Originally Published: Friday, 11 February 2000 Author: Rob Bos and Jessica Sheffield
Published to: featured_articles/Featured Articles Page: 1/1 - [Printable]

It's Not The End Of The World As We Know It: Opening Gambit

During Linux World Expo in New York last week, VA Linux Systems announced an acquisition of Andover.Net, a company that happens to own a couple of very high-profile Linux news sites and resources, including the popular Slashdot.org and Freshmeat.net -- Web sites that VA has had their eyes on for quite some time.

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During Linux World Expo in New York last week, VA Linux Systems announced an acquisition of Andover.Net, a company that happens to own a couple of very high-profile Linux news sites and resources, including the popular Slashdot.org and Freshmeat.net -- Web sites that VA has had their eyes on for quite some time. This acquisition, coupled with the impending absorption of Andover's assets into the existing VA corporate infrastructure (which at this time includes Linux.com, Themes.org, and SourceForge), gives VA ownership of several key Web sites in the free software communities. This has a number of people worried -- so much so, in fact, that Larry Augustin and Bruce Twickler, the respective CEOs of VA and Andover, wrote an open letter full of corporatese and buzzwords to help allay some of the concerns that people might have over the matter. In it, they say they will "assure the future of these important community sites" and promise them "the resources to play an enduring central role" in their respective communities.

Needless to say, this attempt to allay the fears of the free software communities were met, perhaps rightly so, with skepticism. "What if VA attempts to strongarm slashdot!" was the complaint of many people. "What of editorial freedom?" "Would VA prevent competition from advertising on these sites?" "VA: The Next Microsoft," and so on. Trillions of innocent pixels have been freely spent on megabytes of invective on the subject, in fact. People in many popular fora have openly screamed bloody murder over the possibility of VA shoving its weight around where it really shouldn't belong, and perhaps with justification. Time and again our community has been burned by what we term "sellouts," and it's reasonable to expect that people would be suspicious of such a huge announcement. A great many of these people, however, are simply blowing smoke. The knee-jerk reaction of the community has been to cry havoc at the merger, without doing their homework and finding out the real issues behind the story.

So, from the perspective of two volunteer staff writers at Linux.com, here is an two-part examination of VA's policies toward one of their so-called "owned" sites and what this could mean for the other sites it has recently acquired. Today, we look at the history of Linux.com and Slashdot, sites run for and by the community for some time. We'll examine the motives of the people behind those sites in creating, maintaining, and eventually selling them, and what this has meant for the community at large. Tomorrow's article will explore the possibilities that the merger opens up for the future, as well as caution against some of the pitfalls that may await.

In January of 1999, a great furor was raised over the launch of Linux.com. With things like "Designed in Microsoft FrontPage" scattered throughout the site and Javascript galore, it was clear that something had to be done or Linux would suffer a terrible blow to its credibility. Six weeks later, VA Research, a small hardware vendor located in Sunnyvale, California, announced that they had acquired the domain from Fred van Kempen for an undisclosed amount. In a story on CNET, it was revealed that Fred hadn't sold to the highest bidder -- with a bid of $5.5 million USD -- but had instead chosen VA for their vision of the site, which coincided with his. Score one for the community - the linux.com domain would not be run by a huge corporation, but instead by a company who really seemed to "get it." The presiding emotion was relief. One poster on slashdot summed it up: "This could be really great for the linux platform, and I don't think that it will turn into a VA site. Especially with the LINUX community advisory board!" The headline of the comment: "Thank God."

VA promised to make good on the claim it had staked. The company's vision for the Web site was for a place where the Linux community could go to find out anything and everything they needed to know about Linux. They hired Trae McCombs, founder of Themes.org, to run Linux.com, giving him freedom in determining the structure of the site. Working closely with his staff, Trae developed a site with the possibility to be the comprehensive Linux resource on the Web. Linux.com launched on May 18, 1999 amidst much fanfare, and immediately had volunteers clamouring to get involved. Over the next year VA hired six full-time and seven part-time employees to work on Linux.com, and over 100 volunteers contributed content to the site. People who were reticent about Linux.com in the beginning now visit the site daily and praise the increase in quality of the content.

Slashdot, on the other hand, started out as a personal project of a couple of people -- Rob "CmdrTaco" Malda and Jeff "Hemos" Bates -- in their spare time, finding and posting various interesting news items that they happened to find in the news on any given day. Over time, the site grew more popular by word of mouth, until it became something of a phenomenon. The "Slashdot Effect" gained some amount of notoriety as readership increased and pages that got linked to were often bombarded to the point of non-functionality in a matter of minutes and hours. The people running the site have always filtered the articles and posted stuff the was interesting and relevant to them, and that system has, by and large, worked. For a number of years, Slashdot enjoyed a continuous surge of growth as word of mouth spread.

Time warp to June 1999. Slashdot had just been "acquired" by Andover.Net, and many of its following were in an uproar over what they felt to be the poaching of "our" site. Despite Rob Malda's constant assurances that this was not a hostile "takeover," that he had carefully weighed all the options (including, yes, a bid from VA) and decided that this was the best one, the community remained skeptical of Andover's motives. In the next few months, scrutiny of Slashdot increased a hundredfold. Comments that would once have been dismissed as innocuous were picked apart, analysed, and held up as "proof" that the buyout was a Bad Thing [tm]. "The quality of Slashdot has declined!" became the war cry of the vocal minority even as Slashdot's readership increased.

This despite the fact that Andover never claimed, and in fact scrupulously avoided, meddling with Slashdot's existing editorial and managerial structure. Andover provided technical assistance, hardware, and people, in exchange for the privilege of having their name associated with this high-profile web site. Before Freshmeat and Slashdot were acquired, who had ever heard of Andover?

Why the discrepancy? It seems that the more money VA and other sponsors pour into Linux.com, the more the site improves. Yet when Andover tried the same with Slashdot, paying the maintainers of that sites to do what they loved, the reaction was outrage. It's interesting to note that few people seem to have the same reaction to the funding of Freshmeat and Themes.org, despite their obvious corporate ties. What people seemed to be more concerned about in the Andover buyout of Freshmeat, for example, was the fact that Andover now owned two of the major open source portals on the Web. Where there used to be Slashdot, Andover, Freshmeat, and a few other companies, there is now only one. To many people this has been a cause of concern.

Which begs the question: has the quality of the sites under the Andover and VA umbrellas decreased since the various buyouts? Certainly there is more information to be had on Slashdot and Freshmeat since Andover took them under its wing, and no one in their right mind would wish Linux.com to return to its pre-VA days. While Slashdot has suffered the occasional less-than-newsworthy story, one has to compare it to the volume of news posted over the last six months to be able to say whether or not the addition of money into the equation has made a negative difference.

Having spoken of the historical context, we can now speculate on the ramifications of last week's merger. Tomorrow's article will delve deep into the minds of the people behind our favorite Web sites, and try to answer the question everyone's asking: what will this merger mean for the community?

Jessica Sheffield (starlady@linux.com) and Rob Bos (rbos@linux.com) are contributing writers to linux.com. They both spend way too much time on IRC for their own good.

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