from the finally! dept.
When I contacted CowboyNeal just as SoylentNews launched a year ago, I never expected a response. A few others tried to get a hold of him, but I was successful eventually. He was polite, but mentioned that he didn't have much free time to hang around on the site. A year later, I sent him another email; though still quite busy, he agreed to do an interview.
It's been quite some time since we asked for your questions, but I'm happy to announce that the responses are finally here. What follows is the email I received in it's entirety:
Read the responses from CowboyNeal past the break:
Again, sorry this took so long. Thanks so much for your patience.
0. Current state of Slashdot
by an Anonymous Coward
"What is your opinion about the path Slashdot has taken lately?"
With regards to story selection, I actually think it's gotten better in the past year or so. I've started reading it again from time to time. A long time went by when I didn't check the site at all and lurked Ars and HackerNews instead. Is it as great as it once was? No, but more stories seem to be things I find interesting again.
1. Future of collaborative moderated conversation
"What insights or thoughts do you have on 'next level' ideas in this area and what kinds of tech/developments/usage would that require/inspire?"
The moderation system wasn't something I was very involved with during my time at Slashdot, so I haven't really thought about this in a long time. I wish I had some great insight to offer, but I don't.
2. Poll Option
"You like being a poll option on /. polls? Want to be a poll option on SN polls?"
"What's the story behind you being a default if often humorous poll option at /.?"
Chris DiBona just started it one day when he was in charge of making the polls. I don't know if the first few were well received or not, but he kept it up regardless. After he left Slashdot, Tim Lord took over polls and kept up the tradition. I would say I don't care either way, but that's not entirely true. Sometimes I read whatever option has me in it and giggle a little, so I guess I like it. Mostly because the options are things I've never done in real life, so I like to imagine there's this other me out there who does all kinds of crazy stuff. Sort of like The Most Interesting Man in the World, but instead, the Nerdiest Dude in the World. He's sitting there in his smoking jacket and looks at the camera while he types "make" on his wearable computer and says, "Keep compiling, my friends."
If SoylentNews wishes to include me in their polls, go right ahead, I don't charge royalties.
"Honestly, how many articles were slashvertisements, assuming you know the truth. I think there was a schedule for a couple months on Tuesday afternoons to post e-ink promotional articles complete with astro-turfed responses. Same as above, assuming you know the truth, did we really land on the moon and who killed JFK?"
I can't speak for every editor, but I know that I personally didn't post any ads disguised as stories, and to my knowledge, no one else did either. That might have changed since I moved on, but I haven't seen or know of any evidence to the contrary. We were often accused of playing favorites with certain submitters, but I know that in my case, it was usually due to laziness or a lack of other good submissions at the time. Submitters that appear a lot, appear a lot because their submissions are well-written and require little to no editing, and sometimes things that might normally be considered out of the scope of the site would get posted, just because they were written up halfway decently. I worked a lot of night shifts when the submission bin was low on content, and I was always glad to see submissions come in from people like Hugh Pickens and prostoalex, because it was one less story I had to find for the night.
I'm pretty sure that we actually did land on the moon, but I haven't been there myself to verify it. However, I have no clue who really killed JFK.
4. Groupie Story
"Give us your best slashdot groupie story that the statute of limitations has run out on by now. If you still can't tell, then make one up."
"Tell a hell of a good story, preferably true, about the olden days, aside from the request for groupie stories, that you haven't told or at least isn't common knowledge that has something to do with /. Funny, interesting, insightful, gossipy hell how bout one of each."
I got a lot of hugs on the con circuit, but as for anything crazy like snorting coke off a groupie's back, that never happened, because I'm just too boring in real life. I do remember one story from shortly after we were first acquired, though.
This was back immediately after the sale to Andover.Net. For the first time there was real money backing us. The site wasn't actually making any money, but that didn't matter, because we were on The Internet, and stuff on the internet was automatically sought after because it was on The Internet. Andover had brought over Robin Miller, so that for once we would have an editor with actual experience on site, and we had our first round of paid editors on the site. One of those was Emmett Plant. It was decided to have an onsite meeting, so we could meet Robin and Emmett in person at our office, which at the time was still located in a duplex. Those of us who worked in the office every day all lived in adjacent units, so our commutes were pretty short.
Even though we were newly acquired, we still weren't used to having a company backing us, so the whole ordeal was done on the cheap. I went and picked up Emmett from the airport myself, and instead of putting him in a hotel, he crashed on my sofa at night. To be fair, it was a really comfortable couch for sleeping on. I had laid on it myself before I bought it, and it was one of the main selling points of an otherwise pretty ordinary looking sofa.
While we would find a lot of ways to burn through IPO money in the years to come, for that meeting our big dinner out was at an Applebee's and we cooked our own lunch on a grill in front of the garage. In the middle of the week, Emmett managed to catch the flu and was pretty miserable. I tried my best to make him comfortable, but I was a single guy living in a sparsely furnished duplex, so I felt pretty bad for him. It seemed like he was doomed to spend most of the week sitting on my couch and watching TV next to a box of tissues.
However, when I came downstairs the next morning, Emmett was there, and totally over his flu. He had slept all night and gotten over the worst of it with the quickness. He attributed his speedy recovery to my sofa, and thereafter it was known as "The Magic Healing Couch." When we would meet up again at conventions or in the Andover office, after we'd introduce ourselves to other people, he'd mention, "well, CowboyNeal does own a Magic Healing Couch" and it was a fun in-joke that went on for a while.
Eventually the couch got old and the legs fell off it and I had to get rid of it, but I like to think it's healing whatever landfill it ended up in.
5. Scoring Systems
"What are your thoughts on the various scoring systems used by sites like Slashdot, SoylentNews, and reddit, and the tradeoffs between them? Related: the ways these sites can be structured (for instance, some subreddits reliably generate good discussion). Slashdot and SoylentNews both allow ACs, and both see endless streams of crap from ACs, along with the occasional worthwhile comment. reddit forbids ACs, but make account-creation extremely easy. Is there a way to 'win' here? I presume there is not. Do you support Slashdot's policy of forbidding both moderating and commenting in a given thread? [SoylentNews allows both currently]
(Sorry if this seems a bit contrived or scattered, but I figure you're in a good position to comment on this general sort of thing.)"
The main problem I see with most if not all moderation systems is that over time it tends to develop a hive-mind sort of mentality, where if you go against the majority opinion, even if it's for a good reason, you're seen as a troll and moderated down. Of course I don't have a solution for distinguishing that from actual trolling, therein lies the problem. I think that subreddits usually suffer from this less because they might be hidden under the surface a bit, so the people that find them had to put in a little effort to get there.
I support Slashdot's policy, only because I've seen the logs of it being abused, but I don't think that it's necessarily the best practice everywhere, it's just what worked better for Slashdot.
6. Device of Choice
"When sitting at a desk, what is your device of choice and what OS is on it?"
Depends on what I'm doing. I use PCs still, but I run Debian when I want to get work done, and Windows 7 when I want to play games. Linux gaming has come a long way, but if it gets much better it's going to kill my productivity.
7. Your words of advice and caution
"Slashdot was an amazing site when it first started and had quite a long life. Given your experiences with that success what words of advice and caution would you give to the SolyentNews community? Also thanks for all the hard work you put into Slashdot! The early days were evident it was a labor of love and many shared in that journey!"
I haven't spent a lot of time on SoylentNews, but from what I've seen, you've got a nice little community going already, which is no easy task. So, kudos for that. I only have two pieces of conflicting advice:
1. Listen to your users. Users are the lifeblood of any site, and if they're not happy, they will make sure you know about it. 2. Don't listen to your users. They don't really know what they want, and they won't tell you what they like when you give it to them.
They go hand in hand because there is often a vocal minority that expresses their extreme displeasure at some facet of your site. Some will see it as a personal affront that The Thing They Care About isn't being immediately addressed. The hard part is discerning who to listen to and when. Sometimes, despite your best research, and your best intuition, you'll still make the wrong call. Transparency certainly helps here, but not as much as you'll wish it did.
Best wishes for your future, SoylentNews.
8. All over again
"If you had to do it all over again, what, if any, changes would you make to /. to make it better?"
Unfortunately, "better" is a subjective term. I always enjoyed Slashdot's original content the most, but it's not what brings in the most page-views either. Other people would rather only discuss news, etc. More online events would have been good as well. We stopped doing regular IRC forums, but they were always fun. A Slashdot Quake or Team Fortress server might have been fun to try, or a Slashdot guild in WoW or some other MMO. None of those things bring in revenue directly though, so while fun and possibly building a sense of community, no one upstairs at the company will ever appreciate them. Oh yeah, and even though I wasn't involved with it in any fashion, I would still give away a Slashdot-themed car, just not a PT Cruiser. My mom drives a PT Cruiser, so I know they're not cool.
"Yay or nay and detail why!"
"I think that should be: SysV init, systemd or CowboyNeal?"
I know this is unpopular, but I don't mind systemd. I've been using it for a while now and it's worked well for me. YMMV though, and I do think it's too bad that most distros force their init choice on you, rather than letting you choose. Choice is why most people get into using Unix/Linux/BSD anyway. There's so much to choose from.
10. Hi CowboyNeal,
"Only one question; vi or emacs?"
vi, specifically vim.
11. Gaming Thoughts
"Back when your site was up I noticed you clocked in a lot of hours gaming on Steam, particularly with MMOs like LOTR Online. Given that this genre is apparently a favourite of yours, what are your thoughts about the oft-repeated accusations that MMOGs have, in recent years, become excessively dumbed-down, formulaic, or otherwise stale?"
I really need to make an effort to get my site back up, so firstly, thanks for the heads up. I don't have as much time as I used to, to play MMOs anymore, but they were definitely a love of mine for a long time.
I don't think the genre has gone entirely stale, but I do think that most developers are afraid to stray very far from the WoW formula at this point, because of what a runaway success it was. However at the same time, that formula is over ten years old now, so without some changes, it can't help but feel a little stale.
In terms of dumbing-down, I think most of the big MMOs have tried to lower the skill floor, so that new or casual players can jump in easier. I used to put 30-40 hours a week into an MMO easy, but without players like me around anymore, they need to do something to attract more players. In a perfect game, that's still okay, so long as the skill ceiling is still somewhere reasonable, but the definition of what is reasonable is rather subjective. Does it mean that the game should require 100 hours of play for someone to become skilled at it? Or should it be easier so that when you group up with other players, the chances of the group being able to complete content is increased? The answer is subjective and really depends on the goals of the developers. I'm sure if I still played WoW or LotRO for 30-40 hours a week I'd have very strong opinions about where the bar should be set.
12. Ancient Times
"If you look back to 2001, and compare how the life of slashdot actually is compared to what you had dreamed, did it come close?"
Definitely. The later years involved a lot of trying things that didn't always work out, but that was always done on top of a news discussion site, which was always the central goal.
13. Could you Create Slashdot Today?
"The Internet that we see today is dramatically different from what existed when Slashdot was launched in 1997. The corporatization and commercialization of so much on the 'net has changed it from the free and easy, wild west place that some of us remember, and we're now at a point where pretty much everyone, from all walks of life, is on the 'net in some fashion, instead of just the nerds, geeks, and techheads that were hanging out back then.
The culture of the 'net defined early projects like Slashdot, and the kind of people who were early users led directly to the still brilliant Slashdot moderation system, and to every attempt at commenting and moderation that followed. Arguably almost all post-Usenet conversation on the 'net is influenced by what Slashdot created. Do you think that Slashdot could be created today? And is it fair to also look at the site as an important historical artifact?"
I don't think we could create Slashdot today, at least not with the momentum we had over 15 years ago now. We benefited from the fact that a lot of early internet users shared our interests. These days when more people are online, people looking for news articles of a technical nature are a smaller piece of the pie, and a site that automatically limits itself to a niche audience is a much tougher sell. A lot of the other news sites that were around back then are gone now, and only a few still remain. I think it's fair to look at the site as a historical artifact, because a lot of days I wake up and I feel like one.
"I'm the one who put most of the work in on getting SoylentNews playing nicely with UTF-8 characters, so I got to see that most of the code and external modules (HTML::TreeBuilder aside) were already UTF-8 friendly. In fact a large part of what I had to do was to strip out things that intentionally made UTF-8 characters not work. Why did you guys never get Slashdot on the UTF-8 bandwagon? Philosophical decision or were the perl versions you had to work with at the time just not up to snuff?"
UTF-8 just wasn't really ever a priority. That may have been due to the version of Perl we were using at the time, but I think it was mostly due to apathy, and other projects having more importance. It took us years to even make a site that served up HTML that would pass a validator, just because it wasn't a priority. I don't think there was ever an internal mandate that we hated UTF-8, but at the same time we didn't see a burning need to support it either.
I've got something real special for you guys today. Jonathan Pater, better known to most people as CowboyNeal, has agreed to do an interview with us. Given the source, we're going to do this in the "Slashdot-style" (for want of a better term) where you can post your questions below, we'll select our favorites and pass them on to him. Though he is quite busy, we've got the CowboyNeal account reserved for him just in case, so if you see it posting, know that's the real deal.
I'd also like to thank mrcoolbp for getting in contact with CowboyNeal, and recommend everyone thank him for helping setting up this opportunity. Now, let's get those questions going folks!
Note: Feel free to ask multiple questions, but please: only one question per post.