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The Katzdot Effect
Wednesday's "News for Nerds" on Slashdot: Novell goes open source, Linux 2.2.4 is out and Jon Katz got to be on the Today Show with his dog.
When Slashdot creator Rob Malda added filtering capabilities to the site this month, he announced snidely that it was "for all you Katz haters." Jon Katz, the first well-known journalist to write for the site, is now the first to inspire a tool for completely avoiding his work.
If you haven't heard of Jon Katz, you must not have read his work for WIRED, GQ, Rolling Stone, HotWired and the New York Times. Not a problem, though -- Katz made sure you knew about these credits by listing them in full on his Nov. 17 news item, two weeks after he arrived. And what news did Katz contribute that day? A poll conducted at his request so everyone could vote on whether he should stick around. "Do I belong here?" he asked in the front-page summary of the poll, which was given the loaded title of "dump the jerk?"
Katz, like most journalists of any stature, considers himself a central element of every story he writes. Count the number of personal pronouns he uses in a typical Katzdot piece and the number of times he makes himself the subject of a sentence. If they were a trigger in a drinking game, you'd have a guaranteed recipe for morning-after hangovers.
Compare this to the approach that has been taken by Malda and others who post news on the site. Little is known about them because they never make themselves the story. They don't even associate their real names with their efforts, choosing the kind of anonymous handles you'd see in Internet chat rooms such as CmdrTaco, Hemos and HeUnique. Jon Katz's Slashdot handle? JonKatz.
Katz has used Slashdot as a platform for promoting Running to the Mountain: A Journey of Faith and Change, his new book that's about as far from the norm as anything ever covered on the Linux-heavy site. There are no Slashdot icons for mid-life ruminations of a man buying a rustic fixer-upper so he can commune with a dead monk.
An excerpt from his book was followed quickly with Katz's announcement that it has become a "surprisingly successful" best-seller. In an industry where writers must generate buzz, he got it at the most crucial time -- publication -- because of his relationship with Slashdot. Although Katz minimizes the financial impact, he admits that the trip into Amazon's Top 100 is making a huge difference. Before it, he was a writer "trapped in mid-list Hell, struggling for a way to reach readers," as he wrote in a February 22 Slashdot story. Now he has his publisher's "full attention."
Slashdot, from day one, has been a place where the technology was more important than the technologist. An open-source project where no one cares who you are if you can code. A brilliant hack of a Web site written by programmers for their own amusement. An accidental success for all the right reasons. No one needed to know who Rob Malda was before they were impressed by his site. Everyone on Slashdot knew who Jon Katz was before they had a chance to be impressed.
Since he appeared last November, every Katz action results in a negative reaction. While some say this is driven by his critics, recent events show why Jon Katz makes himself the focus of attention: Celebrity sells.
Though you might not think the word applies to Katz, the only way he gets the editorial prominence of Slashdot is through the power of celebrity. The only way his book falls under Slashdot's definition of "Stuff That Matters" is through celebrity. The frequent self-promotion of his book shows how an egalitarian community like Slashdot diminishes itself by rewarding a member for being a celebrity.
Slashdot is a news community driven by submissions from ordinary people who make themselves known by their technological acumen. Slashdot's honesty comes from this -- real people are making the editorial judgments on topics they know well. Turn the contributors into celebrities and you end up with people like Jerry Pournelle, who can't review a monitor without describing his home, spouse, relatives, friends, recently published novel and the insipid pet names of every computer that he owns.
If Jon Katz really wants to understand Slashdot, he needs to set aside the self-centered approach that made him into a writer who gets published in places like the New York Times. The same approach that sent his book into four printings, as he announced this Wednesday in a Katzdot contribution about his book tour. By defining his life as Stuff That Matters, Katz sets himself apart from everyone else in the Slashdot community. "This flap about me has to do with the kind of place Slashdot decides it wants to be," Katz stated in November. "I'd rather write about other things."
Until he can do that, Katz doesn't belong there.
Rogers Cadenhead is a professional writer who did not mention any of his books in this commentary.
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