by Rob Malda

Why do some communities gain traction and others don’t? What makes a simple forum become a cesspool of spam and hate? Based on my experience as the founder of Slashdot, I have a few ideas.

Let’s begin at the beginning (a very good place to begin!) and talk about the start of my decade-plus stint at Slashdot: a forum that grew up in the early days of the web, born on a server that lived under my desk at my day job, and grew to having millions of daily users.

At the start, Slashdot was an extension of my living room. I was active in IRC chatrooms. I lurked on numerous Linux and tech mailing lists. I frequented usenet. And Slashdot reflected all of these things. With our “News For Nerds” mantra, we had a unifying theme: a close focus that proved essential in deciding what content deserved amplification, and what simply needed to be ignored.

In 1997, the amount of content on the internet was a fraction of what we see today. Blogging was a few years in the future. Tweeting was even further off. Content was organically created by individuals, but mostly lived in difficult and obscure corners of the net. The mainstream produced content, but unlike today, most publications put only a small percentage of their words online, instead saving the “Best” for their various dead-tree editions. But Slashdot still rose in an era where the amount of online content was far beyond the ability of most individuals to consume it.

Slashdot provided a valuable service: we trimmed down the most valuable content within our subject to a single reading list that was easily consumable in snack-sized portions throughout the day. Nerds on their coffee breaks began to frequent us. Readers came to us because they knew me directly – my roommates, my classmates, fellow lurkers on dozens of mailing lists on message boards, all of whom had one or more of a few things in common: a passion for open source software, a desire to mess around with technology, a love of the internet, and a healthy dose of interest in things like science fiction and tinkering. Our audience was among the first to experience the digital distraction created by having a near-permanent connection to the internet, and Slashdot provided them the perfect way to live that more fully.

Initially our story selection process heavily used email: getting a story onto the Slashdot main page required emailing it to my personal email address. You were not filling out a generic web form, you were contacting a real person with a pseudonym “CmdrTaco”, and replies were coming from this same person. This had a completely unintentional side effect of creating a real bond between myself and many of our early users.

Further, as the discussions on Slashdot began to grow, I was routinely the person who was reading the vast majority of the posts. While I wasn’t the most active contributor, my voice was there. As other friends joined me on the production side of the site, they too would post and engage directly with our users in our public forums. This is something sorely missing from most every major online discussion system today: a commenter is someone who has just read a 700-word piece from a journalist that sparked enough passion to warrant a reply… and that reply is all too often ignored or unseen by the original writer. Or worse, only engaged with by a fellow user who fails to connect because their replies are illinformed, naive, or even malicious!

Fortunately for Slashdot, I never needed to simulate activity. This is a path that others have experimented with to varying degrees of success. Perhaps most famously, in its early days, Reddit used fake, aka sockpuppet accounts to populate its pages in order to make them seem active. Nobody wants to hang around in a deserted graveyard, but doing this can can cause problems for you later. If your audience is reasonably conspiratorial, this sort of activity could be interpreted as fraudulent. And you can only simulate so much: a link dropped quickly onto Reddit is not the same as a flesh-and-blood mind intelligently replying to a comment. That sort of activity can’t (currently) be faked, and it is precisely that sort of thing that makes a community transcend from random posts on a web page to something more substantial.

Your first few hundred users are very likely active participants – but what happens next is crucial to the success or failure of your community. In my next piece, I’ll talk about some of the things to expect as your community starts getting traction beyond a tight core.

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Slashdot logo via Wikimedia 

Rob “CmdrTaco” Malda is the creator and user #1 of the popular News for Nerds site He spent many fruitful years there developing some of the first large scale community driven discussion systems, and crowd sourced news systems. After more than a decade he left and since logged some time working for the Washington Post Labs, and developing a news app known as Trove.