“Coming Soon to Hacker News: Pending Comments”
Paul Graham’s view of how to fix a community, annotated for the discerning reader
Disclaimer: I’ve never used Hacker News. It always struck me as Slashdot without the redeeming qualities. So this post isn’t about whether or how Hacker News is broken; it’s about how Paul Graham goes about fixing a community that he considers broken, and what that solution says about Paul Graham.
Yesterday, Paul Graham posted his plans for an updated comment system designed to improve the quality of comments on Hacker News. The news made it over to Twitter, where I clicked through out of a sort of deeply skeptical interest. Here’s my best effort at translating and clarifying his post.
A surprisingly long time ago (2013 was a busy year) I mentioned a new plan to improve the quality of comments on Hacker News:
Since I’m going to check out of HN at the end of this YC cycle, this was my last chance to get this done. I didn’t want the people who are going to inherit HN from me to have to build it as their first project, because it interacts with so many different bits of the code in such subtle ways.
“I’m on my way out, so I decided to make a major change to the way this community works, rather than let the people who will have responsibility for the community in the future do it themselves and thus gain a deeper understanding.”
So I found time to implement pending comments this past week, and with any luck it will launch tonight. Since it’s a big change, I wanted to warn HN users in advance.
“I made a significant change to both the codebase and community norms in a week and decided not to tell anybody until hours before it went live. You’re welcome.”
Here’s how it currently works. From now on, when you post a comment, it won’t initially be live. It will be in a new state called pending. Comments get from pending to live by being endorsed by multiple HN users with over 1000 karma. Those users will see pending comments, and will be able to endorse them by clicking on an “endorse” link next to the “flag” link.
“You no longer have the right to post a comment simply because you’ve joined this community. You now have to attract the attention of several people whose sense of self-importance is derived in large part from the time they’ve spent on Hacker News over the last seven years. This is a great idea because I know long-term community members love searching the postings of newbies for insightful commentary. Plus, I’ve put the Yes, give them a voice! button right next to the No, this is some bullshit! button. I am sure this will cause no problems at all.”
Someone who has a pending comment will have to wait till it goes live to post another. We’re hoping that good comments will get endorsed so quickly that there won’t be a noticeable delay.
“You are only allowed to care about one thing at a time. We have done no practical testing of the new system whatsoever.”
You can currently beat the system by posting an innocuous comment, waiting for it to be endorsed, and then after it’s live, changing it to say something worse. We explicitly ask people not to do this. While we have no software for catching it, humans will notice, and we’ll ban you.
“Forget practical testing—I haven’t really thought this through much at all. But I’m sure the magical community fairies will solve that problem for me.”
Along with the change in software will come a change in policy. We’re going to ask users with the ability to endorse comments only to endorse those that:
1. Say something substantial. E.g. not just a throwaway remark, or the kind of “Yes you did, No I didn’t” bickering that races toward the right side of the page and no one cares about except the participants.
2. Say it without gratuitous nastiness. In particular, a comment in reply to another comment should be written in the spirit of colleagues cooperating in good faith to figure out the truth about something, not politicians trying to ridicule and misrepresent the other side.
“I figure people with the power and responsibility to approve comments are going to want to spend as much time and attention contributing this free labor as possible, so I’m setting some extra rules for them.
- Censor disagreements and humorous asides when possible.
- Tone police the shit out of this community. If someone tries to criticize someone else, feel free to leave that comment hanging in purgatory whether the criticism is valid or not.”
People who regularly endorse comments that fail one or both of these tests will lose the ability to endorse comments. So if you’re not sure whether you should endorse a comment, don’t. There are a lot of people on HN. If a point is important, someone else will probably come along and make it without gratuitous nastiness.
“Err on the side of not giving people a voice, because someone else will come along and have a voice on their behalf. Your obligation is to keep things nice and agreeable, not to let conversations happen. You wouldn’t want anything to happen to this nice endorsement power you just gained… would you?”
I hope this will improve the quality of HN comments significantly, but we’ll need your help to make it work, and your forbearance if, as usually happens, some things go wrong initially.
“I’m out, suckers. By the time you really figure out whether this fixes anything, I’ll be long gone.”
Students are often taught that Athens was the cradle of democracy. But democracy in Athens wasn’t anything a modern American would recognize as democracy. All citizens were allowed to vote, it’s true—but the rights attending Athenian citizenship weren’t extended to women, slaves, freed slaves, foreigners residing in Athens, non-landowners, debtors and their descendants, or men under twenty years old. In other words, the people with the ability to change things were the people with deep financial and cultural interests in things remaining pretty much the way they were.
It looks to me like something similar is going on over at Hacker News. The people with the power to endorse and ignore comments are the people with the most deeply vested interest in Hacker News continuing as it has up to now. People who see significant problems with the Hacker News community, whether they’ve been quiet members of Hacker News for years or they’re just joining, have no power to voice their opinions without the active endorsement of multiple Hacker News oldsters.
This new system is designed to improve the quality of comments on Hacker News. But to me, it seems like it will result in more of the same, but with less dissent. And more of the same, but with less dissent, is not something I’ve ever been able to trust.