A former coworker pointed me to the news today that freshmeat has suddenly ceased operations. I spent the rest of the day flooded with memories and the urge to jot a few of them down before they’re lost. Perhaps they’ll have some nostalgia value if you were part of that scene in those days.
I was the first hire when freshmeat was bought by Andover.net in 1999, and enjoyed the privilege of working with Patrick (scoop), Daniel, Steve, and the rest of the crew for the last fifteen years. I managed the site and the staff on a day-to-day basis, provided customer support, and wrote and solicited articles. I was on salary there until finally caught by one of the rounds of layoffs in 2010, then came back as a contractor within a year and remained on the staff until I quit just three weeks ago.
For anyone interested, here’s freshmeat’s history from my perspective (I joined it two years into its life). First, the corporate story that shaped its path:
Keeping letterhead companies in business
Andover Technologies (if memory serves) became Andover.net, which was bought by VA Research, which became VA Linux Systems, which became VA Linux, which became VA Software, which became SourceForge. This mother company bought or invented websites and bundled them into a media branch called OSDN, which became OSTG, which became Geeknet, into which SourceForge folded before it was all sold to Dice.
Did I forget any steps there? It was a dizzying shell game. Generously, you might say the name changed each time a new direction was chosen. You might also say it was to distract from the fact that the latest strategy flopped yet again.
The awkward, meandering path traced all the way back to the first, strange acquisition by VA Research, rumored to have been made just because the CEO thought it would be cool to own Slashdot. (Robin says it was to stop development of Patrick’s SourceForge competitor Server 51, and Eric Raymond has another version in the comments below.) VA sold hardware running Linux. The question of what that had to do with a Web publishing company was… never answered. They became the corporate face of Linux, acquiring linux.com and issuing a record-setting IPO as LNUX. They hired some of the best Linux programmers and kernel hackers and bought Andover, and we all sat around looking at each other and waiting to be told what we were supposed to be doing together. I don’t remember anyone ever even pretending there was an answer. At best, they acted mysterious, as though some grand master plan would eventually be revealed.
VA wanted to be the Dell of Linux, but when it became clear that Dell wanted to be the Dell of Linux, they got out of the hardware business and became a software company. I don’t know what they did at this point, besides some consulting. They eventually decided to take one of the sites, SourceForge, productize it as a self-hosted source code repository, and sell support for it. After that ran its course, the media group became all that was left, and they sold it off to what I assume was just the highest bidder.
In short? Picture a stream that starts as Andover, broadens into various tangential adventures, then shrinks and winds back into itself again, renamed Geeknet.
(By the way, if you’re curious, I was never privy to any numbers, but always heard that ThinkGeek, the online retailer, was by far the most (only?) profitable part of the business for years on end.)
First hill on the rollercoaster
As a side benefit of my job, I got to see a bit of history unfolding in the form of the Dotcom boom, when money was flowing and people were looking around for places to throw it like Brewster trying to shed his millions. Image was king, and everyone was out to impress everyone else. They would fly the entire company to trade shows and put us up in over-the-top hotels so people in business suits could walk by and puzzle over a booth full of people on beanbag chairs staring down into laptops. Each night, a different company would try to outdo the others with a lavish party designed for frat boys that would fall feebly at the feet of a Dungeons & Dragons crowd.
Patrick was in Germany, so I went around the country to represent freshmeat at the corporate meetings every few months, where we would sit around and discuss new strategies for integrating the company’s sites that we all knew would never be implemented.
Thankfully, the corporate heads never sought to exert any real influence on the content and running of freshmeat (thanks in part to Editor-in-Chief Robin running interference), so I think we followed the same direction we would have taken if it had just remained Patrick’s pet project. At our height, we attracted an enthusiastic community of users we enjoyed serving and chatting with each day.
Slouching towards 404
After the bubble burst, the days of meeting face-to-face were largely over, and we had less and less communication with headquarters over time. We’d never really had a place in the company, and now became even more isolated. The fact that they left us alone became a double-edged sword, more and more so as VA/SourceForge/Geeknet contracted and interest in taking on new endeavors or giving new life to old ones disappeared. We did get enough investment in our cause to put out the third version of the site in 2009, this time a complete rewrite of the code, but that was our last hoorah. We slowly settled into a shadow of our former self.
It’s certainly been five years — probably closer to ten — since I had any contact with anyone at the corporate office (where “any” means “any”), aside from when I was laid off and Jeff, sweet as ever, very kindly called me in person to break the news.
I heard about Dice’s purchase of Geeknet two years ago when a coworker spotted it on Slashdot, and that’s about as much communication as I’ve ever had with them. They’ve been a black box from which paychecks flow.
Just over a year ago, Patrick told us he was leaving. He’d been put to work on SourceForge for the previous 18 months, and it was clear that the plans he’d proposed for freshmeat (can we all agree to still call it that?) had little chance of attracting interest and the resources to implement them.
What never was
Corporate disinterest aside, freshmeat could clearly never continue as it was. It was a relic in an age of app stores and distribution package systems and source repositories with their own RSS feeds. It needed to be reimagined to be relevant again. How to do that would have been an interesting challenge I would have enjoyed working on. I’m sorry we never got the chance.
My timely departure
For the last couple of years, Ray, Joel, and myself have been the last of the long, colorful line of editors keeping freshmeat updated around the clock. (Our apologies if it’s been not quite so around-the-clock lately, but that’s half the staff of the good old days.) I’ve had serious problems with my neck and back this whole time, and finally decided last month that I needed to lay off using the computer so much if I was ever going to really recover. I told the other two, and Ray said he was planning to leave also, so we may as well find replacements for us both.
Three weeks ago, I finished my last day at freshmeat, having no idea how soon it would be the last day for everyone.
A sudden goodbye
I’m quite sorry about how abruptly things came to an end. At least one new staff member had trained to replace me and Ray and was awaiting his paperwork to join the company, and learned that he wouldn’t be getting it when the site locked him out and the “Closed” banner appeared across the top. I’ve seen several people lament that they’ve lost personal data like their list of favorite projects. I really regret this. It would have been handled so much more responsibly in Patrick’s day.
I especially regret that Patrick wasn’t included in the decision and that a more tasteful ending couldn’t have been arranged. The latest owners are just the custodians of a legacy built on years of work by a lot of good people. freshmeat has a hard-earned history we can all take pride in. It deserved a more dignified end than just flipping off the lights.
So long, so many thanks
Those are my recollections of our little footnote in the Web’s history. I hope they bring back some good memories and offer some answers about what happened. It was a privilege to be a part of freshmeat. Thank you to Robin for bringing me into the fold, to all the users who supported us and made us feel we were doing something special, and to the fun and diligent coworkers I looked forward to chatting with each day. Above all, thanks to Patrick, a great boss and friend who did more good than we’ll ever know.