Originally Published: Sunday, 13 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: Endgame

Now that the historical context of last week's merger is a little more clear, we feel justified in taking a closer look at what it might mean for the communities that have built up around both Linux.com and Slashdot.org. First, however, we'd like to make a few things clear about our own motives.

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Now that the historical context of last week's merger is a little more clear, we feel justified in taking a closer look at what it might mean for the communities that have built up around both Linux.com and Slashdot.org. First, however, we'd like to make a few things clear about our own motives.

We are volunteers for Linux.com. What that means is that they get no paycheck. We get no free stuff, other than the occasional t-shirt. We get no perks other than an @linux.com e-mail address and the right to speak our mind on the front page every week. What this also means is that VA has absolutely no control over what we say -- a fact that gives their marketing department collective apoplexy, no doubt. We freely write what we choose to write -- and if you hear tomorrow that we have been asked to leave the staff, or see that our articles have been censored, you'll know that your fears of corporate domination of Linux.com have been absolutely justified. We believe, however, that such an occurence would be unlikely in the extreme.

How can we make such a sweeping statement about VA policy when we, as volunteers, obviously have little to no knowledge about what happens behind their doors? It's rather simple, really. VA didn't get where they are by being stupid. They have to know that the community backlash against them for such actions would be far worse than any fallout they could suffer based on a little article. They realize that any effort on their part to regulate the content on their "community" sites will cause the mistrust of their staff and readership.

If you think the rhetoric is bad now, with suspicious glances and below-breath muttering happening now, consider the reaction if one of Linux.com's sponsors actually attempted to "influence" our content. After half of the writing and coding staff quits in protest, reducing Linux.com to shreds, VA gets tonnes of incredibly bad word of mouth. True or not, this word of mouth would completely trash the reputation that they've worked so hard to build. Linux companies, more than any others, depend on a good relationship with their developers, and just as importantly, on a good relationship with people who write about events in the free software world!

Exactly once has VA mandated what content appeared on Linux.com: during the SEC's "quiet period" following the IPO announcement. The staffers were instructed not to mention anything about VA, VA's IPO, or any other Linux-related IPO without authorisation from above. This is standard operating procedure for any company following a filing for an initial public offering, and was not a result of any policy determined by VA, but rather a requirement handed down from the Securities and Exchange Commission. We're not going to lie to you -- there are no official rules or agreements in the case of Linux.com preventing VA from mandating content at this time, but neither is there any way for them to legally censor our content.

Chances are, you didn't even notice when the "quiet period" was lifted by the SEC and we could once again mention VA and its related companies in articles on Linux.com.

The other side of the coin is this: Linux.com, Slashdot, Freshmeat, and the other community sites will not cease publishing news and articles about VA simply out of a fear of appearing biased. A reverse bias would be no better -- like it or not, VA is a cornerstone in this industry, employing some of the best and brightest in the Linux world. If we were to eliminate all content connected with VA from our sites, there'd be precious little news in the Linux world to publish. New version of Enlightenment released? Sorry, scoop, Mandrake and Raster are VA employees -- better not appear biased by reporting on their work. Anti-DVD Cartel protests going on? Hey, Chris Dibona and Don Marti are in charge of them, so we'd better not cover it. And no way should any of this appear on Slashdot, lest the Anonymous Cowards cry "Sellout!"

All this is not to say, however, that the community's fears might not be realised in the future. VA may very well one day decide that their community sites are the perfect PR machine, and begin revoking editorial independence in favor of content domination. Competitors may begin to disappear from banner ads. References to sites like Linux Today and LWN may dwindle in number, to be replaced by "Yet Another Sourceforge Update."

What then? Will the transgressions go unpunished? The widespread fear is that VA will quietly supplant Linux.com and Slashdot's content with its own, and the readers will never notice.

Give yourselves a little more credit. If the scrutiny is narrow now, imagine if more sponsor-driven content began to appear on the pages of Linux.com, Slashdot, and Freshmeat. Believe us, people would notice.

Of course, by the time that happens, half the writing staff would have quit in disgust, the art contributions would dwindle, and a hugely negative buzz would be set up by extremely ticked off volunteer writers and pundits, all screaming "censorship!" VA's reputation as a company would be ruined if they even breathed an attempt at blatant editorial control. And this is assuming they have that control in the first place! VA owns "linux.com." The domain. Nothing more. They sponsor a few of the primary developers and maintainers of the site. So do several other sponsors, IDG, Loki, and O'Reilly among them.

Consider what would happen if VA tried to tell Rob Malda what he could or couldn't post on Slashdot. Doesn't take much imagining, doesn't it. Wouldn't turn out too well for VA, would it. Our own interpretation of the event involves a gallows built in downtown Sunnyvale.

So what lies in the future for Slashdot and Linux.com, now that they're in theory "owned" by VA Linux Systems?

Absolutely nothing that wouldn't have happened in any case. Sites change, people change. Go figure. Linux.com's focus, being run by volunteers, will tend to be acorporate rather than anti-corporate or pro-corporate. More and more, VA is becoming simply irrelevant to the future of Linux.com -- this Web site will outlive VA Linux Systems, in all probability. To be honest, we think that this is the most telling element of VA's involvement with the Web sites that it donates resources to -- the fact that they are independent in all but name.

Who knows? Linux.com might go non-profit in a couple years. Maybe we can talk VA into selling us the domain for a dollar.

In the meantime, we'll just try to make the best Web site we can in support of the Linux communities. And we know Rob, Patrick, Tony, and Greg and their staff will do the same.

You'd expect nothing less.

Jessica Sheffield and Rob Bos are writers for linux.com and actual living, breathing humans in their spare time. They do this because they enjoy it.

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