The Rise of Hacker News Is Bad News for the Tech World

Edit 2015-06-09 – I caught a post a few days ago on a blog I occasionally visit documenting the Hacker News effect they experienced from a day-long, #1 position link, which yielded them some 15,000 unique visits. That’s a rather incredible decline from a few short years ago when appearing anywhere on the front page, even for an hour or two, had echos that saw closing on 100,000 visits in a day. Perhaps the concern about the centralization and influence of HN is no longer valid.

Reddit 2048

Paul Graham’s Hacker News social news site has been serving the technology community since early 2007, created in the shadow (and spirit) of a young Reddit, itself launched as a YCombinator company under Graham’s tutelage.

Hacker News overcame the hurdle of establishing the network effect early on as armies of young developers flocked to catch the ear of that seed accelerator, and was originally intended as a tool purely for such people.

Much as with Facebook’s rise from the cool college kids to the mainstream, Hacker News became the desired go-to technology news site, despite considerable technical and usability deficiencies that continue to this day.

Hacker News has grown into a heavyweight: Getting on the front page is a coup, and can yield tens of thousand of visits by desirable tech insiders and trendsetters. Such links have long-lasting echos as those same users are often bloggers and tweeters and content creators who’ll send the next wave of visitors and pagerank bonuses your way.

It’s a very good place to be.

I’ve benefited from a number of these front-page appearances over the years, including one less than 24 hours ago, and am thankful for every visitor that comes this way.

I am appreciative for the people who submit my stuff, the people who follow the links, and for the people who actually read the content and make interesting and often very educational comments, even when they’re critical.

But the growth of Hacker News concerns me. It is a growth that has come at the expense of many other social news technology sites such as the technology/programming subs on reddit (which in its original subless incarnation was essentially Hacker News Threes), dzone, among many others.

Hacker News is smothering competitors. It has more influence than is healthy for the industry.

Whose Interest Does Hacker News Serve?

It is also run by an operator who has a significant financial interests in segments of this industry. Neither you or I can discern whether they are benevolent or malevolent dictators because we simply don’t know: The mechanisms and implementation of moderation are completely shrouded from us. The subtle tools of content and conversation massaging unknown.

People are hellbanned for what often seems like capricious, abuse-of-power reasons. People are slowbanned at varying levels of forced aggravation, presumably to encourage them, passive-aggressively, to get lost.

There will always be those people who support punishments for specific actions (just as there will be those who will support arbitrary and absolute power), but there will also be many who completely oppose it but usually have no idea it’s even happening around them.

First they came for the people who complained about absurd submission title changes…

Comments and submissions purportedly have weightings and anchors put on them. The supposition that hiding comment karma was actually to surreptitiously impose yet another tool of manipulating content is a legitimate concern.

Curation is masked under the notion that it’s community driven. You think you’re the chef, but you’re actually the ground beef.

Some have argued that such heavy-handed moderation is necessary to defend the reputation of YCombinator, which Hacker News is directly tied to. And in the end the site is wholly the property of Paul Graham. It is absolutely his baby, to do with as he pleases and he needn’t answer to anyone, but is that best for the community?

Given those hidden, potentially (if not probably) abused mechanisms, how is it possible to have a discussion on Hacker News about the viability of a startup, the economics of valuation, the best tactics to encourage a robust and healthy conversation, or any other matter that at all interferes with the interests or beliefs of Graham and his team? No matter how much you feel that the man and his team are great and above that, is there not an element of concern?

I’m a huge fan of Paul Graham’s essays, and have referenced them countless times on here. That admiration does not carry to every one of his pursuits and beliefs.

Will you get banned (or, more insidiously, subtly punished) because you downvote or disagree with one of PG’s comments, or criticize the business model or valuation of a YC company? What if you criticize something that Mr. Graham’s self-identified, “thin-skinned” wife (who is also a founding partner of YCombinator, but in the context of this discussion Mr. Graham is most often identified as the operator of HN) says?

This mere suggestion will outrage some, seeming like an unfair accusation without proof, but it’s neither unreasonable nor unfair: We (which includes those outraged readers) simply have no idea, and to even broach the subject puts you in perilous straights on HN. There have been many examples of questionable moderation: users who are [Dead] with no visible history of anything that would merit it, others risking their own accounts trying to make them aware of their wasted efforts at engagement; Other users complaining about the site being mysteriously slow for them, a surreptitious slowban in effect; Titles changed seemingly at random, with absolutely no consistency or reason or benefit to the site; Comments and stories rising and falling at rates very inconsistent with visible inputs; Domains and stories flagged such that they’ll never get on the front page, or the submission will disappear after an hour, regardless of the actions of the community.

It is verboten to draw any attention to these possibly heavy-handed actions. The meatloaf is being made in secret, and you’re just to trust the chef’s choice of ingredients.

To what effect?

Are the comments on Hacker News particularly good? In the odd thread they are decent enough, and there are some wonderful contributors, but in many others they are simply terrible, and this is notably years into this purportedly advanced, effective through obscurity moderation approach: The dominant comment in many discussions are variations of “Why this article is dumb and the author is an idiot”, generally by people who haven’t the slightest idea what they’re talking about, but who feel oddly threatened by the submission.

Has the heavy handed, secret-police like continual intervention achieved demonstrable results? It certainly doesn’t seem so, though I’m sure with enough beatings morale will improve to the point that people will claim they do.

Of course I’m looking at it from my own very limited perspective, because I am analyzing from my own position and beliefs. For instance I rather like impassioned debate, and see it as neither hostile or toxic. I’m just one person.

Were I the despot of HN, it would be very bad for some people. I’d probably tell everyone that I need to ply my activity in secret (alluding to super-advanced, but must remain hidden, algorithms…trust me), lest I give up the secret meatloaf recipe to the vile trolls and toxic commentators who I bravely guard the fort against. Also because accountability is boring, and I am above such things.

Towards A Better Social News Site

Computing power is copious and powerful. Storage is outrageously fast and voluminous.

The one-sized fits all model is broken and always has been. It was an optimizing/coping strategy that is no longer credible. Having a single funnel that you can massage and direct is best for the operator, but not for the user.

Social news sites that presume that all users value the same things, and value the same personality traits and behaviors, are relics that need to be obsoleted to the past. Reddit solved this problem partially through the subreddit model, however even it holds onto its all-subs have one ranking model that came about after the failure of their aspirational recommendation functionality.

People should be able to curate their own content over time. To intentionally create their own filter bubble.

If I vote down a story that you voted up, your vote should count less in my rankings of stories. And vice versa. The same holds for comments.

Above the user to user influence, and even more importantly, the assumption that the judgment of one or multiple moderators reigns supreme is simply nonsensical because we all have different opinions and values (I would gladly suffer the `jerk’ if their contribution is interesting and illuminating, while I find the prattle of a sycophant just entirely a waste of time and bytes. Other people quite naturally have differing opinions).

Those of us who lived through the era of despotic BBS operators (the dream position of everyone with control tendencies) would rather move forward from that.

This is complex, expensive set logic, but we have the tools and the technology to fully idealize it. Make it a P2P, Bitcoin-based decentralized karma-wallet while you’re at it.

We need something better. Go forth and make it happen.

Addendum – 2014-04-02

This train-of-thought post became much more popular than I anticipated, yielding a number of emails that I wanted to touch upon-

-Many have emailed me Hacker News alternatives. While I thank you for making me aware of them, I am not going to add any links to this post because I think it diminishes the purpose, which is making people consider the conflicts of interest and the hidden hand of unchecked moderation

-Others questioned why I faulted Mr. Graham and the others involved with Hacker News. The only fault I attribute to them is being human. All humans on this planet suffer from foibles such as unrecognized bias, ego, and an inclination towards promoting self-interests while honestly believing they’re acting impartially: The people arguing things that you don’t agree with, or that go against your interests, will always seem a little meaner, their actions deserving of less leeway.

While the meta noise of the hordes can be a nuisance, unchecked power that occurs in secret is a concern, especially when the people in charge have a conflict of interest

-It was never hard to figure out who I was on Hacker News, given that I identified myself by name and µbiography in my profile. Two days after this was posted I found my home IP blocked from Hacker News (or rather slowbanned to the point that Cloudfare gives up), reinforcing everything I said above.