Dreaming Big on the Open Web

The web has always belonged to all of us. That is to say its protocols and underlying technology are products of the public domain and can be used by everyone, everywhere. By design, and with prescribed purpose, the web is open. Some of the first voyagers on the web’s shifting shores believed almost unblinkingly in this purpose. It formed the beginnings of a makeshift ideology, that the open web was an inherent virtue, and that virtue was worth fighting for. So it can be fun to look back (perhaps with slightly rose-colored sunglasses on) at those that believed in the web’s openness, and the ways in which they built towards that goal.

The World Wide Web is an open source project, perhaps the largest of its kind. If you were to do a quick poll of the web’s first adopters, you would certainly find that a lot of them had come over from the free software and open source movements that had in recent memory yielded projects like Linux and Apache. They filled their own personal webpages with treatises and manifestos that advocated for this ideology, and used the web as a medium and platform for exchange of ideas, tips, and co-development.

Rob Malda believed deeply in open source. It was the primary theme of his first blog, “Chips & Dips,” which he created in late 1997. The secondary goal was to have a bit of fun. Malda was, after all, a student imbued with the kind of independent spirit that goes hand in hand with making open source software and writing on a blog in the mid-90’s. His blog quickly became an amalgamation of links to posts that interested him, from technical tutorials to weird non-sequitur pictures. After a year, Malda decided to have a bit more fun with the title and renamed the blog to Slashdot (imagining, in his head, how difficult it would be for people to say out loud “h-t-t-p-colon-slash-slash-slash-dot-dot-org”).

Despite its name, lots of people found Slashdot, and the site gathered a following of daily readers and a few contributors who, along with Malda, went by the moniker “Blockstackers”. Each day, the Blockstackers would post new links alongside a bit of commentary following the loose guidelines that came with the site’s tagline: “News for Nerds. Stuff that matters.”

What Slashdot looked like in the mid to late 90’s

But the true content of the page wasn’t the link, or the accompanying content. It was the list of comments that often swelled to the hundreds underneath each one. Malda provided his users with a way to add their own ideas and observations, and people more than took him up on that offer. Slashdot leaned in hard to these user contributions, slowly building up a repertoire of tools that feel commonplace today: threaded discussions, comment flagging, embedded quotes. In 1998, the site added an “Ask Slashdot” section to source questions directly from their growing readership. Moderators were enlisted from the ranks of the site’s most active users to help keep discussions civil, and to respond with brute force when necessary.

The community came to define Slashdot even more so than Malda. A single hyperlink posted to Slashdot was a wellspring of commentary and new ideas. Readers would discuss, dissect, and debate each and every one until they were satisfied that the content was properly explored. It was a source of news ideas and transformed the content that originated within. And true to its open source roots, the CMS that ran the back-end of Slashdot, known simply as “Slash,” was an open source software project. One two separate occasions, Malda procured redesigns from members of his community. Slashdot was nothing without it community. And they were nothing without it.

The incredibly popular “Ask Slashdot” section

Over the years, the site changed hands a number of times. It was first bought by the Linux site Andover.net, a known open source advocate and owner of SourceForge that mostly left Slashdot alone. However, the site would change ownership on two more occasions, first by Dice.com and later, in 2016, by BIZX.

Over the years, the site changed hands a number of times. It was first bought by the Linux site Andover.net, a known open source advocate and owner of SourceForge that mostly left Slashdot alone. However, the site would change ownership on two more occasions, first by Dice.com and later, in 2016, by BIZX. By 2011, Malda had officially left the site. He was the last of the original Blockstackers to leave. However, to this day Slashdot continues to be a source for open source and tech news and discussion.

For web pioneers, openness of thought, a free exchange of ideas, was as important as open source software. When the web democratized publishing, in other words when it gave everyone the ability to share their thoughts, there were many that believed that this content would be owned by everyone. Viewed through a postmodern prism, content could match the dynamic state of the web, and what was published online could be endlessly shared, remixed, and repurposed.

An outgrowth of this idea was the link blog, a category to which Slashdot was certainly a member. But there was another base of operations for this particular set of beliefs. A website that got its start in the days around the same time the web did.

Boing Boing actually started as a print zine back in 1988. But the magazine’s creators, Mark Faruenfelder and Carla Sinclair, discovered the web in the mid-90’s, and decided to move their content online. By the end of 1995, Boing Boing was an exclusively online cyberpunk zine with features that mixed Sinclair and Frauenfelder’s love of the counterculture with their own brand of techno-utopianism. Before it moved online, it reached a circulation of over 17,000. Digitizing the mag only spread the word more.

Boing Boing when it first moved online

The magazine wasn’t exactly paying the bills though, and Frauenfelder doubled as a writer for Wired magazine. In 1999, he was assigned a piece about the new blogging platform Blogger. His research quickly grew into a fondness, and he and Sinclair decided to move Boing Boing to Blogger and give it a fresher, blog-style format in early 2000.

Frauenfelder began posting daily musings and links to his blog, just your average collection of strange discoveries and offbeat news. Like Malda, Frauenfelder’s links were almost random, bound together only by his love for technology and disdain for mainstream pop culture. By 2002, he had recruited a stable of four editors, including himself, Cory Doctrow, David Pescovitz, Xeni Jardin, all of whom belonged to his cohort at Wired magazine. The four of them popped on to Boing Boing whenever they had something worth sharing and little by little, the site adopted an idiosyncratic voice, and a loyal following.

Boing Boing‘s trajectory has been undeniably shaped by the strong personalities of its editorial core. Each editor has enjoyed an illustrious career of their own, separate and apart from Boing Boing. Pescovitz started his own hugely successful magazine and borderline movement MAKE. Doctrow is an internet activist and esteemed science fiction writer. JJardin has had a long career as a journalist, correspondent for NPR and frequent tech commentator. Chances are you’ve seen her on any number of cable news networks.

Their contributions to Boing Boing are as varied as their careers. There’s politics, and tech news, and meme collections all in one place. What ties them together is a deep belief that the web’s content is best transmitted when it is filtered through analysis. That when one shares a link, and adds a bit of commentary, they are engaging in a conversation with that piece of content. They are, in some small way, transforming it, giving it a different purpose. All thanks to the web.

Boing Boing circa 2001, when it was still a simple link blog

Boing Boing has never been the source of much income for its editors. In the beginning, they all chipped in to cover the cost of hosting. Without trying to hard, Boing Boing became one of the most popular sites on the web. When they eventually turned to advertisers, it was more than enough to cover the costs of hosting and base salaries for each of them (including Rob Beschizza, who joined the roster of editors much later).

In 2008, Boing Boing shifted their official content policy to make every word on the site licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial License. That means that anybody is free to share and adapt content from the site as long as it is properly attributed. It’s a legal way to let their content run amok web, free to be reused in almost any form.

Boing Boing represents the web at close to its most open. The site is populated by powerful personalities engaging with their audience on their own terms and with content sourced from all around the web. They’ve never had a business plan, and all of their content is free, free as in beer and free as in speech. They’ve fought hard to keep it that way, and have had more than a few run-ins with the letter of the law and blowback from users, but they’ve always maintained that the web was built to make free thought possible.

There are many other link blogs, sites like The Laughing SquidDaring Fireball, and Metafilter come to mind. Those that follow in the Boing Boing tradition follow the same rules. Their posts are thoughtfully considered, their analysis thorough and supplemental. On the fringes of the web, they contribute to a well of content that is open, free to be shared, and filtered through the personality of its author.

Two sites, linked together by their belief that the web is open. That if we want the web to stay open we have to create spaces where thought is not locked up behind walls but dispersed among the web’s users. Because the web was always meant to be a place of simultaneous creation and consumption. And if we’re not participating in its growing oeuvre, than what are we doing?


Added to the Timeline

January 21, 2001 - Boing Boing Boing Boing gets its first website, originally as an online extension of a print zine of the same name by Mark Frauenfelder and Carla Sinclair. Over the years, Boing Boing will evolve into one of the first link blogs with a fairly steady inner group of editors that share content from across the internet mixed in with their own commentary.
October 5, 1997 - Slashdot Originally a Linux themed blog named "Chips & Dips," creator Rob Malda decides to rename the site to Slashot as a way of playing with the name of URLs sounded out loud. Over the years, and thanks to a robust community, Slashdot will become a hub for activity and discussion on the web, on a wide range of topics.
View the Full Timeline

Sources