SlashDot was recently purchased by Dice.com, a job listing website for the technology sector. As part of that, the management apparently is looking to redevelop the UI, modernizing it from the original one. The community hasn't received those UI changes well, and now some users actually protesting by filling up threads with useless commentary simply to gripe about the recent developments.
Writer Lee Hutchinson explains the gravity of the situation for SlashDot:
That user base is itself the main reason why Slashdot continues to thrive, even as its throwback interface makes it look to untrained eyes like a dated relic. Though the site is frequently a source of deep and rich commentary on topics, the barrier for new users to engage in the site's discussions is relatively high—certainly higher than, say, reddit (or even Ars).
The UI is part of what ensure the deep and rich commentary is sustained - the ranking of content is fine tuned, and the moderation and ranking of that content is itself moderated. It's a layered approach. and does a pretty good job of keeping trolls out.
What really struck me was the last part of the article, where impassioned users started railing against the management's use of the word "audience" to define them instead of "community."
If we were an audience, we'd be coming here for the articles. Most of the complaints are about the comment system, how difficult it is to follow a conversation, how difficult it is leave a comment, etc. I come here, most of us come here, to read what my/our fellow slashdotters have to say. The value here is the community, and the most important contributors are other members, not the site or the editors.
If you don't get that straight, then you aren't going to "get" why we're upset, so there's no chance that you'll deliver us something that we can live with. And that community is going to vanish, leaving you with nothing of value.
I think it's important to note how the Gawker Media staff have taken a good bit of time to redevelop their platform. We've seen it mutate over at Valleywag for a bit, and even now it's not mandated (currently) but is introduced as an opt in system. Unlike SlashDot, which doesn't have much flexibility on where they redevelop their UI since it's all one giant community (though it does have categories), Kinja does have the apparent advantage of being able to modify the software in isolated spaces. In addition, the product blog does explain and keep the large Kinja community up to date on what changes are coming down the pipeline. Slashdot's redesign, if I understand correctly, has been faster in comparison.
Web sites trying to produce content with advertising simultaneously balancing that against the desire to foster communities has always fascinated me. One thing that always amazed me was how music review web site Pitchfork has basically no community backing it - no comments, no nothing. They used to let people email questions/comments, but AFAICT they stopped that ages ago. Over at The Atlantic, some authors like Ta-Nehisi Coates has a very robust commenting community. Meanwhile author James Fallows doesn't let anyone comment on his pages, but nonetheless does post reader emails. Huffington Post has the distinct concept of badges that rewards people for good participation (I'm not familiar with it beyond that).
Most web sites desire strong commenting communities for obvious reasons. First, it ensures readership is present for the content that's created. But additionally, it can drive the content creation itself (see GroupThink being shared to the mainpage) and provide opportunities for content creators to rise from the commentariat (See Jezebel's EGR, BRISMG, Kyosuke). Kinja is notable in its success in these areas.
Many web sites outsource their commenting systems to other platforms like Facebook and Disqus. I'm not sure that fosters the same sense of community - random people from anywhere end up joining in, rather than veterans who have learned the commenting system's ins and outs. But it does provide a consistent, familiar interface to those commenting which is better than nothing. It does miss out on more advanced features that keep a community interesting. Kinja has copious features those systems lack: users get their own space, can author their own posts, can share posts and comments, etc. Slashdot's system had similar functionality the form of Journals. Ars Technica has both an article commenting system and an entirely separate message board.
It takes a lot to get participants to divest themselves from a community, typically. Though I can't say I know for sure, it wouldn't surprise me if UI changes can actually be more successful at getting people to give up on a community than, say, emotional drama or clashes of personality. The UI changes become an impediment to communicating with the people you care about, and if you can't communicate, then what is the point of participation? Moreover, when the site management dictates UI changes in a dictatorial manner rather than as a community colleague, it can end up undermining the good will it's managed to foster up until that point. The community that loses faith in the management will have no reason to stick around and see if the problems will get fixed.
I'm not sure what will happen to SlashDot. The protests there, in a way, are a good sign - the community is willing to stick it out to try to convince management to change their ways, as opposed to simply up and leaving. Kinja users are commiserating and expressing grief over the proposed changes shows that we too are dedicated to our communities.
Ars writer Lee Hutchison laments the situation:
Ars Technica and Slashdot go back a long way—we link each others' stories quite often, and though Slashdot lacks the strength which in old days could knock sites offline merely by linking to them, it remains a brilliant community of commenters. To sweep that community aside in favor of something else would be tragic.
Here's hoping Kinja 1.2 won't sweep users aside in favor of something else. It's hard to imagine that happening, but it's quite possible the "the tiger" will scare people away from here. And that would be tragic.