August 30, 2002

Slashdot: News for nerds, stuff that matters

I remember. When I was a kid, there was this great desire in me to learn. I was one of those kids whose hands itched whenever they saw screws, bolts, clips and any other mechanism that allowed you to take a peek. Toys were amusing. They did their part of entertainment, but then they also provided great mechanisms to open and play with. I loved simple toys, not because I like simple things, but because they were ingenious and used simple hacks to come up with brilliant mechanisms.

Then I grew up, and this craze to know stuff got translated into reading technical stuff. Reading about obscure things became a passion, a fashion. Things mundane were out, exotic was in. Things that were worth reading were either the too big or the too small. Deep Space or the string theory. Anything else was mere time-pass. And anything remotely emotional / human was - bah.

Then I grew up a bit more. And I started reading Slashdot. This was a take on the words 'slash' and 'dot' used as part of any standard URL that is pronounced. Today I will introduce you to slashdot and will introduce you to some of the people who reside on this online space. And I will also talk about something slashdot is proliferating, in the sphere of self moderated expression.

Slashdot (henceforth known as /.) is a news link posting site. This site has a huge fan following, which it has built over the years. Now these users of this site submit stories, as and when they happen all over the world. There are a set of authors of the site, who go through all the submissions and choose the ones more suited to be published on the site. Typically something between 10 and 20 stories get posted in a day. The idea of the site is not to be an exhaustive collection of links, or to be a detailed discussion on various topics. The site couldn't care less about such objective. The site is driven by a need to make a good omlette of news links each day, which makes sense and generates interest in all sections of its diverse users.

So how does this work. Imagine. There are millions of eyeballs, who are reading a similar number of sites and stories all the time. Anything that happens is immediately sent as a story to /. And stories are accepted within hours. Thus each day, there are a host of stories, related to various categories of interest to the nerds, at one place. The efficacy of the system is such that, Slashdot starts becoming a starting place for people to check up on important happennings, rather than keep track of hundreds of news services for anything remotely interesting or spectacular or out of the ordinary.

The aim of posting such news links on the site is not just to provide work as a clearing house for links. Slashdot provides for discussions amongst the members on the various stories that are posted. Although this is commonplace now, slashdot was one of the pioneers of this method of discussion boards. And by-far it remains one of the most powerful mechanisms of self-regulated online discussions. We will talk about the method of moderation soon.

The moderation of Slashdot is a two step affair, carried out entirely by the user community. The first level of moderation is the moderation, done by the moderators. The second round of moderators is the meta-moderation, done by the community to the moderation of moderators. Now the best part of this two step moderation is that none of these moderators and meta-moderators are not fixed. They are dynamically selected and allocated tasks automatically. This happens like this.

Moderators are selected randomly from the entire set of serious users (seriousness is tracked and kept record of). Each such selected user is given 5 points which he can use to moderate user comments. A comment can be moderated positively or negatively. Positive moderations are more visible to other users (users can view messages according to the moderations) Thus better and more important messages are seen by a greater number of people.

These moderators are automatically checked by the meta-moderators. Every metamoderators is given 10 moderations each day and asked to rate it as fair and unfair. This not only corrects any errors, but also reflects on the fairness of the moderators and will decide when they will be given moderator status next time.

Hence the entire setup is a great experiment on the self moderation capability of online communities. So far, so good, (so what).

I will talk about the kind of people on slashdot, in another post.

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