It's been a long while since I wrote one of these, and well, to say things are depressing is very much an understatement. It's been over eight years since we first went online, and the world has literally changed several times over. Presidential elections, a global pandemic, war in Europe, and well, we've been here through it all. It's a testament to our staying power that SN has remained online through it all, as a volunteer and community driven project.
That's not to say it's all been good news though ...
About two years ago, I de-facto resigned from the project after internal conflicts, and SoylentNews has slowly been rotting to death. To say the state of the backend is bad is very much an understatement. I found the SN emails were on spam blocklists, and well, I won't even talk about the state of the software ATM. It's holding together mostly out of the sheer amount of overengineering, and good intentions. The last major overhaul was I did when the site was migrated to rehash 7 years ago ... yeah it's been awhile ...
At this point, I think we need to talk about where we're going, because its either going to be long slow painful death, an execution, or an attempted comeback tour. This is your host NCommander, and today, we're going to look towards the future ...
What Happened to NCommander
I guess I should start with what happened to me, since I was head of the project, and I essentially disappeared. For those who knew me, I went through some serious life problems from 2016-2019; I was still active on Soylent's IRC, but I was very much one degree removed from the project. I did write things up like talking about my time as a ICANN fellow, and screwing around with Windows 1.0 SDK, but it was very much a hands off thing. Even at that point, the backend was very much starting to show its age in the years since it first went online. However, there were a few things in the background that was threatening to brew over.
When we launched in 2014, SoylentNews was promised as a baston of free speech, and essentially a testament of the Internet of the early 90s. It was the Slashdot we all remembered, freed from corporate interests that had forced the beta interface. I actually spent a bunch of time documenting what I remember of the SoylentNews launch on my own wiki here, but if you want to remember what lead to the foundation of this site, gaze upon the eye of the beta interface and despair. The end result of this was the SoylentNews Manifesto, essentially our touchstone document of our core values and such. I was 26 when I wrote that document. The Snowden leaks had just happened, and well, the biggest threat on the horizon was the idea of mass censorship. I had, somewhat naively, had assumed that, given a choice, people won't willingly listen to misinformation. Then I saw the Trump presidency first hand, combined with active efforts to lie and distort the truth about a global pandemic, and leading up to the Capitol Riots on January 6th, 2021. From today, it's been eight years since I put pen to paper, and I've had a long time to think about those words.
By and large, while I don't disagree with the principles of what SN was founded on, I've been forced to admit that this has had a lot of undesirable consequences. As the Trump presidency continued, the signal to noise ratio began to drop on the site like a stone. I remember that, at times, this site sometimes felt like reading /b/ more than anything else, and was having serious concerns with the state of the community by 2017-2018. However, there were two major factors that stopped me for doing anything: first, I felt bound my own words, and second, there were members of the staff who preferred to keep things as is.
By and large, volunteer projects depend on the organization have a core set of ethics. While SoylentNews is, simply put, a success story in volunteer collaboration, I'm the one who set the direction in which staff followed. This was true when I took ownership of the project from John, and when we were all at mrcoolbp having a BBQ celebrating our road to incorporation. Even though I haven't been active on SN in years at this point, you can still see the impressions in the clay that have lasted over the better part of a decade. However, this has never been a one man show. Several members of the staff, primarily those who helped maintain the backend, felt that the status quo was better. I could have forced the issue, but I would have likely ended up alienated both staff and the community over it. As such, I just began to silently slide into the background from 2017 onward.
As I continued to move forward in my life well, I began to have the benefit of hindsight. Towards late 2015, and early 2016, I got picked up by Mixer (then called Beam), and created the Faster-Than-Light streaming protocol, redefining the standard of what was possible for video streaming. I then found my way working with whistleblowers, and doing a stint of policy work with ICANN. It's given me the benefit of hindsight, and a lot of wisdom that 2014 didn't me did have. I also struggled with constant health issues. In 2019, I made the decision to try and cross the United States by bike (which I documented on my second channel, Restless Yankee. I started that trip in March of 2020; no points guessing how that ended :)
It's hard to summarize my feelings about the site at that time. By and large, I felt like SN had been a well intended, although ultimately misguided effort to make the world better, and the state of the comments section reinforced that. However, that changed in 2020, with the pandemic. Medical misinformation was rampant on SN, and there were several large fights about this in staff-only IRC channel. I was essentially outnumbered; there were too many people who wanted the toxic waste dump. So I resigned. Or well, intended to. I wrote a fairly lengthily resignation letter, and staged it for release on SoylentNews, and looked at disentangling myself from the PBC that owns the site. For various reasons, I never put it public, although it was briefly leaked.
In the end, the result was the same. I left SoylentNews, and focused on my own YouTube channel, and started building my own community built around the lessons learned from the SN era of my life. By and large, I've succeeded beyond my wildest dreams.
But while I was off doing this, things were changing here.
What Happened In the Interim
Well, as it turns out, I left some very large shoes to fill, and my frustrations about the site didn't fall on deaf ears. I won't go through the full details; for one, I wasn't here, but problems relating to spam, misinformation, and more continued to grow. As before, the people who actually understood how the very legacy Slashdot.org derived codebase worked in were in favor of letting the site continue as is, while those, like janrinok, were beginning to reach a breaking point. I'll skip ahead to the punchline, the staff ended anonymous posting on the main page, which was a major departure from our initial promises
To say there was backlash is very much an understatement. When the dust settled, there were a small number of staff, mostly editors, left, who continued valiantly on for the next two years as the site slowly began to fall apart without maintenance. It's a testament to how much effort was put in both by the original Slashdot crew, and those of us who worked on rehash that it basically stayed up despite no one watching it, but it's starting to reach a breaking point. I took a look at the state of things earlier today. It's *bad*. To put it bluntly, SN's backend was always maintained on what could be described as "best effort", and there were some deferred maintenance issues piling up when I stepped away.
It's now two years later ...
Fortunately, simply because when we launched SN, we were forced on an obsolete stack, I did an obscene amount of machine hardening; the entire thing is running in an AppArmored bubble, and I left a stupid amount of notes on how it all worked. Add to that Slashdot was very the tech site of the 1990s and 2000s, and you have a pretty tough nut to crack. The pile of Perl running this site is old enough to drink. However, we've piled up a large amount of technical debt. By and large, this is not a sustainable situation, but at least for the time being its livable if someone put in the necessary TLC to make it keep going.
So the question is, what comes next?
Since moving off from SN, I've been working to actively preserve pieces of history; for example, through a community effort taking place mostly on my Discord, we've seen AIX for Itanium get archived, and even restored to the point we have a working copy of GCC. This was one of the centerpieces of the SCO v. IBM lawsuites of the early 90s, and was a huge focus point for Groklaw. The legendary Project Monterey; preserved for future generations, and I was there when it happened. We've also worked to save versions of Banyan VINES, and I'm even hosting a "Slow Computing Speedrun" as we speak, which, among other things, has someone with a genuine PDP-10 being livestreamed at this moment! You could say it's been an interesting time ...
Recently, I was talking about SoylentNews, and what I could remember relating it being forked from Slashdot, which I was urged to write in a public channel. The discussion basically boiled down to "how often do you get to siphon a large amount of the Slashdot old guard". This lead to a bunch of volunteers to write an entire page relating to this sites history; and as many notable things as I could remember over the last eight years. The full log has been saved here, but I'll give you some samples:
On Slashdot Beta
- N: So, some context, Slashdot was formed in the very early 90s by CmdrTaco, and CowboyNeal, pretty much the first tech news of the early Internet
- N: was in the days of the dotcom boom, and it got handed over probably a dozen times; it was an Internet landmark, like SourceForge, or Tucows was
- N: Eventually Slashdot got acquired by DICE Enterainment, after a very long period of changing hands
- N: Like all the original editors were gone
- BCD: I wanna say it was right-leaning? Hated microsoft and loved open-source
- N: DICE had made a lot of unpopular changes, but the straw that broke the camels back was "Beta"
- N: Like it was this horrid whitespace meme; it turned a very information dense site into a wordpress block...It was like if every page of the print New York Times was double spaced.
On soylentnews.org being held hostage
- N: John [the original founder] had actually blackmailed us. And sold the soylentnews.org domain without giving it to staff
- N: Matt Angel bought it for 3k (https://soylentnews.org/article.pl?sid=14/03/10/1129232/)
- N: Right, [I] forced him out, and then he sold the domain
- N: fucking hell this is a story
- N: Anyway, Matt basically was our venture captilist, and I was the CTO
- N: And I basically said "we're going to incorporate this, and we're going to do it right"
- N: and we did
- N: Fitting, that we got our incorporation papers back on July 4th
On upgrading the code to mod_perl 2
- N: This is not something you do lightly. Like, this is a fucking effort
- N: This was the itch I couldn't let stand
- N: I said at the beginning "we're going to do that"
- N: and that was the last major thing I did in that code base
After finishing that interview, I ended up taking a much closer look at the state of the site, and found myself immensely depressed. This is how it ends? With a wimper? Nah. I've made an entire career out of doing the fucking impossible. This site is proof of it. So, here I am again, preparing to step once again into the breach ...
The Road To Dawn
Just because of how much time I spent on it, I refuse to let SoylentNews die a slow painful death, but I also don't want to be in the position where I'm going to have to maintain it as a one man show indefinitely. 8 years ago, we built this community ex nilihio in a week. I can find the time to at least get us back to serviceable. Right now, I'm probably looking at many hours of work ahead of me, but there's a silver lining. I do a lot of charity livestreaming on cursed and vintage technology.
So, why not livestream it? The honest truth is a lot of people like to watch me suffer excessively, and this is going to be a test of patience beyond anything else. It will also (hopefully) bring a lot of fresh eyes looking towards SoylentNews, and perhaps teach some people on what it takes to keep a 30 year old codebase going. It's literally an artifact of a bygone era, one that is, rather depressingly, disappearing before our eyes. However, there's a bigger thing I need to look at.
February will mark our ninth anniversary, and frankly, I think we can make it to a decade with just a bit of effort. At which point, I'm going to need to decide what we're going to do. I don't want to see a long slow painful death. If anything, I rather do an orderly shutdown, archive everything for posterity, and leave soylentnews.org as a marker that says we were here, and let me stress this point, if nothing changes. If we can find new staff, and folks who are willing to maintain the site, then SoylentNews will go on, for as long as there are people there are to tend for it. If not, then it will be left as a testament of what is actually possible when people get together.
Assuming the community is willing to go along with this plan, I'll likely host a stream this weekend doing a fairly through inspection of the site infrastructure, and fixing any critical issues I can find live. I'll put a stream announcement up on SoylentNews, on my personal Twitter, and on Mastodon (@email@example.com), as well as on my YouTube channel.
At least some of these streams will be fundraising for charity. Currently, I've fundraising for The Trevor Project, while in the past, I've fundraised for both National Network of Abortion Funds, and Planned Parenthood of America. I'm pretty sure the comments section might have thing to say, and frankly? I don't really care. If you don't like it, you can put in the effort yourself to save this place.
I think, at this point, this NCommander novel has reached its final form, so I will drop a link to my Ko-fi, and Patreon for one time and recurring support for me directly.
Until next time, this is NCommander, signing off, wishing you all a pleasant day ...
[This has been recovered from the WayBack machine from a link (https://web.archive.org/web/20221111011540/https://soylentnews.org/meta/article.pl?sid=22%2F11%2F10%2F1428220) very kindly provided by an Anonymous Coward. I cannot reproduce the original comments - there is no mechanism in the software to do such a thing - nor should it ever have been necessary. If you want to copy the comments that you made and resubmit them you can, of course, do so but they are unlikely to appear in the same order as they were made in the original posts. JR]
Update: 10 March 2014 20:20 UTC. Follow here for the latest.
Update: 10 March 2014 19:10 UTC.
At this point Barrabas reports he is exchanging email with the buyer but refuses to say anything. Until we hear from them, we have to hope for the best but plan for the worst. If this link goes down, please go to the linode site where we will regroup. We will use that link as a fallback if necessary.
Update: 10 March 2014 18:30 UTC.
Barrabas reports in IRC he has received funds for the site and has sold the domain name. The terms of this sale, as well as its buyer, have not been disclosed. We await additional information. If you have information on this, please contact us at admin @ soylentnews . org
Update: 10 March 2014 16:30 UTC.
Due to NCommander's personal involvement with the situation he is recusing himself from negotiations. I (Mattie_p) am currently working with the staff to figure out how to address this incident. We have posted a poll which is available and should show up shortly on the front page.
We've been held hostage by John:
Working with NCommander
Am I The Bad Guy
Right now, I can't write a coherent response properly (I'm writing this from a Mac Store right now as some sort of response was necessary). Despite John's offer, we never used the Linode's he purchased for hosting slash, and the two services (forums and wiki) that were hosted on them were migrated. I had hoped that this would have been a private issue between me and John, to be handed by email with a proper agreement, but the site itself is now at risk.
Right now, I'm organizing a response with out staff now, but I won't be home for several hours so MrBluze is currently handling the crisis. He can hand off to mattie_p when he returns, or myself when I have proper net access again. John's offer does not reflect myself or any of the staff here, nor does he have what he says he has. The web server, dev server (fusion forge), and database were always hosted on Linode's on my personal account. John DID have access to the Linode account which was revoked when he left staff, but to my knowledge never had the root password or shell accounts on any of the boxes. That access was revoked. It is possible he has a copy of the database, I do not know for sure. He does not at this moment have access to any of the hardware powering the site. He does however control the DNS register and can possibly yank the site from under us. If that happens, I can send a mass email to every user account to inform them of what happened, and where we are now. We supposedly have until Friday until John drops everything in the trash unless someone pays him $2000 USD. As per the posts, I was willing to pay him, but I had some issue with the expenses as written (my emails are genuine, as is the email I received from John), but I'm currently in Asia, and have no practical way to send him a check until I return to the continental United States on Sunday; I informed John of this on IRC originally.
We're currently in scramble mode to try and organize a new name, and getting migrated as soon as possible. I was serious when I said I was done with the drama but it appears John isn't. I'm personally sorry to have to inflict this on the community, and if you wish to leave us, I shall not blame you in the slightest.