Jeff Bates On Niche Communities and Why Partisan News Is Normal

Any sort of niche community wants to have its own news source. The problem with mass media is, well inherent to the description right there, it’s mass. So, of course you are always going to go with the common denominator in terms of what you are going to write, because that is going to actually get the most eyeballs, which is going to be able to sell the most advertising. I think that for BBSs, as a good start, one of the things that knit that together was shared communities of people that wanted to talk about something that wasn’t going to be talked about by the mainstream press.

On some of the BBSs that I hung out on, there was this dude who was a complete and total freak show. He was one of those guys that thought the earth is 4500 years old and it’s flat. Obviously, he’s got somewhat of a different view on life. The thing that he was really good at was soldering. He would talk a lot on the BBSs about how he had re-soldered his modem to get more bps out of it. It’s not like you were going to find that in the local newspaper, or anything like that. And it was really only the creation of things like BBSs that actually allowed that stuff to happen.

So, yes I think that the desire by a community of people to want to have news that is specific to their interests is one of the drivers for it. Especially in the early days of Slashdot, any mainstream article that mentioned the word Linux, we would post something about it. Because, it got this kind of push-pull that you want in this niche community, and you want this niche news, but you also want the validation of the mass news as well.

My firmly held belief is that every niche no matter how small, no matter how bizarre your particular thing that you care a lot about is, there are other people out there who really want to talk about it as well. It’s just that there has been no scalable way to make it happen before the Internet. The ’80s and the ’70s had zines, that was all good, but you had to know that the zine existed, you had to know where to write to subscribe to it.

What the Internet really brought us is the ability to do that en masse. I think that one of the other factors for creating Slashdot or creating other niche communities is a necessity issue. The cold hard reality is that Rob and I lived in Holland, Michigan, which is not exactly a burgeoning tech hub of the United States. If we wanted to have an environment to be able to talk with people who knew what open source was, much less had an informed opinion about it; we had to create a community to do that. And of course we wanted that community to exist, so we stumbled into taking a first stab at making that sort of community.

it reached the point where there was enough people who knew about it, and there was enough money to be made with it that it got the attention of the world. I think part of why it got so much attention is people were genuinely interested in why these engineers were writing code and not charging for it. I think that where part of that attention came from was trying to understand this new model in this new approach to things as well.

If that hadn’t happened, if there hadn’t been that question of what motivated these people to do this, it wouldn’t have brought near the attention that it did.

The other thing that helped is that open source became known at the same time that the ability to have a discussion, or the ability to post news also became a far more open process. That is one of the interesting cross fertilizations. Sites like Slashdot were pursuing information gathering in discussions in a way that was very similar to what was happening with open source. Mainstream news was in many ways very similar to how most software was developed. There was a serendipity in that.

I think that the partisan nature of media as it exists now, was actually a return to form. That has been the state of media for many, many, many years. If you look at Hearst and the yellow papers that helped start the Spanish-American War, [they] show that. If you were a newspaper tycoon and you had an angle that you wanted to follow, you could make that happen. in the late ’40s through the ’90s or so, we got this idea of objective journalism, and everything is neutral. I think that is going to be seen as more as an aberration than as the generalized state of things.

I think that the reason it existed, is because you had a number of semi-monopolies in competition with each other. And, you had a broad-based advertising world that you could sell stuff through, but nobody had enough metrics to know whether this advertising was working or not. So, they got all sorts of money.

As depressing as it is, I guess I think that the current state of media, the partisanship, I don’t think that this is a temporary state. I think that this is normal. Humans are kind of defined by the whole concept of, us versus them. I think that we return to that almost all the time.

Yeah, yeah. You say cynic, I say pragmatic realist. I should add that it is very possible that I am just incredibly jaundiced and cynical about the entire world of media having spent as much time in it as I have. Maybe this is my equivalent of standing on the porch in a T-shirt telling those blasted kids to get the hell off my lawn. I don’t know. I think I’m right, but then again I would think I’m right, wouldn’t I?

In the long run more and more niche communities will continue to spring up, if the tools and platforms are there. A few years ago the FBI arrested a bunch of grandmothers who were pirating quilting patterns on the Internet. I mean, that’s when you know your niche community has arrived, when the FBI is taking your grandma to jail for pirating quilting patterns.

All kidding aside, what that does mean is that the tools got to the point where the grandmothers were pirating quilting patterns with each other. So, I think you will see more and more groups, communities like that forming. If I were working in a general media world that would terrify the hell out of me, because that’s where people are going to go to get their news. And I think over time it has, and will continue to supplant traditional media.

When we started Slashdot, the tools didn’t exist — we had to build them. That was a barrier to entry for anyone, there is no way there was going to be a Slashdot for quilting in 1998. Because none of the quilters were going to write a CMS system to do it. I think that there has been a whole suite of tools that have come along that have made these things viable to do. One of the biggest things that made continued growth of Slashdot possible was the introduction of Google AdWords. Prior to AdWords you were completely beholden to these reseller networks, which made used-car salesman look like Mother Teresa.

And so, particularly for a lot of these niche sites and the smaller social media sites, the reality is that you can make some money. Probably not enough that you’re going to be able to build your solid gold rocket car. But, enough that you can support some of it. It just means that there’s going to be more and more of it. In the long run that is a good thing. That is exactly what should happen. I don’t think that this is new. That this is exactly what happened with the introduction of the printing press.

If you look at the French and American revolutions, and the amount of pamphleteering that was done, that was basically social media. You could go down to the printer and say, I want 500 copies of this made, distribute it, and have people talk about what you’re doing. It’s just you were constrained within a local geography. And now, we can do it across the whole world. Which I guess, because you can get across the whole world, means you can have even more weird subgroups get together and find their community,. And isn’t that a fine, fine thing?

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