Is Slashdot the future of media?
The most popular site for the tech cognoscenti is created entirely by its users and readers.
NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) - If you want to see the future of media, go to Slashdot.org.
Two things distinguish it -- it's the most popular news and information site with the tech cognoscenti, particularly programmers and engineers. And all of its content is created by its users. They submit about 700 stories per day, which staff editors vet and reduce down to the 30-35 that get published. Of the site's 5.5 million unique visitors per month, about 25 percent post comments about those stories.
Says Valerie Williamson, vice president for marketing at OSTG, the open source technology group, which operates Slashdot: "Everybody's talking about the participation age, but we've been living it for eight years." Slashdot was started by two guys in Holland, Michigan in 1998 as what would now be called a blog.
Slashdot and its sibling site, SourceForge.net, the de facto center for posting and downloading open-source software, are among the most important and emblematic Internet businesses of our age. But so well do they cultivate an "of the people" aura that when my colleague Dan Roth and I had lunch with executives from the two sites last week we were both surprised to learn that OSTG is wholly owned by a publicly-traded company, VA Software (Research). OSTG also includes ThinkGeek.com, a major e-commerce site for nerds.
VA Software, the successor to the once-superhot VA Linux Systems, which went public in December 1999 and rose to a peak market cap eight days later of -- brace yourself -- $9.6 billion, now has a modest market cap of $121 million.
The software unit is merely selling SourceForge Enterprise Edition. The company stopped distributing the Linux open source operating system a long time ago.
The media piece of VA Software amounted to about 34 percent of revenues in the last quarter. Annual revenues are small -- about $34 million. But it seems to me that any media company aiming to go deep into the modern world of user-generated media might want to think about buying this gem. Investment bankers, take heed.
Not only that, but whomever bought VA Software would be buying critical DNA -- knowledge about what software the world is using. Sourceforge.net has essentially no competition, so effectively it has created a marketplace of producers and consumers. It hosts 111,000 open-source software projects. Many are tiny eccentric efforts, but there are more than 100 products that get at least 1,000 downloads per day.
Each month, 24 million customers -- if one can call them that since they pay nothing -- download 50 million copies of software products from the site. It facilitates the distribution between users of about 1.4 million e-mails every day, on which it hosts advertising. It's all a huge media opportunity.
SourceForge.net hosts hefty amounts of advertising from the likes of IBM (Research), AMD (Research), Sun (Research) and, surprisingly, Microsoft (Research). Many of those same companies -- including Microsoft -- plus HP (Research) and Tivo (Research) among others, also contribute huge amounts of code to the site to help improve open source projects underway.
SourceForge is working hard to improve its analytic capabilities so it can do real-time tracking of what software is popular and with whom.
As more and more customers use open-source software, this may become an invaluable source of information. Serving as the nexus for the distribution of the software people use to run the world has got to be important.
While SourceForge's original users (it was founded in 1999) were almost all software developers, now only about 15 percent of them are. The rest are people shopping for free software, mostly to use in businesses.
General manager Jay Seimarco says that with upcoming search and other improvements, "we could see an explosion in what's already tremendous traffic."
But let's go back to examining Slashdot, because as a journalist it especially fascinates me. What it seems to represent is essentially open-source journalism. People fight to make their submission the one out of those 700 each day that will make it to the front page with a byline. "The ego value of that is huge," says Jeff Bates, OSTG's vice president of editorial operations and one of Slashdot's two co-founders.
Creating something of tremendous widespread utility for the ego value is a new phenomenon in contemporary business. It's part of what motivates open-source software programmers. As a well-paid professional journalist, when I hear that ego alone motivates contributors to a news site with 5.5 million unique visitors a month, I find it a bit unnerving, but unquestionably exciting.
Two weeks ago, Bates and crew introduced a new look to the site and improved its software. Traffic is up significantly. But he wants to increase the percentage of visitors who comment to at least 50 percent.
"Just wait until we rewrite the moderation system," Bates says. "It's going to be sexy."
Slashdot calculates a metric it calls "Karma" for all its users, which factors in how much they read, how much they comment and what people think of their submissions. The higher your Karma the more you can do on the site in terms of moderating and commenting.
Figuring out how to smartly employ this kind of analysis will increasingly be key in online media businesses, as readers seek to figure out whose opinions and submissions to rely on in an otherwise-chaotic self-publishing media marketplace. On Slashdot, the more you are involved in the site the more you get to do. Active readers are invited -- based on Karma and determined by software rules -- to serve as moderators of discussions.
Slashdot and SourceForge are not flashy. Neither are they pretentious. They just gather together the audience and get things done for them. It's worth thinking about. And whether or not those investment bankers take heed, my crude instinct tells me that VA Software may be a company in which to invest, even if only because of this amazing media property OSTG.