Solving The Hacker News Problem
Hacker News has long since become the preeminent watering hole for startup-minded programmers and tech entrepreneurs. Like any open and growing online community, it’s had its ups and downs.
Lately, Hacker News – HN for short – seems more on the decline than not. I see (and make) frequent complaints on Twitter about the quality of both submitted links and the associated discussions. Often times those complaints come from individuals who’ve racked up significant karma in the community. The typical complaint is that the top items on the site are dull, dim, pandering, and inane. The most interesting items, sadly, often have the least votes.
Beyond the increasingly poor submissions, HN now has a reputation for Usenet-grade pedantry. It’s become the sort of place where provocative ideas go to die at the hands of raging nerds. This is a shame, because there’s no place else quite like HN on the Internet right now. You can find similarly engaging microcosms on Twitter, IRC, Convore, and elsewhere, but HN at its best brings it all together. Unfortunately, the site is rarely at its best these days.
What’s Wrong with HN
I believe that HN serves too many masters. When it started, the audience was clearly “hackers” by Paul Graham’s definition: the sort of motivated and curious youngish techie people that his Y Combinator fund would like to hand checks to. Since HN launched, its audience has broadened, and the world of startups has changed, thanks in no small part to Y Combinator and the rise of other incubators, super angels, etc.
The HN community now reflects a dense spectrum of startups, from one-person “lifestyle businesses” on up to mature companies like Facebook and LinkedIn that might mistakenly be called “startups” by someone outside the tech industry simply due to the fact that they haven’t gone public yet. HN boasts representatives from all of these types of firms, plus tech industry veterans, academics, students, tinkerers, wannabes, and a supporting cast of thousands.
Diversity can be asset in a community. It can also cause friction. In HN’s case, you need only look at a weekly recap of the top submissions to see all the different directions the site is being pulled in. Listed in (totally subjective) order of frequency, you’ll find:
- General tech industry news of the sort that’s much better surfaced by Techmeme.
- VC and funding news of the sort that’s much better surfaced by sites like peHUB.
- Startup launch announcements.
- Promotions for products and services, usually to the chagrin of HN community members.
- Pop science.
- Pop sociology.
- Pop economics.
- Pop psychology and relationship advice.
- Windbag pundit-type blog posts like this one.
- Business advice and war stories.
- Technical HOWTOs, comparative evaluations, etc.
Clearly, a substantial number of people like this mix of content, because HN continues to grow in popularity. For the vocal minority that isn’t happy with what the site has become, the powers that be offer the facepalm-worthy hidden concession of classic mode, which only pulls in submissions from longtime members. “Classic” is probably the single biggest sign that something isn’t healthy in the HN community.
HN today is a jack of all trades and master of none. Some might say that’s necessary to represent the interdisciplinary nature of the startup world, but I’m skeptical of that. I think a little competition would go a long way towards improving HN and focusing the site on what it’s best at: content relevant to tech industry entrepreneurs.
What To Do About It
Over this past Thanksgiving, I took some time to think about how I might build a competitor/alternative to HN. I asked friends inside and outside the HN community about what they like about their online hangouts. A number of common perspectives emerged:
- Focus the community. Ensure that people share a common interest, goal, or set of values. Right now, HN lacks that shared focus.
- Invitations should be controlled in some way. Anyone should be able to read, but not everyone should be able to write. Demand quality.
- Effective and vigilant moderation is key.
- Copy MetaFilter. It’s probably the healthiest long-lived online community out there that’s based around sharing links.
I had lunch with MetaFilter’s creator, Matt Haughey, and got further insight from him on what’s helped keep MetaFilter so good after all these years. In a nutshell: dedication on the part of the people who run it. A great community isn’t something that you just set up and periodically patch. Running a great community is a full-time job, not a weekend hack project.
In BankSimple, I have much more than a full-time job. I’m not the right person to attempt to build an HN competitor/alternative, at least not at this point in time. I would, however, be up for steering an interested party in what I think is the right direction.
As you’ve probably figured out, I think HN does a crappy job with general tech news and a so-so job with content that’s specifically relevant to startup founders and employees. These days, HN does a downright terrible job with deeply technical topics; that’s the area I hear the most complaining about on Twitter and in private. Since deep tech is HN’s weakest point, let’s go after it.
I’d like to see someone borrow the best of MetaFilter’s community dynamics, find a strong set of moderators and seed users, and build a competitor to HN with a focus on deeply technical news and discussion. That would leave room for HN to focus on non-technical startup issues like hiring, marketing, customer service, fundraising, tools and services, etc. Yes, in a perfect world, HN would have both the technical and business topics under one roof, because they’re two sides of the same coin. That time has passed. It’s just too wide and deep a set of topics for one community.
If you’re interested taking on this challenge, contact me. I’m happy to spend some of my free time transferring my thinking and domain names to the right people. With Matt’s permission, I registered the MetaFilter-aping
bloomfilter.org with this project in mind (also
blf.lt for shortened links). I’m ready to donate my time and these domain names, if wanted, to the right person or group.
Hacker News is slipping, which is a shame, because it can be a great community. I’m ready to support an alternative community focused on deeply technical news and discussion. HN could then focus solely on business-oriented startup-centric topics. Ideally, the two sites would be healthily competitive, eventually even complementary.
But I love HN just the way it is! That’s nice. Other people don’t. Different strokes.
What gives you the right to judge and generalize about the entire HN community? Nothing. I’m just some dude who’s a little bit obsessed with how people communicate about technology. If you don’t like what I have to say, flag it and go about your day.
Isn’t it kind of bullshit to criticize HN and then ask for someone else to do the work of building an alternative? Yes, it kind of is, but there’s only so many hours in my day and BankSimple takes up most of them. If it’s any consolation, I don’t want any credit or compensation from this hypothetical HN alternative/competitor. I just want it to exist, and I can spare a few hours and some domain names to help get it off the ground.
What do you mean by “deeply technical”? Substantive content by and for the people who implement technical solutions. Busy smart people want to read findings that other busy smart people decided were important enough to take the time to share. “Deep” to me connotes intellectual rigor, not fashionable obscurity or the unnecessarily academic.
Are you aware of Community X? I think that’s what you want. Yes, I probably am. No, it probably isn’t, but send that email anyway.
If people wanted the kind of community site you’re describing, don’t you think it would exist by now? I think it has existed in various places: HN, Reddit, Slashdot, Usenet, etc. Nobody has figured out how to capture this particular herd and get it to settle down. Maybe that’s impossible. It’s certainly not going to be easy.
Don’t you want to build your own little fiefdom so people can read more of your excruciatingly preachy and self-important blog posts? No. I would moderate away my own blog posts on the community I’m proposing. Frankly, they’re not technical enough. I also don’t submit my own posts to HN, for what it’s worth. I write for myself first and foremost.
What do you have against Paul Graham and Y Combinator? Nothing. This is about Hacker News as a community site, not Y Combinator and the people behind it.