Every day we post dozens of stories on Slashdot. Every day we read hundreds of submissions. And as most of the people who work behind the scenes are in fact human, we occasionally make mistakes, posting typos, or grammatical errors. Today I address matters of article formatting. What I think matters before I click 'save', and what I don't.
I'm not talking here about "Should a story be posted" or "I have 9 submissions about the same thing, which is best." Today I'm talking entirely about what I try to do when I decide that some story is good for Slashdot. What changes I think matter before posting it. Picking which stories to post is a big part of our job, matters of style and formatting matter too. Today I try to address what things I think are important before I click 'Save'.
The most important thing is what I'll call my most-important-link rule. Often submitters submit stories with like 8 links. I try to remove any link that doesn't substantially add to the article. For example linking ZDNet.com directly, and then a second URL to an article on ZDNet is redundant. Or if your link is to Joe's Blog, where he essentially says nothing except "I found this article". I'm not opposed to having several URLs in a story, but I want to make sure that they each serve a real purpose.
Next is proper anchor texting. I fix the hyper text on the vast majority of submissions. People link the word 'Here' or 'Article' or 'CNN' and I find that very frustrating. I want the hypertext to be the most appropriate 2-3 words that tell you exactly what you're clicking on. I think that is absolutely essential. Every URL should matter, and every bit of hypertext should tell you exactly what it is you're going to get when you click that mouse button.
Another key component in Slashdot article formatting is to strip off the extra text in a submission. I have a mental image of how long a Slashdot story is. Many submissions are to long or to short. So I get out the scissors and start looking for sentences to cut.
Often a submission starts with a clause that says something to the effect of "Hey guys, I found this URL that says...". I'd much prefer to cut that out and get right to the meat. Likewise many submissions end with a call to action... "We should get those guys" or "Lets show them what Slashdot can do about it!". I yank those sorts of things. As a general rule, I want the story to be short, sweet, and direct. Anything that distracts from that, I want to chop out.
Likewise some submissions are simply a URL and a single sentence. Since I want my articles to be around the same size, this is my chance to put in my own words. I'll try to add a joke or opinion. Or just a fact that I thought was worth sharing from the article itself. It's often these phrases that comment posters get most up in arms about: irate readers commenting that I should not be allowed to post my views.
I consider this opinion to be simply ludicrous. Slashdot was spawned from what today would be called a blog. To be more precise, it came from MY blog. Where I posted almost nothing but my own opinions. But more blatantly, I could simply rewrite the entire thing, say exactly what I want to say, and post it as an anonymous reader. Or as a made up nickname. I don't do any of those things. I simply add my 2 bits at the end to the occasional story. Not only do I think this is desirable on Slashdot, I think it's essential.
Now let us talk about one of my secondary concerns: spelling and grammar. Let me be clear. As you are probably well aware, I don't think these are as important as the things I mentioned above. I want a Slashdot story to be focused, directing your attention to the URL in question. It needs to be not to long, not to short. Links should be clear. Spelling and Grammar are secondary issues.
Slashdot is not the Wall Street Journal. It is not The New York Times. Slashdot is an informal meeting ground. A town hall. A pub. A bulletin board in the quad on campus. Here people might not properly capitalize a proper noun. They might transpose letters in 'thier'. They might use jargon that isn't in oxford. And all of that is OK with me.
Now sometimes a sentence doesn't parse to me. I'm not opposed to correcting the grammar in a sentence if it just doesn't work. But I simply don't think that a typo or grammar error is a make or break problem for a Slashdot story.
Many users routinely email me to complain about such errors. I'm usually fairly flexible on these matters. If the error is blazingly bad, I will often correct it. Of course some users like to email me to tell me how much Slashdot sucks, how fat and lazy I am, and how the most terrible thing in the history of Slashdot is the fact that the 4th story down contains the word 'to' when it ought to contain the word 'too'. That missing 'o' is the greatest travesty on-line today! It's hard to take that seriously. Especially when people are rude.
As an aside, for awhile we actually had an editor reading Slashdot articles and correcting grammatical mistakes. Turns out it doesn't really matter much. People found other things to complain about. It's almost as if some percentage of the population wants to complain. And they will find something to complain about no matter what. Perhaps by leaving a few typos on the site, I am making their day a little easier! Leave them some low hanging fruit I guess.
A a further side note to anyone who ever wants me to look at anything on Slashdot. If you e-mail me, include the URL. A comment mismoderated? A user who is misbehaving? A story with a typo? Include the URL. Don't say "The article about Novell" because there might be 3 in the last 2 days. Don't say "The last comment I posted" because it might be 2 hours and you might have posted since then. It takes you 3 seconds to cut and paste a URL. It might take me 3 minutes to find the content in question if you don't. That doesn't sound like much, but if it happens a couple dozen times, it adds up really fast. Do you want to stay an hour late at work today?
But back to the topic at hand, You are welcome to disagree with me on matters of grammar and spelling. And many of you do, very vocally in the forums. I would hope moderators would see such commentary as offtopic. A story about a new motherboard chipset has nothing to do with the proper use of "Its" and "It's".
The moderation system serves many purposes, but perhaps the most important is to provide a user, 24 hours later viewing at Score 2 or 3 an accurate pulse on the topic at hand. If the comment is not about the new motherboard chipset, that comment at least should not be modded 'insightful', and in many cases, ought to be modded offtopic of flamebait.
As with last week, I'm going to try to participate as best I can in the discussion. If major points arise I will update here. I think the real topic of this article is the formatting of Slashdot Stories: not moderation, the story selection process, and or story selection criteria. Please help by staying on topic so I can try to address these matters efficiently. And please don't email me directly- lets keep the discussion here in front of everyone so i don't have to answer dozens of you individually. Moderators, feel free to moderate good questions up to help me find them, and likewise if my answers are good, give those the thumbs up too so that readers can find them and save me from having to re-read questions i've answered already. Once again, I plan to do this as regularly as I can. If you have ideas for future discussions here, e-mail me... but I beg of you, wait until tomorrow!
Update Here is a further clarificatio on typo and grammar errors on Slashdot. I believe that Slashdot is a somewhat schizo place. A dozen voices stand side by side on the main page. Some of them will have proper grammar. Others won't. Just like a mailing list. Just like crappily written comments in some ancient piece of source code. Just like that email jotted out in seconds. Just like some bit of IRC chat you just read a few minutes ago.
Simply hiring a copy editor to purge these changes fundamentally alters the personality of the site, and my opinion is that alteration is for the worse. It might improve clarity to some percentage of readers who truthfully can't parse bad grammar or spelling. Likewise it might cut down on some offtopic meta threads in the forums. But the I think that it changes the flavor. The feeling. The tone of Slashdot.
Some people disagree with me. You are welcome to do so.
Another note about URL formatting. An interesting thread spawned in there about what text makes a proper hyper link. Given the example string:
CNN has an article about a sticky widget
What text should be linked?
There are 2 potential URLs in here, a CNN article, and the text 'CNN'. Some users think the words CNN should link to an article. Other users might link CNN directly to CNN, and the word 'article' to the article in question.
My stylistic preference is to only link 'a sticky widget' to the article. Not to link CNN directly to CNN.com (that link is redundant- I want only the most important links. And not 'article' because that tells you nothing about what you are clicking on.
Meta discussion on Slashdot is a substantial issue we intend to address in the moderation system redesign. Things like typos and grammar have a place on Slashdot, but today that place can only be described as 'Offtopic'. (And I think all moderators and meta moderators should keep that in mind). Our plans for dealing with 'Meta' discussion are best left for another editorial. In fact, I have one half written. Maybe next week.