Paul Graham and the folks over at YCombinator have done much to reenergize early-stage entrepreneurship and encourage the creation of many new and innovative startups including DropBox, Posterous, Loopt, Justin.TV, Scribd and many others. They also gave us Hacker News, which for me was a welcome addition for discovering tech stories. HN and Techmeme are the main two tech aggregators that I frequently skim.
“We wanted to try to recreate the way reddit felt back in 2006, when the users were mainly hackers. As reddit became more popular, its focus inevitably changed. This was good for most users, but it left some of the earlier ones feeling left out. We wanted to create a new home for people like us”
He also places a huge emphasis on civility in the comments and makes a commitment to “aggressively ban … mean people” as quoted below
“The other thing we’re determined to do is keep the comment threads civil. We’re going to aggressively ban spammers, trolls, and mean people. The policy will evolve over time, but here is the core principle: don’t say anything in a comment thread that you wouldn’t say in person. And in particular, no ad hominems. If you dislike something someone has said, point out why it’s mistaken, instead of making remarks about them personally.
Most forums degrade over time, but we don’t think that’s inevitable. We’re determined to keep this site good, because we use it ourselves.”
Unfortunately HackerNews falls short on this goal. At first I thought it was just me but I asked around and other people concurred. One prominent YCombintor graduate CEO said,
“Hacker News [can be] somewhat out of control. I only read HN comments when I want to get upset.”
In my opinion HN can get downright mean. Here is an example from pw0ncakes. It starts with “F***ing a**hole” and then “I am sick and f***ing tired of people ripping on my generation for not playing by someone else’s shi**y rules. Are the older people really so damn entitled as to not understand all this?” This comment received the most votes (61) out of 128 total comments and therefore comes first as you can see here.
Here is an example from Brerrabbit, whoever that is. Starts with “what a f***ing pompous blowhard … F*** you, you are not my Mother or my Father & I resent that implication.” Or this one from earl that starts with, “The reason Mark is an a**hole is that he’s trying to create / exploit cultural norms to prevent employees acting in their own self interest.”
Aside from the hatred directed at me for starting the debate, I actually think we did a good job of getting the debate going if 128 people left lengthy comments on HN to my post plus 80 more in Paul Dix’s rebuttal and yet more on Andrew Warner’s rebuttal. Overwhelmingly people were against my views. That’s fine. Overwhelmingly people were harsh but avoided obscenities even when they made personal attacks on me. I’m no prude, it’s just unpleasant to have stuff like this plastered on the internet about you. See definition: ad hominem. This is what many of the comments descended into.
I CERTAINLY opened myself up to attack by writing my original blog post about job hoppers with some incendiary language and tone. I walked some of this back, apologized and tried to tone down the argument here and then followed up with final thoughts here.
But the comments on my own blog were so much more balanced with people taking both sides of the debate. For anyone who attacked me on my blog but used their actual names I left their comments. Believe me there were plenty of these and many were hurtful and inflammatory. I have thick enough skin or I wouldn’t blog. If somebody was really inflammatory and posted anonymously I deleted the comments. I think I deleted about 3 out of 322 comments (<1%) and those were for attacking other commenters.
I’ve seen vitriolic responses on HN on several occasion. I mostly get hammered on HN if I write about a controversial topic like criticizing Apple (in fact, what prompted me to write this post today was that I was asked on Twitter to write a post about Facebook. I have been avoiding it because I wasn’t up for the inevitable public pummeling this week). It’s not enough to attack my ideas – it has to be personal. Ad hominem.
In fact, I was reluctant to write this post because I know it’s likely to lead to the inevitable bashing on HackerNews, which unfortunately also spills over into hate emails that some people from HN send me personally (no prizes for guessing my email address). From Ji [last name withheld]
“Congratulations … Your post have [sic] made it on front page of Hacker news … lot of good engineers leaves you after they worked for you. I believe it’s more likely that you suck that’s why engineers leave you instead of the other way around …Good luck finding the 10% mediocre employees who are “loyal” and will stay in a company for 10+ years because they don’t have better offers so that they have to stand jerks like you.
one of your 10000+ haters”
But I don’t want to be bullied into not furthering the conversation. As I’ve said very publicly I love blogging because I believe in the freedom to state one’s points of view and the learning that comes from the discourse afterward. Public discourse is the highest form of democracy.
My suggestions (which will not be popular with many of Ycombinator’s hackers but may meet your goal of civility). All
1. Make all users post under real names that you verify – This in and of itself would help temper comments. It’s totally acceptable to me for people to harshly criticize my points-of-view. No problem. But calling me a f***ing a**hole or some of the other epithets used goes too far. If people used real names and if these were crawlable and searchable in Google the transparency alone would help regulate people. Not everybody but many. HackerNews doesn’t need to be JuicyCampus.
Better still add photos the was Disqus and Quora do. It humanizes everybody and drives more civil conversation. As Paul said in his blog posting, “don’t say anything in a comment thread that you wouldn’t say in person.” Photos drives this closer to reality.
2. Allow people to flag inappropriate comments – HackerNews only allows you to flag stories that might be inappropriate. So there’s no way for me to highlight that I’m being harshly attacked by Brerrabbit and no retribution to his standing on HN for crossing the line.
3. Send me alerts when comments come in on a story I’ve written – The interesting thing about HackerNews is that I don’t submit my own stories there – others submit them. So I often have no idea when I have a story on the site. I usually find out late in the day or the next day when I see the logs and am having a lot of links come in from HN. Even then you can’t always find the story! You can only find it easily if you have the story ID. It would be easy to implement this. If you have a blog and you link it to a HackerNews ID and email address then when any stories on your site are submitted you could opt to receive an email update when somebody comments. This is how Disqus and IntenseDebate work. I feel that if people are going to say negative things about you at a minimum it is helpful to at least know they are being said so you can defend yourself if you think they’re unfair.
Has anybody else noticed that the discourse on HN can at times descend into a mean spiritedness when people disagree with you? Is it just me? OK, HN folks, let ‘er rip. I can take it.
(Cross-posted @ Both Sides of the Table )