Hacker News isn’t a Support Group

Hacker News is once again mired in self-reflection concerning the mean people who bring the place down, reduced from the glorious-but-didn’t-actually-exist past when Hacker News was so much nicer.

Today’s instance comes via the cynical You can’t impress developers. So don’t try (there’s a weird paradox that the people who are loudest about the purported mean people tend to be incredibly cynical and, well, mean. Nice people don’t declare groups “idiots” or “trolls” as a means of lazily dismissing counter-opinions).

Here are the comments about a python interpreter in JavaScript that motivated this latest round of navel gazing and disappointed eye rolling.

About 25% of the comments on that story concern how disappointed someone is in the community (meta noise, really). Of the rest, about 50% are of the “neat” variety, and a couple (quite legitimately) ask why they would want to use that.

There are one or two truly negative comments that are easily ignored.

Where is the problem? That people aren’t head over heels about a python interpreter in JavaScript? One that has previously been submitted and discussed on HN?

This is a useless project to 99%+ of the audience of Hacker News (and cross-language projects of this sort are, in many ways, a dime a dozen in the era of emscripten). It is definitely a neat hack, but failing to have utility or use for most of the audience, it isn’t reasonable to expect, much less demand, a euphoric response.

But it made it to the top of the front page” you might say. “Therefore it has relevance and interest to most of Hacker News, so all naysayers are in the wrong place.

Which is the common retort that simply isn’t true.

A post of niche interest can find itself at the top of the front page with mere dozens of up-arrows. Most of us are very thrifty in voting stories up, making for very sparse competition. Flagging is a tool for truly inappropriate posts, so it isn’t a counter-balance.

And often people up-arrow simply based upon the title pandering to some belief or annoyance (readily apparent when many of the comments are completely disassociated with the linked content). On Friday a post titled “Hated expensive, crappy stock photos so I made this.” topped Hacker News (it was later renamed by the mods to the much more vanilla “Show HN: Free hi-resolution photos for your website. 10 new photos every 10 days“). The linked site was ten arguable quality stock-style images.

The title deserved and yielded commentary and question, again bringing forth another round of omphaloskepsis: It was ten free images, of the sort that you can find by the tens of thousands on sites like Flickr, and some vapor promises of stock image salvation(*1).

When a post of uncertain merit sits atop the front page, expect some in the community to have a less favorable impression. I would be deeply concerned if Hacker News reacted in any other way.

Having had posts that did “well” on Hacker News — often yielding loads of highly-critical commentary that caused me to stomp my feet and declare Hacker News totally over — I learned that there can be a greater than 100:1 ratio of link followers to up-arrows. We shouldn’t assume that the other 99% are implicit up-arrows, when many might have significant issues with the submission.

And you’ll often find those concerns reflected in the comments. That’s why comments exist. If you only care about up arrows, don’t veer into those dangerous lands. Perhaps HN needs a separate “Kudos” section where the thin-skinned and group-encouragement-we’re-like-brothers sorts (if brothers refrained from any criticism) can dole out the platitudes and thank-yous, steering clear of the offensive discussion that happens in the comment section.

Nor is it reasonable or constructive to be put off when people ask what the utility or value of a project is, as such is the very nature and reason for discussion. If you build CSS replacements for company logos — another discussion unfortunately polluted by a lot of garbage meta noise — spare the defensiveness when someone asks why? (and variations like “why not SVG?“), because they will and should ask those questions, and the answers and related discussion are much more constructive and interesting than yet another holier-than-thou spiel about how disappointed one is in the community, or empty platitudes and back patting.

A funeral is for the living. The comments are for the members of HN. They are not in deference or service of whoever happened to be behind the discussed topic.

If you are looking for a support group, Hacker News isn’t it. And you should be grateful that it isn’t: If you want someone to tell you that you’re the smartest and will be super successful with your latest project ideas, pitch it to your mother. If you want people to tear it apart and ask tough questions, submit it to HN.

(*1) – What would have made that more interesting would be a CSS hack to render arbitrary websites on the laptop screens.