Some Tips to Improve the Civility on Hacker News

Posted on Jun 3, 2010 | 61 comments


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.

Paul explains the rationale behind HackerNews this way:

“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”

Fun.

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?

  • http://www.johnexleyonline.com JohnExley

    Mark, I think the reason a lot of people have emotional reactions to what you write speaks to your consistent boldness in sharing your opinion on topics rather than just vaguely summarizing industry strategies or writing wishy-washy generalizations on trending “tech/startup/VC news”.

    You aren't an eternal “yes man.” Your blog has a voice, an attitude. I always find your blog to have clearly structured positions (with lots of good info to learn from) on entrepreneurial philosophies, the viability of different startups, and “business” strategies.

    Your upfront & unabashed approach to blogging is what keeps me coming back as a loyal reader. I also think this is why lots of people are calling for your opinion on Facebook's privacy issues. Because your insight is always intriguing and you won't write a PR-type of “please all” blog post.

    Because you take a side on issues, you inherently voice disagreement with certain groups of people. Some of these people will inevitably resort to ad hominem rather than putting forth the time and effort in structuring a logical opposing viewpoint. It goes without saying, and as you've said, you have the thick skin to brush the dirt of your shoulders and keep hustling forward.

    Apologies for the worrrrdy comment. Lastly: while I enjoy learning from your analyses of how to improve services like HackerNews, the evolving market WebEx is becoming irrelevant in, and very specific tips on how to appropriately cancel meetings, what I love most about your blog are the pieces you write on understanding the VC industry and the career/entrepreneur strategies you provide (such as the best ways to run a board meeting and maintain your VC's attention during it).

    I come here to learn and I will continue coming back so long as you continue writing the way you do and not 'making your opinions kid-friendly'. Keep bringing the heat.

  • http://www.johnexleyonline.com JohnExley

    Mark, I think the reason a lot of people have emotional reactions to what you write speaks to your consistent boldness in sharing your opinion on topics rather than just vaguely summarizing industry strategies or writing wishy-washy generalizations on trending “tech/startup/VC news”.

    You aren't an eternal “yes man.” Your blog has a voice, an attitude. I always find your blog to have clearly structured positions (with lots of good info to learn from) on entrepreneurial philosophies, the viability of different startups, and “business” strategies.

    Your upfront & unabashed approach to blogging is what keeps me coming back as a loyal reader. I also think this is why lots of people are calling for your opinion on Facebook's privacy issues. Because your insight is always intriguing and you won't write a PR-type of “please all” blog post.

    Because you take a side on issues, you inherently voice disagreement with certain groups of people. Some of these people will inevitably resort to ad hominem rather than putting forth the time and effort in structuring a logical opposing viewpoint. It goes without saying, and as you've said, you have the thick skin to brush the dirt of your shoulder and keep hustling forward.

    Apologies for the worrrrdy comment. Lastly: while I enjoy learning from your analyses of how to improve services like HackerNews, the evolving market WebEx is becoming irrelevant in, and very specific tips on how to appropriately cancel meetings, what I love most about your blog are the pieces you write on understanding the VC industry and the career/entrepreneur strategies you provide (such as the best ways to run a board meeting and maintain your VC's attention during it).

    I come here to learn and I will continue coming back so long as you continue writing the way you do and not 'making your opinions kid-friendly'. Keep bringing the heat.

  • http://www.startupboyo.com/ RichardForster

    Generalising, I'd say it's an age thing (maturity). Same problem with Techcrunch comments. Audiences are young and they see “dissing” people as cool and easy when they can do it anonymously.

    Nothing you can do about it except carry on what you are doing and ignore the haters.

  • http://www.startupboyo.com/ RichardForster

    Generalising, I'd say it's an age thing (maturity). Same problem with Techcrunch comments. Audiences are young and they see “dissing” people as cool and easy when they can do it anonymously.

    Nothing you can do about except carry on what you are doing and ignore the haters.

  • http://www.johnexleyonline.com JohnExley

    Mark, just came across a recent blog from Tim Ferriss (http://www.fourhourworkweek.com/blog/2010/05/18…) on “practical tactics for dealing with haters”.

    I thought it was relevant to this discussion and so decided to share it.

  • http://www.johnexleyonline.com JohnExley

    Mark, just came across a recent blog from Tim Ferriss (http://www.fourhourworkweek.com/blog/2010/05/18…) on “practical tactics for dealing with haters”.

    I thought it was relevant to this discussion and so decided to share it.

  • Kahawe

    If you can't stand the heat, stay out of the kitchen… don't post your ideas or opinions online if you can't handle the flames.

  • Kahawe

    If you can't stand the heat, stay out of the kitchen… don't post your ideas or opinions online if you can't handle the flames.

  • http://benatlas.com/ Ben Atlas

    Anonymity activates what Jaron Lanier calls the “mob switch”. There is a tendency to gang up on the up-votes and especially on the down-votes. I have personally experienced this on HN. I have been wring about the poison of anonymity in a series of post. A sample here:
    http://benatlas.com/2010/01/jaron-lanier-rages-

  • http://benatlas.com/ Ben Atlas

    Anonymity activates what Jaron Lanier calls the “mob switch”. There is a tendency to gang up on the up-votes and especially on the down-votes. I have personally experienced this on HN. I have been wring about the poison of anonymity in a series of post. A sample here:
    http://benatlas.com/2010/01/jaron-lanier-rages-

  • http://www.business-energy.com.au/ Business Electricity – Compare

    Your blog is very motivating. When I was reading it, I get drawn in. I am totally agreed with your thoughts. Thanks for sharing this beautiful thoughts with me.

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