve double duty.
I christened the box Ariel, and she lived under my desk. I knocked it offline with my foot more than once before putting it up a little higher.
Within a few days of DNS registration, Slashdot.org was live. I quickly added polls to answer urgent questions like “How many shots should Kurt drink”. While he suffered the results of these polls, I would tail -f on the access_log and the residents of the so-called Geek House would boggle as names like ‘mit.edu’ and ‘microsoft.com’ streamed forward faster than we could read.
Rapid change followed: traffic soon created real expenses requiring hardware, colocation, and advertising. The code was in constant flux: adding user accounts, moderation, the submissions bin. And of course performance improvements to deal with the unyielding traffic growth. All the while I posted story after story, and our readers matched us with more comments than we thought possible.
My friends began contributing more and more. From code, to old hardware, to posting stories and coordinating advertising, we formed Blockstackers with a purpose. Slashdot went from from something with a stupid name that I was building into something we were building… with the help of thousands of nerds around the world that we would never meet in person.
The years that followed were a blurry mix of victories and failures as Slashdot grew from a hobby to a real business depended on by hundreds of thousands of nerds around the world. The work was messy, complicated, hard… and especially for the first decade… thrilling.
I was the last of the Blockstackers to leave. I made tons of mistakes and stayed longer than I should have. Today I don’t know a single person who has anything to do with the thing that was at the center of my life for 15 years. To say I have complicated feelings about what Slashdot is in 2017 is an understatement!
But right at the start… 20 years ago today… it was awesome.
~ Rob “CmdrTaco” Malda
Pants are Optional.