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In 1997, Rob Malda founded Slashdot, a trail-blazing tech news site and online community, under the moniker “CmdrTaco.” Last year, he joined WaPo Labs, an experimental unit within The Washington Post Company that designs new digital tools for discovering and sharing stories. He joins Tech Tuesday to explore the evolution of the social web and the future of news consumption and dissemination.
- Rob Malda Founder and former Editor-in-Chief, Slashdot; Chief Strategist and Editor-at-Large; WaPo Labs
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. It's Tech Tuesday. We've got CmdrTaco in studio. Think back to 1997. Cyber security threats were still science fiction, Google was just an idea in Silicon Valley, and you were probably dialing up to the Internet. But a college student who went by the title CmdrTaco was creating Slashdot, a new website with the motto: news for nerds, stuff that matters.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIOver the course of CmdrTaco's 14 years at Slashdot, it would become one of the most influential tech sites on the Web, a place to find interesting tech news and tap into a network of like-minded geeks. Along the way, it also demonstrated the unique power of blending news in the social dynamics of online communities, becoming a pioneer of crowdsourcing and social media. Today, CmdrTaco responds to his other name, Rob Malda.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIHe now works for WaPo Labs, an experimental research team at the Washington Post Company, that creates new tools for finding and sharing news. Rob Malda joins us in studio. As we mentioned, he is founder and former editor in chief of Slashdot. He's now chief strategist and editor at large at WaPo Labs research and development team at The Washington Post Company. Rob Malda, thank you for joining us.
MR. ROB MALDANo problem.
NNAMDIYou, too, can join the conversation. Call us at 800-433-8850. You can send email to email@example.com, send us a tweet, @kojoshow, or simply go to our website, kojoshow.org, and join the conversation there. Questions for CmdrTaco, 800-433-8850. I'd like to start with an observation. When I told some of my tech-savvy friends I'd be talking with CmdrTaco, the founder of Slashdot, I got two reactions. One camp got completely psyched and rattled off fascinating questions about the evolution of the Web and the future of news. The others said, who is CmdrTaco?
NNAMDII bring this up because Slashdot is pretty unique and influential in the online community with very passionate members and readers, but many people don't recognize how much influence it had on the news. Tell us about where Slashdot came from.
MALDAWell, Slashdot came -- it grew out of what, I guess, today you would call a blog. In 1997, the term did not exist, but I had a blog. And on my blog, I was sharing things that I was interested in. I was an active open source -- of course, it wasn't called open source then. But I was writing open-source code. I was very active in mailing lists in newsgroups that were places where people were doing that sort of work.
MALDAMy blog was about that sort of, and it all kind of just spawned out of there. My blog was -- it was a mix of that, you know, of those hobbies but then also with my more general nerdy interests, you know, science-fiction movies or Legos or whatever comes about.
NNAMDIIf it wasn't called a blog, a Web blog, what was it called?
MALDAWe just called it a homepage.
NNAMDITo identify as a geek in many ways is to see yourself as a member of a tribe. Slashdot tapped into the sense of community and the social possibilities that programmers and gadget lovers have always had. What kind of influence has it had on technology journalism?
MALDAWell, Slashdot really predates any of the kind of major news aggregators that you see today, whether they're algorithmically driven, like Google News, or whether they're community driven like, I guess, Reddit would be the poster child for that today. We were doing bits and pieces of what those sites do a long time ago. Before then, there were smaller scale, real, more traditional news, I think, like Wired would be one of few organizations that was doing, you know, more traditional news.
MALDABut they were still just sort of -- I don't know -- toes being dipped into the water by larger corporations. And what we were really doing -- what I was doing with Slashdot was kind of blending together the best of what they were doing with the best of the stuff that I was finding in mailing lists, you know, using that groups, just the places where I was normally hanging out, and that was it. I was just mixing it all together.
NNAMDIWhat are your thoughts on popular tech blogs like TechCrunch or other social sites you just mentioned, Reddit or Digg?
MALDAI have many opinions on all of those things. I think Reddit is pretty cool. I think that the interesting parts of Reddit exists within the subreddits. The homepage has kind of evolved into sort of a mob, but with -- a mob that's looking for silly pictures of cats and one-liner jokes, which is fine. But the interesting stuff on Reddit tends to be in the subreddits where people are actually talking about -- you know, it's a smaller community, so therefore, it can be more focused.
MALDAIt's too early to say what's going on with Digg. That's a -- they've completely rebooted Digg a few months ago. They sold it, and new folks took it over. And they've really washed their hands of the Digg of old. They blew away all the URLs, you know, hundreds of thousands, millions of URLs erased from the Internet. And that's crazy to me. But, hey, you know, they wanted a clean break.
MALDATechCrunch is a good case. They do what they do. I mean, they cover the startup scene. They do a reasonable job covering the startup scene. I think they're a little too excited, but I mean, what can I say, because, you know, when I covered science fiction in Linux, I was excited about those things, too.
NNAMDII was about to say...
MALDASo who am I to judge? If you're truly and honestly fired up about it, then go to town, man.
NNAMDIIt's Tech Tuesday. In case you're just joining us, we're talking with Rob. He is founder and former editor in chief at Slashdot. He's now chief strategist and editor at large at WaPo Labs, which is a research and development team at The Washington Post Company. If you've got questions or comments, you can call us at 800-433-8850. How do you think we will access and share news in the future?
NNAMDIYou can also send us a tweet, @kojoshow, using the #TechTuesday, or just go to our website, kojoshow.org, and join the conversation there. Online communities definitely have their own specific cultures, but so do big media institutions and newsrooms. And last year, you went from a relatively small website to this huge media institution, The Washington Post Company. What aspects of news culture within The Post have you found most intriguing or curious?
MALDAThe biggest shock to me was the scale of the operation. It's a universe apart from what I was used to. Slashdot, even at its peak, was 10, 11 people of which, you know, we -- usually, we're relatively evenly split between engineers and operational-type people and actual editors or writers. So, I mean, we ran the site for years on, like, three or four people who were responsible for all the words because -- and we stood at the top of a gigantic pyramid where our readers were doing the work for us.
MALDAYou walk into the newsroom at The Post, and it's this -- you can't see the other wall. You know, it's so big from one end to the other, and there's -- these are all journalists, and they're all -- they're writing. They're work -- they're doing something that's actually legitimately important. And Slashdot was, I guess, being more parasitic. We were able to sort of leach off the good efforts of newsrooms like The Post. But, you know, we get to kind of steal from all of them equally.
NNAMDIWell, reading the news used to be a very intimate tactile experience. You could sit down with a cup of coffee, read the paper cover to cover, and the closest you came to social media was maybe telling your friend or your partner that they should read a specific article or cutting it out and maybe mailing it to someone. OK. Maybe I am idealizing it a little bit, but I'm curious whether you are someone who likes analog papers at all. Do you ever sit down with a hard copy of The Washington Post?
MALDAThere was one at my hotel outside of the door today when I got up, but I have never subscribed to a paper newspaper. That's just not -- that's not in my universe. I think I'm romantic about paper books. I do buy paper books.
MALDABut that's because when I'm done with a paper book, if I enjoyed it, I like to give it to somebody. I enjoyed this book, here you go. And with the Kindle, I don't -- it's just not the same, right? You know, it doesn't feel as solid to me. But a newspaper has a shelf life, and that shelf life is incredibly short. And, you know, my milk lasts a week, but my newspaper is completely -- in a lot of cases, it's out of date by the time it's on my doorstep.
MALDAAnd, you know, that's -- so there's a difference, I guess, between the real-time news and then -- maybe more longer form, more ponderous, you know, pieces that give you some time to think. And that's -- so that stuff is a little different, but, to me, that's getting a little closer to newspaper or to magazine country, which makes a lot more sense. But, I mean, both -- that works just as well in my iPad as it does in a piece of paper, too.
NNAMDIWell, I am the opposite of you in terms of reading books. I used to read paper books, and now, I read most of my books on the Kindle because way too many of my books have had way too long a shelf life in the shelves in my home.
MALDAThey sit there forever collecting dust.
NNAMDIYes, exactly. And it's hard to get rid of them. WaPo Labs is working on a number of projects, most of which are very kind of hush-hush at this point. But the one product Facebook users may be familiar with is the Social Reader. This is a so-called frictionless sharing app that shares what you're reading with your friends at the social network. This is pretty far away from the idea of cutting out a newspaper article and mailing it to my friend. What are the indications that this is what news consumers want?
MALDAWell, I guess, tens of millions of people have used it. That's a pretty good indicator that this is something that people want. I think that -- I mean, Social Reader is a good example of kind of this new class of Web applications that -- there's a healthy debate around where the line should be in terms of where's your privacy and, you know, are you actually a mini-publisher or are you, you know, an individual just consuming.
MALDAThese are interesting questions. And I mean, that's really what the labs team is structured to do, is to experiment with these sort of things. And Social Reader itself, the first version of it was -- it was deployed with a set of restrictions upon it. I mean, it was a very narrowly defined application. You had to be logged into Facebook in order to use it. The contents had to be, like, a full reading experience.
MALDAWe weren't using aggregators or anything. These are core design decisions, and that made it a relatively controlled experiment and an interesting one. It's been really fun to watch the data.
NNAMDIWell, a lot of my friends send me articles using Social Reader even though usually I've already read them in the paper. Some people find this idea -- some people find the idea kind of creepy. In May, there were reports that Social Reader applications, including The Washington Post, were losing popularity on Facebook. Can you explain that drop in usage?
MALDAWell, the way I think about it is that Facebook controls the knobs. These organizations -- these publications in very much the same way as Zynga or Socialcam or whatever, I mean, any of these applications, Facebook is playing, you know, the mix master for all of these applications. And they're deciding who lives and who dies. They have the data. They know who clicks on what, and so they will choose where they want to direct traffic to.
MALDAThat's why -- I mean, Social Reader is a really interesting experiment, but it's really difficult to think through it as a business simply because you don't get to make the choices about -- you really can't control your traffic directly. It's really being controlled by somebody else. Over the course of the last decade, you saw a whole new group of businesses rise up around Google and optimizing around Google.
MALDAAnd, you know, they used to refer to Google dance, and every few months, Google would release a new version of their index, and all of the sites in it would shuffle. And if you run the first page of a Google result, that could be millions of pages for your site, and, really, it's no different in the Facebook universe, except that it's the sort of it can update every Tuesday and there's not a lot of transparency to the clients.
NNAMDIOn to the telephones. Let's start with Evan in Reston, Va. Evan, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
EVANHi. Thanks for taking my call. I was just wondering -- I had a question for the guest about the direction that these sites will focus on stories as these gets more crowdsourced and -- to use social networks and such.
NNAMDIYes. Could you repeat the question? I'm not sure I understood it.
EVANWell, that with the rise of social networks and crowdsource, like, sites, like Reddit and such, directing the focus that base your media news stories will take and sort of shape the news sphere of what gets talked about in the public sphere.
MALDASure. Well, it's an interesting question, I guess, because, first of all, Reddit kind of represents a weird demographic. I don't think that it represents a -- like, a straight-through slice of Americana. It represents maybe more of a techno-elite view of the universe. So what's been interesting -- and you definitely see this, but I think you see it -- it's hard for me to determine if it's the chicken or the egg.
MALDADoes Fox News exist because there are people who want Fox News-type news, or do they go the other way around? These people, you know, yeah, it's a chicken-egg problem. So the question, I guess, is, are newspapers skewing their content or changing their content in some way to appeal to these audiences? At Slashdot, I definitely would see that. We would see publications routinely writing stories that we would just consider that they were baiting us.
MALDASlashdot was renowned for what was called the Slashdot effect, the gigantic avalanche of traffic that you would get if we linked you. And we would absolutely see many of the -- our sort of more regular -- the people that we would more regularly publish. We would see them write stories where it's like they've got a checklist. You know, does it mention Linux? Does it mention Legos? You know, like, standard themes. And it's -- it was just clear that there was a writer somewhere who probably was being paid based on the number of page views of his -- that his article got.
NNAMDIThere is a tension, isn't there, between curating high-quality content and curating content that invites the most clicks? When clicks mean money, does the user ultimately lose out?
MALDAI think it's more complicated than that. I think that there are -- I think that you have to strike a balance, and there's nothing wrong with the six o'clock news being the six o'clock news, and then there being a comedy on at eight o'clock on the TV show. You know, you can strike a balance, and I think that's fair. It's when the real -- as long as the world is big enough for you to have both real news and maybe fluffier news, then we're fine.
MALDAYou know, I can go to serious place and learn the real cutting-edge, breaking important, impartial news, you know, the NPR equivalence as opposed to a place that is more straight-up aiming for page views. Although it seems like the places that are generally aiming for page views, you can kind of smell it just in tone and the way they, you know, everything has to be slanted in the most inflammatory way. I mean, it's really no different than the Internet than it is on TV or probably on newspapers, if you happen to get one.
NNAMDIWe're talking with Rob Malda on Tech Tuesday. He is founder and former editor-in-chief of Slashdot, where he was known as CmdrTaco. He's now chief strategist and editor-at-large with WaPo Labs, which is a research and development team at The Washington Post Company. We've got to take short break, but if you have questions or comments, you can go to our website, kojoshow.org. Send us a tweet, @kojoshow, using the #TechTuesday.
NNAMDISend email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Or call us, 800-433-8850. Has the news lost any value in the digital transition in your opinion? 800-433-8850. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIIt's a Tech Tuesday conversation on news and the evolution of the social Web with Rob Malda, founder and former editor-in-chief of Slashdot, now chief strategist and editor-at-large at WaPo Labs, a research and development team at The Washington Post Company. You can call us if you have comments or questions at 800-433-8850. We got an email from Baxter who writes, "First off, thank you for Slashdot. It helped me shape my career as a Linux/Unix systems administrator."
NNAMDI"Do you regret allowing politics on Slashdot?" That's the first question.
MALDAOh, not in the slightest. Politics was always a part of Slashdot. It got -- we -- I always try to keep it more or less bunched around the elections, just so it doesn't overpower everything.
NNAMDI"Has running Slashdot changed your beliefs as far as government regulation and tort reform? I'm referencing the lawsuits against Slashdot?"
MALDAI don't think there were that many lawsuits against Slashdot. I mean, just the standard stuff. You know, people disagree with you, so they say things. What was -- for us, our legal issues often have more to do with people disliking things that were said in our comments. You know, that's a whole different problem, right? Should a website be treated as a common carrier, or is it a publishing platform, that's, you know, I still don't think there's really a clear decision on what that sort of thing means.
NNAMDIWell, one of the cornerstones of social news is the ability to comment on a story in some capacity. Slashdot has a policy of not deleting comments. This is something that online publications struggle with. In fact, a lot of news organizations have hired moderators who remove inappropriate or offensive comments from the site. What do you think the strengths and drawbacks are of those approaches?
MALDAWell, I like to think about the idea of putting your best foot forward. You know, you want to be nice to people. And so, therefore, the first time that they encounter your forum, you don't want them to necessarily bump into the meanest and worst parts of your system. Slashdot had its share of mean stuff. However, the way I designed the moderation system, you actually had to kind of go through a little bit effort in order to actually encounter them. We had a pretty strict policy of never deleting content.
MALDAWe wanted it to be there. We just had no problem making you jump through a hoop in order to find it. And for some people actually reading Slashdot at those lower levels was actually -- that was what they enjoyed. It's a more based experience. It's more rambunctious. There are hooligans who like having bar fights, and there are people who like to sit and sip their wine and speak all smart at a fine cocktail party. And Slashdot is just the model of this.
NNAMDIHow do you vet the comments? All comments aren't created equal, so what would...
MALDAWell, that's true. In the case of Slashdot, we had a moderation system that we designed over the course of several years where the readers basically are self-regulated. And I had the capability of stepping in as did the other editors. We could step in, and we could rate things up or down. But we weren't deleting them. We were just saying, you know, that's insightful or that's funny or else that's just name-calling. And if you have thousands of people doing that within a system, it tends to sort out. It doesn't get right every time.
MALDABut then again, when you're talking about, you know, can amount to a football stadium filled with people, all babbling simultaneously, you know, it works remarkably well. If you just go in with your filter set very controlled, you can read a story, and then you can read a number of generally quite informative comments that actually make that story better, that makes that experience of that story better for you.
NNAMDIThis is an interesting time for the media right now. Many old institutions like newspapers are trying to figure out how to survive, and they seem to view online outlets, especially outlets that aggregate their content as threats to their business model. At the same time, online platforms do allow us to read and share information in ways that would have been impossible, even five or six years ago. Now that you sit within a major media organization, what are the biggest challenges and quirks that you see?
MALDAWell, I guess I'm not scared of aggregators at all. I just think that's part of the equation. The truth is that we live in a gigantic world with thousands of publishers, and it's silly for any single publisher to think that they are the end-all, be-all for anything. I think that many publishers have areas of expertise, areas of, you know, being more qualified, you know, The Post, great about Washington, D.C. and great about politics. They don't know a lot about Michigan, which is where I live.
MALDAAnd, you know, I will find another publication that will allow me to get what I need to know about the Greater Ann Arbor area since I'm pretty sure that The Post ain't going to be telling anything about the traffic accident that occurred on the highway a mile from my house. Aggregators step in, and I still don't believe that there's an aggregator out there that really nails what it is that they ought to do.
MALDABut, you know, an aggregator, if properly tuned, if you put forth the effort -- and ultimately, this is what Twitter and Facebook are doing for most people -- is their bringing together content more suited to you personally. You know, if I get a print copy of The Washington Post on my doorstep, I don't need the business section, and I probably don't need the metro section. And excluding the Nationals, I don't need the sports section. So there's a lot of wasted paper on my page. And you know, that's -- did you get to press the cough button?
NNAMDINo. I did that.
MALDAIs that what the cough button does?
NNAMDIThat is what cough button does, but I don't press the cough button. I have a pedal on the floor.
MALDAYou have a cough pedal?
MALDAThat's awesome. Do I get a cough pedal?
NNAMDINo. You don't get a cough pedal.
MALDAOh, man. You got to be the host to get it.
NNAMDINo cough button for the guests. Just sit there and take the phone calls. Rachel in Arlington, Va. Rachel, you're on the air. Go ahead, please. Hi, Rachel. Are you there? Rachel? I'm going to put Rachel back on hold and Rachel would probably be back the next time we come back. Here is an email we got from someone who says, "It's close to useful but..." -- talking about the Social Reader. "It's close to useful, but it makes it hard to discriminate which articles I share. This misses the mark. I like the idea of Social Reader but no longer use it. Are there changes coming to Social Reader?"
MALDAYes. It's been iterating quite rapidly lately. There has been a number of changes specifically to address those concerns. The thing is that when the platform is launched, nobody really had done anything with these ideas before. It was brand new ideas, so -- and I would say that the first round of applications based on the social sharing concepts in Facebook were -- they were raw. We didn't know how people would react.
MALDAAnd we didn't know what would make sense and what they would need. I think each version has got a little bit better. I think that the current versions of Social Reader are improved, and the future versions will be more improved. We are very rapidly iterating and we -- and that's a lot of what I'm working on right now is trying to figure out what the next generation of Social Reader should be.
NNAMDIWhich is precisely what Rachel, who is with us this time, wants to ask about. Rachel, your turn.
RACHELHi, Kojo. I've been really enjoying the show this morning. I'm a local blogger for the journalists in the D.C. area. And I just had a couple of comments about what you were talking about before, about whether or not Social Reader is creepy.
RACHELI think -- I do think it's creepy. I haven't used it myself because I don't want to necessarily personally broadcast every single article I read just because I don't think it's, like, kind of too much information.
RACHELBut I do think it's interesting for the concepts of, like, trending articles. Like, if they could take anonymous data about who is reading what and what demographics and then they could say like, oh, this article is trending in this community right now, kind of like how Twitter can do that about subject areas, I think that would be more interesting to me personally.
RACHELSo that was the one comment I had. And then I also just feel like another example of people being able to have news content that really influences their day and has like a specific effect might be the example of Washington Post Express while people are commuting on the metro 'cause it's very quiet, and it's during rush hour.
RACHELAnd well, you know, like reading the Washington Post Express -- or at least I did when I was commuting on the metro and I would notice that things, you know, brought up in the Washington Post Express would appear later in my day from other sources like -- 'cause other people had read the information and they were, you know, talking about it. So, anyway, I think that's an interesting example of print doing the same thing.
NNAMDIOK. Thank you very much for your call. We also got a tweet from Tom asking about the user experience for people who want to opt out of the Social Reader on Facebook. He notes that the people who opt out are shut out from clicking through.
MALDAI don't know what the exact functionality of that is right now, but I believe -- so there was a Facebook change, and I don't think it was something that we control. But for a while, just clicking the no, like, you know, when you got the dialogue box that says, do you want to accept Social Reader or not, clicking no just directed you back to the original source. So there was no real reason to complain, although that was under that Facebook control. But I'm not sure -- I could be wrong if that's not the case right now.
NNAMDII think that was my experience. Rachel, thank you very much for your call. Our guest is Rob Malda. He is founder and former editor-in-chief of Slashdot. He's now chief strategist and editor at large at WaPo Labs. WaPo Labs is a research and development team of The Washington Post Company. Comments or questions, call us at 800-433-8850. The social networking changed the way you think about the news. 800-433-8850. I'd like to circle back to "geek culture" for a second.
NNAMDICame across a study by a group called Pingdom which broke down the age and gender distribution of 24 social networks. The study found that Slashdot is the most male-dominated site...
MALDAWe're good with ladies.
NNAMDIWith over 80 percent male users, what does that tell you? And do you think it's a problem or something that can and should be addressed?
MALDAIt's hard to say. It's hard for me to be honest about that, I think. The truth is is that Slashdot grew out of my immediate circle of friends and my immediate interests in 1997 where I was a computer science major at a college who was interested in science fiction. These tend to be male-dominated things. So -- to say nothing to the fact that in 1997, the Internet itself was far more male-dominated that it is today.
NNAMDIIs that why you called yourself CmdrTaco?
MALDAThat's why -- yeah. That's a Dave Barry reference. It's -- it was just supposed to be -- he lists restaurants that you should never take a date. So, you know, maybe that says something right there. So, yeah, Slashdot is like this self-selecting group. It's -- it can be fairly aggressive. It's about geek culture, technology, computer things, and it's largely -- somebody once told me that computer -- that Slashdot was for computer science doctorate students from the '80s. And that's, you know, that's not totally unreasonable.
NNAMDIWell, Pinterest is almost the exact opposite.
NNAMDIYeah. And Twitter and Facebook both have the same gender distribution with 40 percent of the users being male and about 60 percent female. Is that a problem?
NNAMDIFor Twitter and Facebook, you think?
MALDAI don't think it matters anymore.
NNAMDIOr for Slashdot. I mean, for Slashdot having 80 percent male, is it a problem, something you think should change?
MALDAI -- first of all, I don't work there anymore. So I don't have anything to do with it. But my general feeling on Slashdot during my tenure there was that, I guess, you dance with the date that brought you. And if I were to -- I don't know how I would make a site like Slashdot appeal more to women. It was never really on my agenda. It was news for nerds. That's not about gender or race or geo-location. That's just, if you're into the stuff, you know, come hang out.
NNAMDIWhen you helped create Slashdot, you also created a community. How does that social community compare in your mind to the community that reads The Washington Post online?
MALDAThe Washington Post online audience, I would say, would be older. They would be more densely geo-located in this particular area. However, that's dissimilar from the newspapers incredibly localized just by because it's a physical object that you have to ship. The website is far more distributed but still heavily located in the D.C. area. Slashdot was pretty -- it was definitely America in general, and it would localize around the tech centers, San Francisco Bay Area, that's -- Seattle.
MALDABut in general, it was wherever people speak English, those were the countries where you would find a reasonable penetration of Slashdot readers. I used to just sort of joke that it would -- our audience was the sys admin at every company in the world.
NNAMDIHave you noticed that there are certain Washington topics, if you will, that tend to go viral around the around the nation, maybe around the world?
MALDAI think that because Washington has politics, I think that those things tend to go viral. And I don't know that you can really fairly call a senator railing about the Internet being a series of tubes being a Washington, D.C. thing.
NNAMDII was going to ask you about that.
MALDAYeah. It's not -- that's not really a Washington, D.C. thing. That's a global silly.
MALDABut it is -- I mean, it's awesome, but I don't -- yeah, I think that D.C. really gets dominated by the politics stuff, and I think that that's unique. Like, if I were to talk to you about the Detroit politics, that -- you know, with the exception maybe of, like, Kwame Kilpatrick, people don't really know anything about it outside of Michigan. But, you know, D.C. politics, you know, it's everybody, really.
NNAMDIBy the way, is Kwame Kilpatrick in or out of jail as we speak?
MALDAI have no idea.
NNAMDIThat's the question most people usually ask me. We talked about the meme involving Sen. Ted Stevens' infamous description of the Internet as a series of tubes. What makes a certain topic or a certain idea catch on? How would you describe a day in the life of a meme?
MALDAWell, that one was just funny, and it's not an unrealistic description of the Internet. But he delivered -- the way he delivered it, that's really what it was, you know? He delivered it, like, with this fury, you know, that just made it silly, you know? Like, I don't think that -- I think 10 years ago, if you sat in a room of semi-technical people and described the Internet as a series of tubes, they would not laugh at you. It was the way he delivered it, you know?
MALDABut you have to -- so the Internet -- there are a handful of places that are like factories for manufacturing memes, and they tend to be -- as we were talking about earlier, they tend to not be the friendliest of places, although Reddit is one of the more friendly places. But if you go to places like 4chan, you know, this is not a place for casual people to wander into. But many great memes spawn from these places. It's because they really are chaos. They are the primordial soup of the Internet, in a lot of ways, but that means that there's no social nicety that can exist anymore.
NNAMDIWe've got to take a short break. When we come back, we'll continue our conversation with Rob Malda. You can call us at 800-433-8850 if you have questions or comments. Do you use social networks like Facebook or Twitter or Reddit or Slashdot? 800-433-8850, or send us a tweet, @kojo -- remember to use the #TechTuesday -- or go to our website, kojoshow.org, ask a question or make a comment there. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIIt's Tech Tuesday. Our guest is Rob Malda. He was known as CmdrTaco when he founded Slashdot.com. Now he is chief strategist and editor-at-large at WaPo Labs. That's a research and development team at The Washington Post Company. 800-433-8850. The kind of engaged community that you created at Slashdot, mainstream news organizations are working hard to build those kinds of engaged communities around their work. Can you talk about how you're working with WaPo Labs to build this kind of audience?
MALDAWell, a lot of my thinking involves trying to find smaller groups with more local interests. That's not geo local. That's, you know, subject matter local, and Slashdot is, you know, news for nerds. It's a pretty broad umbrella in the -- in one way of thinking. But if you think about all the information that's happening in the world, it's a pretty tiny subset, particularly if you add on the idea of it being the computer science doctorate student from the '80s.
MALDAI mean, it ends up being an audience which has an upper bounce, you know, of hundreds of thousands. And, you know, so even if you get a few hundred people talking in a -- in that very narrow subject matter, something valuable can come out of that. I think that that's a big key for trying to develop any focused community, is to give them -- is to give people control and let them speak to the smallest niche that they are interested in. I think that's -- those basically are the two keys right there.
NNAMDIAre there any mainstream news organizations currently that are engaging their audiences particularly well in your view?
MALDAI think everybody is kind of going about it the same way. I haven't seen anybody nailing it.
NNAMDIBack to the telephones then. Here is Nick in Fairfax, Va. Nick, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
NICKHey, CmdrTaco. How's it going?
NICKThat's one way to say it. I just wanted to kind of echo your sentiments about how memes come about and how there are some places on the Internet that may not necessarily be the safest or most palatable place in the world, but they are just these absolute powerhouses of comedy.
MALDAHere it comes.
NICKAnd, you know, so it was good to hear it.
MALDAYou're just happy that I mentioned 4chan on NPR.
NNAMDIIs that what it is?
NICKYeah, I know. (unintelligible) any kind of highlight. I think it's best that way.
NNAMDIWhence do you guys go? Nick? Oh, Nick seems to have...
MALDAHe's out of here.
NNAMDINick seems to have...
MALDAHe said his piece.
NNAMDI...have departed. We got an email from Arthur, who says, "We hear a lot about social media and readership in regards to online newspapers, but what about revenue streams? Newspapers have lost classified advertising. What is WaPo Labs doing to generate income for the newspaper? Without revenue, you can't pay for journalists."
MALDAYeah, that's kind of an open question amongst our team. Some of our projects have, you know, more of a revenue goal, and others are to provide structure or support to existing pieces or to existing businesses. The Labs team, for example, developed an identity layer, an authentication layer, essentially, that is used to now buy multiple parts of The Washington Post. That's not necessarily revenue, but it's a piece that multiple services needed that we were able to develop.
MALDANow, in the case of something like Social Reader, you can do -- you can try display ads, which is fine, and you can try more exotic partnerships, which is also fine. But I think that's part of what's interesting to me about the Labs is that we can actually try stuff, and some of the projects have been more about partnerships. For example, right now, we have a thing, the Root 100, which is basically to make a bunch of Android apps targeted around a list of 100 famous people from The Root.
MALDAAnd that was all built on technology that we had -- that we've developed in the Labs team, but it's really kind of a partnership with another organization. It's an organization that we happen to, you know, be owned by or has the same parent, so we had a little bit more flexibility. But as a prototype, it was an interesting experiment.
NNAMDICan you talk a little in general terms about the goals of WaPo Labs? Ideally, how does the development team want a user to interact with content?
MALDAWell, that's -- that depends on the project. Some of our projects don't really have user phase in components at all. Now, in the case of something like Social Reader, the existing application is really designed just around trying to get you to read something and allowing Facebook to handle kind of the publicity side of it.
MALDAThe, you know, Facebook will break the traffic in, and then, you know, once you're there, hopefully, we can provide too an interesting reading experience and maybe find you something else interesting. But that's a very different use case than something like The Root 100 or other projects that I'm not naming.
NNAMDII've noticed The Washington Post just launched an Election Hackathon, and you were selected to be the judge. Until recently, hacking was a little bit of a dirty word, but a number of organizations, like...
MALDAThat makes me sad.
NNAMDI...Code for America, the Sunlight Foundation, are trying to harness the civic mindedness, if you will, of geeks. How significant is that?
MALDAWell, first, let me say that Hackathon's -- hack is not a dirty word.
NNAMDIWas it ever?
MALDAIt was taken by certain people...
MALDA...and misused. Hacking has, amongst computer nerds, really always been, you know, let's go hack on something. It's not a negative. I think the media popularized it as a negative term. But -- so, yeah, Hackathon is -- it just means let's pull an all-nighter and do something crazy. I mean, that's -- it's not about breaking into banks. It's not -- you don't -- going to get Matthew Broderick and you're going to set off some kind of -- what was the bomb called in that movie?
MALDAAnyway, so -- yeah, so the API Hackathon is -- I mean, I'm judging it, but they've got a bunch of different APIs that they've put out. And, like, I guess, one of them is access to the White House visitor's log, and another one has to do with campaign contributions. And there's a few other APIs. And that, I mean, it's just, you know, take a few days, and can you make something interesting?
NNAMDIHow would you define API?
MALDAAn application programming interface. It's a set of rules that lets two programs talk to each other. So one program knows everything about the White House visitor's log. My program knows nothing about the White House visitor's log. But if it knows how to talk to your program that does, hopefully we can make something neat together.
NNAMDIDevelopers from The Washington Post and The New York Times recently won a $2 million award from the Knight Foundation as winners of their data challenge. That money will go towards creating an open data source for election results. How have technological developments changed the way news organizations are reporting on the election, say, in comparison to 2008?
MALDAI think that we're seeing -- to me, 2012 is, in fact, different than 2008. It's just the logical progression. I think that in 2004 or 2008, we really saw a huge shift. What's interesting now is how it's taken for granted. Every -- in fact, it's maybe even to a certain extent it's become cheesy, you know, like nobody actually thinks that Romney and Obama are tweeting. You know, they probably got like a department of tweets.
MALDAYou know, it's part of the message. And, you know, that's kind of -- I don't know. It's kind of different than what I think people would like to think. I mean, if you see me tweet, it's me that typed it. If you -- even Justin Bieber probably writes his own tweets. But, you know, when you see politicians, you know, you kind of feel like that's going through -- you know, the big ones anyway, it's going to their machine. It's -- that it's become -- it's taken for granted now. It's just part of the process.
NNAMDIWe got a tweet from Raymond, who said, "Where do you see libraries, public and/or academic libraries, in relation to the future of news consumption and dissemination?"
MALDAI was trying to think at the last time I've been to a library. I'd -- it just seems like now that portable computing is getting so cheap, you talked about, you know, a Kindle, you know, I don't know what a library is anymore. And it's not to say it doesn't serve a purpose. I mean, it's nice to be able to go to a place and have a terminal. But, I mean, I don't need that physical book that has to be, you know, on -- in a stack somewhere. I can find that by other means.
NNAMDII have to warn you. Tomorrow, we're talking with the chief librarian of the District of Columbia, Ginnie Cooper, so you'd...
MALDA...better hightail it out here fast before she shows up.
MALDAAll right. I'll try. I'll run.
NNAMDIGoogle Plus has been a running joke in many circles.
MALDAI love Google Plus.
NNAMDIIt just hasn't caught on the way Twitter and Facebook has.
NNAMDIBut you're saying we should still give Google Plus a chance. You love it.
NNAMDIWhy is that?
MALDAOK. I have a little bit of an unfair bias because I launched -- I started with Google Plus on the day it launched, and then all of my friends from Slashdot joined me there. And so then I left Slashdot. So now all my friends from Slashdot are still with me on Google Plus, so I can still talk to my old friends through it. I feel like Google Plus is kind of inevitable, but also Google Plus, in a lot of ways, represents an opportunity for people to reboot, people who started using Facebook five, six, seven years ago.
MALDAIn the early era of Facebook, they would just blindly accept friend requests, which led to people having, you know, 1,000 people on their Facebook friends, which is not a private thing anymore. My Facebook -- the bulk of my Facebook posts are pictures of my kids, so I don't generally accept. If a random stranger tries to do a friend request to me on Facebook, I'm not going to accept it.
NNAMDIGood for you.
NNAMDII limit my friends to people I know.
MALDAYeah, the handshake rule. Yeah. And I think that's -- that -- so, to a certain extent, Google Plus was an opportunity to reboot, you know, to start over for people who had too much -- I think, technically, it's a cool system. I think that it's built-in to so many of the tools that I use on a regular basis. Unfortunately, the network effect is pretty powerful. And trying to get my mother-in-law and mother to try to get pictures of their grandkids via Google Plus just ain't going to happen any time soon. It drives me nuts.
NNAMDIWe're interested in how you filter through the massive amount of information available on the Web. For example, you say you're a big user of Google Reader.
NNAMDICan you tell us about what platforms, word choice you use to digest information online and why?
MALDAYeah, Google Reader is my dominant source of information. But Google Reader requires a lot of effort on the part of the user in order to get good use out of it. And it also has a problem of you are ultimately opting in to all news, whereas with Twitter, you do have to opt in to, you know, your Twitter followers or Facebook, you're opting in. But then each of those individual nodes in your graph can theoretically pull in stuff from further away.
MALDABut, generally speaking, with -- in Google Reader, if I subscribe to TechCrunch, you know, I get TechCrunch stories. And if I subscribe to CNN, I get CNN stories. The Post gives me Post stories. It doesn't -- that ecosystem isn't constantly being renewed with fresh sources unless I'm actively seeking out new sources day by day. So that -- I mean, both Twitter and Google Reader, they suffer from the same problem that just -- it just takes so much work in order to get good results.
MALDAIf you do put that effort forth, then you actually are in a pretty awesome place because I can read. I mean, I probably read 1,000 headlines a day that brings me, you know, a few dozen articles that I actually want to read, but they are often from sources that I would never predict. There's no way in the universe I'm going to read all of these random blogs, but through all the networks of people sharing links, they land in my inbox.
NNAMDIYou said in an NYU panel discussion, quoting here, "I don't think I've read a single homepage in 10 or 12 years, and I don't know why anybody else would." In your opinion, are many users just using the Internet inefficiently?
MALDAWell, I think that in a lot of ways that's why you see Twitter and Facebook. I think that the casual user is capable of reading two or three homepages, maybe four or five if they're really into it. But wouldn't you rather just get the six articles that are interesting to you?
MALDAYeah. All right. It just -- it seems like a lot of work to read a homepage, you know, with the, you know, I don't care about the Metro section. I don't care about football. You know, show me the story about baseball, and show me the story, you know, about the three things I do care about. It's a lot of effort, and I think people are busy. Yeah.
NNAMDIAnd I'm afraid that's all the time we have. Rob Malda is founder and former editor-in-chief of Slashdot. He's now chief strategist and editor-at-large at WaPo Labs, which is a research and development team at The Washington Post Co. Rob Malda, thank you very much for joining us. Good luck to you.
NNAMDIAnd thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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