I Quit Hacker News

Last week I finally gave up and ditched my Hacker News account. I just changed the password to some long random string so I’d never be tempted to log in again. Lack of password recovery isn’t a bug there, it’s a feature.

I’m going to avoid writing one of those stereotypical flameout posts that users with lots of karma who quit usually write. I’m not bitter about any time I spent there, and though I perhaps regret the amount of it, that’s nobody’s fault but mine. But I do see some problems with the community that I’m going to enumerate here. Many are probably endemic to any online community.

1. Lack of a down-vote means vocal minorities are disproportionately represented. How many Hacker News users really want to see 5 stories about the TSA body scanners every time they log in? It doesn’t matter, because as long as 10% of them up-vote every story on the topic it’s going to flood the top page with them until they move on to something else.

Some people will say “they have flags” but flags are not down-votes, and even most people like myself who wish there were down-votes don’t use them as such. Flagging is for spam, trolling, etc. I may not like what you have to say, but I’ll fight for your right to not be flagged for saying it.

2. Votes on comments are used to express agreement or disagreement rather than value, perhaps because many people simply cannot see the difference between the two. In an ideal community people would up-vote arguments for adding value to the conversation and down-vote only for detracting. I’d much rather see something well-reasoned and well-stated that I disagree with than just another guy confirming my own opinion about something. That puts me square in the minority on Hacker News and, to be fair, probably just about any site with voting. In fact it probably puts me less in the minority on Hacker News than it would be on most similar sites, but it’s still problematic enough that karma isn’t really a quantification of the value you bring to the community but rather the popularity of your viewpoint within it.

3. The community is full of ideologues to the point where the comments are most often just predictable talking points being regurgitated ad nauseum. Everyone talks about the intelligent conversation, and it does happen, but far more times it’s just the same clichés repeated over and over.

You know whenever you see a post about Microsoft’s revenues going up that the first thing you’ll see when you click comments will be the old internet standby of “Yeah but it’s all Windows and Office and those will be worthless in 5 years”. People said that on Slashdot 10 years ago, and they’ll say that on whatever comes after Hacker News 10 years from now.

You know that any comment that could be conceivably taken as anti-Apple or in favor of any big corporation other than Apple will be down-voted for disagreement (not lack of value) and the opposite will be true as well. Fluff posts from John Gruber, who rarely says anything at all of value (and I say this as someone who spends most of my time working on iOS projects) are extraordinarily popular because it fits within the community’s ideology

The ideology is often anti-corporate to the point of naiveté, and that’s nothing compared to how anti-government it is. These are the result of a larger problem (which is certainly not endemic to HN, and is in fact ruining discourse everywhere) which is that everything is always discussed in extremes. There is only black and white, with little room left for shades of gray. The term “evil” (the silliest and most counterproductive word to enter tech discussions ever) is thrown about haphazardly.

4. The community is often snobbish and out of touch with how the other half lives. This is a community of white collar workers who quite frequently look down on blue collar workers. I’m sorry but it’s true. A TSA worker, to them, is not some guy without a college degree who is feeding his family, he’s an amoral pawn of an evil bureaucracy that exists solely to ensure that peaceful Americans have to get their junk touched by the back of someone’s hand before boarding a plane.

5. It’s a time suck. That one’s self-explanatory to anyone who has used the site.

6. It removes comments from where they should be, on the destination site. When you read a blog post, then click back, then comment, you’ve greatly reduced your chance of speaking to the author. Unless he’s an HN user (which has grown increasingly more likely as the community has grown more insular and self-referential which is a problem in and of itself) you’re not even going to get the perspectives of a wide range of people. You’ve instead decided to converse only with a very specific subset of the people who read the same thing which, in and of itself, is a somewhat self-selected subset of the overall population.

7. It reduces blogging time. My thoughts and ideas belong here where people who are interested can easily see them aggregated, not in an out-of-context threads paged linked to from a profile page on another site that. I like that my comments are recorded here for posterity.

So from now on, for all those reasons and more, I’ll be opting out of pretty much all sites of that ilk. What little writing time I have is precious and should and will remain public, rather than a response to a response to someone who can’t tell the difference between being a freedom fighter and being a douche to a guy who makes $12 an hour trying to stop planes from getting blown up.

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56 Responses to “I Quit Hacker News”

  1. I applaud your efforts sir. You make a lot of valid points, which are very similar to the reasons I no longer take part in forums. My time is precious and having flame wars only wastes the time I could be posting something valuable to people in my development community.

  2. Comments are never useful on hacker news. 0% in fact.

    If someone feels the urge to make a comment re: a hacker news articles, the correct thing is to post a blog about it. You get the Google Ads that way, and really, who cares — except kids — if a comment is down or up-voted? It’s ridiculous.

    Thanks for the post!

  3. Well at least you’ve got your reasons for leaving. I chuckled a little at point 6, I’ve been working on a project that tackles exactly that issue (bleetbox.com). I tried to bring it up on HN, didn’t go down amazingly well. I’m not sure if it was the fact that in it people were disagreeing with the awesomeness of Apple.

    Don’t be a stranger to HN, some good stuff does show up there every now and then.

  4. The true irony in my personal circumstance is that I was only referred to this blog post after clicking a link on Hacker News. : )

    Although I am a relatively new member of the HN community, I very much agree on several of your points, namely the inability to vote down repetitive content…which quite frankly is a substantial amount of news that you receive through the blog stream.

  5. Unfortunately I agree. It’s a bunch of fan boys worshipping PG wanting to get into YC. I never read the comments any more and just use the site to link harvest good stories.

    • … epitomized by the idea that “success” for a startup is “Getting funded” and “movng to san francisco”. I imagine there are some pretty big beer parties for the few who manage to find that level of “success”.

      Real, actual, startup success is not celebrated there, nor is it in line with the program.

      The number one secret to success is to not have your idea derailed….and derailing your idea is what venture capitalists are great at. (I have no experience of angels, so I can’t compare them to the %100 rate of venture capitalist bad advice I’ve seen.)

  6. RiderOfGiraffes Says:

    I partially agree, and partially disagree – nothing is ever black and white. I believe there needs to be a better way of interacting with people, a way to disagree politely, air alternate points of view, and share technical experience.

    Leaving doesn’t solve the problem of leavening. If you simply write, then eventually what you write will become less connected and of less value. You must also read. But where?

    In his famous speech “You and Your research” (here:
    http://www.cs.virginia.edu/~robins/YouAndYourResearch.html)
    Richard Hamming wrote about people getting more done with their doors closed, but remaining relevant with their doors open.

    I’d be interested in your opinion on that.

    • That’s a good point. I’d be much more inclined to keep reading the comments on HN if they were nuanced, but they’re not. Either the people there aren’t half as intelligent as they think they are, or they’re simply not applying it most of the time. (Smart people have dumb conversations too.)

      The nice thing about blogs is that they are somewhat connected. Between trackbacks and google vanity searches, you’ll find that if you link to another blog post, the person who wrote it will often find it and respond.

      • RiderOfGiraffes Says:

        I’m still working fitfully on a system that uses Bayesian filtering to find submisions and comments that are interesting. I usually skim the comments – it doesn’t take long – and I’m pretty selective about the links. There are still interesting things, and occasionally interesting comments. I just need to apply some triage. Hence the filter.

        Working on it.

  7. RiderOfGiraffes Says:

    Clever WordPress leaves the closing parenthesis on the URL. Here it is without:

    http://www.cs.virginia.edu/~robins/YouAndYourResearch.html

  8. whoop dedo Says:

    and i also dislike the karma swarms certain people seem to instantly generate. anything pg posts….and i mean anything, is going to end up with 30+ karma. the hn community has put too many people in the unassailable column…its tiring.

  9. HN (and any “social communication system”) is interested only in democratic opinion-building — which doens’t help none of us:

    If we would apply the democratic principle to programming — we simply *all* would end up to be like Microsoft…

    P.S: Yes, YOU: PG: Please take note!!

  10. I plead guilty for never leaving a comment on the author’s site. And sometimes I don’t even bother reading the article and just read comments (based on length and/or karma).

    HN is a time sink, but I’ve also learned many things through submissions and comments thanks to people like you.

    Thanks for both your post and your previous involvement in HN.

  11. I have to agree with you on what you said about Apple and HN.

    Wish you luck.

  12. ObnoxiousHoodOrnament Says:

    I bailed on HN early this year. I still visit ~once a day, but participation in discussion is totally off the table. It’s still more useful to me than Reddit or Digg, and I’ve rediscovered my love for Slashdot in the meantime.

    Also, let’s not be in denial in regard to how strong the Reddit influence is over there. When there are stories about veganism and the TSA plastered all over the frontpage, you know damn well where that came from.

  13. I agree with you. Specially at points 5, 6 e 7. Sometimes i just read something with alot of comments at HN, but at the blog itself there´s none. It´s not fair with the autor. At the beginning it was much better than now.

  14. Online communities need editors.

    Back in the 1990s, “moderator” became a catch-phrase for spam-blocker, babysitter, and DMCA respondent.

    We need it to return to its real meaning, which is the person who sits in the middle and filters out the crap and highlights the good stuff.

    Reddit, HackerNews and even blog comments all need editors to perform this vital role.

  15. You make some very valid points. I find the regurgitation of themes and opinions somewhat frustrating at times, as well as the focus on start-ups and the ‘next killer web-app’.

    It almost feels like a hostile environment for conversation, but then to be honest so do a lot of programming / development forums and usenet groups.

    I think we can only indulge ourselves in conversation with peers up to a point, beyond which it becomes somewhat detached from the realities of the real world (most people out there aren’t spending 50% of their time thinking about securing venture capital and the other 50% on which of the next big flashy technologies to use to launch their latest app).

  16. I agree with you on most points and I have tried to stay away from HN several times. Unfortunately, there isn’t anything better really. Commenting on people’s blogs is sometimes difficult (apparently not here) because I’m not going to create a separate account for myself on 200 different blogs. Maybe that just means I’m not selective enough on who I listen to. Also, discussing on blogs means I’m putting the original statement (the blog post) at the center of the entire debate. Quite frequently that’s not what I want as other comments may be more interesting than the blog post itself. So that’s why it’s not as clear to me as it is to you on which site the discussion belongs. The blogger him/herself also has the power to censor me, which I don’t like at all. I’m just bringing up all the counter arguments I have, but on balance I might still agree with you. I have to think about it more.

  17. Yes, all good points indeed. Imo, it is helpful to remember this isn’t anything new, it’s been this way at Slashdot for years. HN is just a smaller playing field, so it’s easy to think it should be different.

    fwiw, at HN (and Slashdot), I always skim for technical articles; this is the true value of these sites, and the pop/political bs is just watercooler talk, to be ignored.

  18. I’m new to HN. I made some comments. One had no value, got voted down. Makes sense. The others people didn’t like, I think, I don’t know for sure, but the down votes on me were annoying. At any rate, I see this negative number next to my name and it’s apparently my HN karma. It would be nice to have some easily visible “rules” or guidelines…maybe there is, but they weren’t obvious.

    A site’s community who punishes new / ignorant users is major deterrent. I could go to Icanhascheezburger right now, produce a shoddy attempt at lolcat speak in a comment and I’m pretty sure I will be warmly welcomed.

  19. I’d be in favor of reversing what can be down-voted: allow submissions to be downvoted, but only allow comments to be upvoted. Then the comment ‘vote’ more easily becomes “is this good?” (or at least removes the “is this something you disagree with?”) and we can maintain a ‘flag’ on comments for the trolls/spam. This approach is far more “cream rises to the top” for comments, and far more “is this HN?” for the submissions.

    Also it’s been my experience that “deeper” comments tend to flesh out the substance, but also tend to have far fewer points (unless attached to a ‘rich’ parent). I don’t have handy examples, but I’ve seen a comment attached to a 1-or-2-point comment that are worth their bandwidth consumption in gold. But they rarely get seen. Up-votes ‘deep’ in a thread should probably have more ‘weight’ since they get fewer views.

  20. Bravo; my time on Hacker News also short lived. After reading some ridiculous story about the latest Google gaffe, I had the audacity to post a critical comment. That was it; downvoted to the bottom and apparently my further comments didn’t even appear to other users on any post.

    Just another IT site run by narrow-minded white monkeys in their 20s. Next!

  21. rokhayakebe Says:

    HN is the best online community, but put too many smart people together and this is what you get. The following describes the community:

    ” So if I asked you about art, you’d probably give me the skinny on every art book ever written. Michelangelo, you know a lot about him. Life’s work, political aspirations, him and the pope, sexual orientations, the whole works, right? But I’ll bet you can’t tell me what it smells like in the Sistine Chapel. You’ve never actually stood there and looked up at that beautiful ceiling; seen that. If I ask you about women, you’d probably give me a syllabus about your personal favorites. You may have even been laid a few times. But you can’t tell me what it feels like to wake up next to a woman and feel truly happy. “

  22. I agree 98% with most of your points.

    However, it strikes me as a little bit disingenuous that you’re leaving now that you’ve acquired so many followers (including myself) thanks to the same site you criticize so much. Using those awful TSA cliches that is like you’ve just been elected to office and couldn’t give a f*ck anymore what we plebs have to go trough to get on a plane :)

  23. MysteryTroy Says:

    I agree, the TSA stuff is getting out of hand, but that’s what the community wants to talk about. Hacker News’s implementation is cool.

    The stuff you talked about are just how the system works to promote conversation and community.

    You’ve essentially quit the hacker news community. Given up your citizenship :)

    http://tech.rawsignal.com

  24. All good points, but you missed a few:
    1- They regularly censor and ban people who participate in the spirit of Hacker News for not being politically correct. EG: You cannot disagree with global warming, or Paul Graham without being banned.
    2- They also delete people, posts and comments without warning.
    3- Since they do this, most people don’t realize that they are heavily censoring the site.
    4- Thus HN has become like North Korea, a hermit kingdom of socialist, wannabe “Startup” employees, who are profoundly opposed to bootstrapping (aka starting a “lifestyle business”) or single women or men starting businesses (“PG disagrees”) etc.

    It really is a terrible site to try and participate in. But, occasionally has good links, so is useful without an account.

    Just don’t bother reading the comments… I think it is better not knowing just how bigoted so many people are.

  25. I don’t know if you were on Reddit a few years back, but I saw /r/programming go through the same problems. I saw it happen on DZone, I saw it happen on Digg.

    I don’t know if it is possible to run a big community without this happening.

  26. While I agree with most of your points, the point about the TSA and naivete among the hacker community really resonated with me. 95% (completely made up number but sounds “truthy” to me) of the opinions held by the computer nerd community is so black and white and without any hint of nuances that you wonder if most of the learn history and politics not from books but from comics. They hear something and keeps parroting it. One thing you can be reasonably sure of is that most of them have never been involved in politics or community leadership and complaining on the Internet is about as far as any of them will go. It’s so juvenile.

    In short, I understand your frustration. I do hope that someone will give your points some consideration and make a different (not necessarily better just different) HN like site.

  27. Could somebody enlight me how to use HN?

    I don’t get it.

    1. I posted some links but I cannot find them now to see responses. Why couldn’t it be as for stackoverflow where you get a notice?

    But more important:

    2. how can I filter that mass of links??

  28. Jakub Malinowski Says:

    It’s bad to say something sucks and to show no alternative. Give me an alternative, I’ll consider switching.

  29. [...] I Quit Hacker News (tags: hackernews) [...]

  30. Hey Matt thanks for the article, it’s especially relevant to me as I am trying to cut down on the time I spend reading each week. I’ve taken to the popular “batching” method where I only read any links all at once on the weekends. I did have a question for you though, and this is something I’ve been pondering for a while (several others also asked this): do you have a way to stay connected to the tech/entrepreneurship community outside of HN?

    As someone living in rural Ohio, I don’t really have a close group of entrepreneur friends to build deep RL relationships with. So, in the absence of that, I’ve been treating HN as my surrogate online startup family. Do you think there’s a better way to stay hooked in without just moving to a more tech-saavy city? I haven’t done a lot of online searching, but if you have any thoughts, I’d be very interested to hear them.

    • That’s a tough question. The thing is you want to remain current, but you also don’t want to become so hooked in that you’re totally out of touch with the lives of the average American.

      I’d recommend blogging. Read other blogs. Read the links on HN and email the people who wrote the articles you like. I’ve had some great conversations either here in the comments to my own blog or in emails that sprung from a post.

      • Good call Matt, thanks for responding, really appreciated. I keep a blog over at georgesaines.com, but it’s super-small time and I’ve got to get better just jumping in politely on other blog comments. Right now I sorta feel like such a small fish that nobody would respond! :)

  31. I spent a little time on HN, but stopped participating once I realized that it was productive to be popularist, but extemely counter productive to hold a divergent point of view. Still, I do have an RSS feed, and do track a twitter stream from the site, reading the more interesting links as they appear.

  32. Where do we go for collective high quality discourse and how do we find mentally stimulating things to read and talk about? Just as HN and Reddit are a time sink, so is any other high intensity labor in trying to find and connect with mentally stimulating content.

    I think those that are creating mentally stimulating content don’t have the time nor the desire to explain it to the masses. Either I read from their papers and posts, grok it and THEN formulate a question or I do nothing.They are not here to teach us directly. It is a waste of their capabilities, they are (rightfully) busy creating and thinking.

    I think Roberto Ierusalimschy said it best with http://lua-users.org/lists/lua-l/2008-06/msg00407.html

    Higher level discourse is an energy sink, just like the MIT style. We can’t make everything perfect.

    HN and Proggit is a peanut gallery.

  33. I’m far from a hugely active user of Hacker News, but I do have an opinion on a few of those points.

    1. This is a problem on _any_ social media site. The other one that I use, Reddit is even worse. And while it does let you pick certain categories to subscribe to, that doesn’t always help. TSA stuff ended up in /r/science even. And don’t talk to me about Prop 19. The site was rendered useless for me for the better part of 2 days because of people that are trying to pressure people to vote for something about some point I’m indifferent about at post in a country I don’t live in.

    2. I’m on the fence on this one. While I have thought downvotes will be useful at times, they lead to possible abuse like Digg’s bury brigade that came out a while back. The fact that the top voted comment on any sensationalist post is a highly voted rebuttal usually counters it out for me.

    3. Pretty much agree with you. Though tech companies tend to polarize all communities. Reddit tends to dislike Apple to the same extent that HN likes it.

    4, 5. No argument here.

    6. I don’t know about this one. I’ve submitted links to my blog to HN, some of which have done quite well before. On the one hand, it does bother me a bit to have the 50 or so comments occuring on HN while only 5 or 6 occur on my blog. But, had it not gone on HN, I might have had 2 on my blog and none elsewhere. So while I would like more of the discussion to be on my blog, it still benefits me. And in my experience, HN referrals are far more likely to bring comments than other sites.

    7. On the one hand that is kind of true. Certainly there have been some things that I have posted as comments on HN and Reddit that could have been blog posts. But on the other hand, some of these are not fully formed thoughts until I read the post that HN is linking to. Furthermore, reading these sites sometimes gives me ideas that do become blog posts. And finally, given that HN has brought me in most of my traffic when my blog posts go popular there, would I feel comfortable just hit and run submitting my links? Definitely not.

  34. If something is worth reading, then people will up vote it because it interests them. People with same interests will read it. Down voters will down vote anything they are not interested it. For example, I’m sure people down vote anything that is positive anything about MS, just because they are MS. So, in effect not voting is the same as down voting. The difference is down voters can’t abuse the system.

    • The problem with that is the same one inherent in Democracy (though more exaggerated) which is that most people don’t vote at all. If even 5% of readers vote for something it will rocket up the home page. If 5% of people want to hear every story about the TSA, the homepage gets flooded with them.

      If there were down-votes and 50% of people hated the TSA crap none would ever be highly rated.

  35. Nice writeup and very true. But what about the value of finding interesting articles?

  36. Hi!
    I aggree on your points, but you’ve explained in detail why forums are technically bad for collective intelligence.

    Expert Groups are small, that’s why teams can’t easily work in a forum efficiently. The deep meaning, timesaver and social networking tool you’re trying to find in forums doesn’t exist atm.

    Posts that subtract distraction and add knowledge to a topic and summarize in a big picture won’t happen unless the tool the people interact with is respecting the hidden rules of social networking.

    cheers :)

  37. Prazmilanisty Says:

    I have to agree with you on what you said about Apple

    good luck

  38. Pretty much agree with you.

  39. I totally agree with you!

    To fix some issues, I do the follow: I only read HN through Google Reader with the thread sorted by “Magic” (Who in Google has validated this name?).
    I only read the first ones and then click on “Mark all as read”.

    1.- I only go to the “real” article.
    2.- 95% of the news in HN which are repost or totally (find some adjectiv) are no more sucking my time.

    It is sad that the HN team is not fixing these long time raised issues (RSS for top stories, sort algo, etc.)…

  40. Anonacolypse Says:

    Another aspect to this, I believe, is the age factor of HN users and many others in general. I think this is also specifically a problem with YC: it really is focused on younger users – who really lack a perspective that is founded on many years in the valley.

    We see many of the same recycling of thought now, while the execution on many tech sites is better than, say, 1997 to 2000; the format and core idea is the same as slashdot and other sites.

    I just think that this is a problem that we will always have. Pretentious new generations…

  41. I hate to say it, but you sound so naive. I have yet to see a forum where someone did not leave citing similar concerns. The oft-suggested solution is moderation, which works only as long as either the moderator/s is/are completely impartial, in which case those who agree with the position of a deleted stance are outraged, or agree totally with your position. Neither is gonna happen.

    Solution? Run your own site as the moderator.
    Problem? A ginormous time sink for little value.

    I read about two dozen blogs regularly. That doesn’t mean I read every post every day. I use an aggregator and scan the headlines.

    Like most free services, most are tripe, or at least most of the posts. I’ve either seen it before, read a better synopsis, or don’t give a fig about the topic.

    And at the risk of aggravating you, I just read most Americans approve of the TSA’s policy (I can’t recall the exact poll question at hand). I wonder how many regular fliers would agree?

    ciao,

    doug in Seattle

  42. [...] A thoughtful, tenacious tirade by Matt Maroon, "I Quit Hacker News" [...]

  43. I think the thing thats bugging me the most is the number of people that seem to be flooding in from outside the Hacker/Startup community. There suddenly seems to be a lot more “meme” style comments and attempts at pun threads.

    It’s turning into Reddit Mini.

  44. [...] A thoughtful, tenacious tirade by Matt Maroon, “I Quit Hacker News” [...]

  45. the ‘black and white’, narrow-minded thinking is a disease in our industry. nowadays it’s all about hacker vs engineer, the whole apple vs, … story. i hate it as it distracts us from what really matters. every site, forum, community seems to be having this problem. trying to be cool, hip and trendy is ok .. if you’re 16, but it’s a silly attitude for adults in a professional industry.

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