Commenting, community deterioration, and Hacker News

The people who most need to read and understand this post are the ones least likely to. Nonetheless, I’m going to post because the topic is important yet neglected topic restraint when speaking and writing. In real life, the problem isn’t nearly as acute as it is on the Internet: few people will ignore social cues that say, “You’re being a jerk,” but on the Internet there are few or no social cues, especially in the comments sections of websites. I try to comment when I have useful, unique, original, or non-standard things to say. That isn’t so often, but it’s often enough that I leave a reasonably large number of comments; some of them are the first drafts of blog posts (and some of those blog posts may eventually find their way into books, a topic that I’ve been thinking about more and more lately).

And when I don’t have something useful, unique, original, or non-standard to say (or ask), I just shut up. But Internet comments tend to degrade as a website grows; it attracts more people who just comment, often in ways that aren’t negative enough to silence through moderation but still annoying enough to lower the quality of the conversation. This, it seems to me, is a problem separate from trolls: the commenters who are leaving thoughtless comments aren’t necessarily doing so for attention, and they may not realize what they’re doing. And we can’t just state it in the negative: don’t don’t this. We should state it in the positive: do add substance. Hacker News tries to solve this problem with its Guidelines and through culture, but the site has been growing faster, it seems, than its culture.

There may not be anything that can be done about this problem; it appears to take a certain and unusual mind to appreciate long-form discussion, be courteous, not feed or respond to trolls, and contribute only things of substance. The early (or earlier) readers of Hacker News, and other big news sites, appear to have understood this. The more recent readers don’t, or a critical mass of people is developing who don’t work to contribute substantive material. I hadn’t really thought about the issue until about a month ago, in this comment thread, where I pointed out that single-function devices can still have utility. A poster named Dextorious replied: “Yeah. So on top of owning an iPhone, you are also a hipster with a (trendy but useless, considering the iPhone also tells the time) watch and a notebook (it’s even a Moleskine). Way to prove the parent poster’s point.”

Argh. I replied:

1) I don’t know what you mean by a “hipster,” or what a “hipster” is, other than that you’re using the term as a slur: http://paulgraham.com/disagree.html . I also don’t know what “hipster culture” means or is.

2) The original poster who I’m responding to said, “the days of the wristwatch and one-function cell-phone are gone [. . .],” so I’m not sure how one can be simultaneously “trendy” and part of a declining trend (that is, watch-wearing).

3) If you’d read the link, you’d know that I don’t use Moleskine notebooks any more because their quality variability appears to have increased over time.

But I bet my reply took way longer than Dextorious’s comment, and by the time I was done replying I felt like I’d wasted my time. I wanted to add another part:

4) I worry that this level of stupidity, and repeated stupidity, is becoming more normal; it’s very hard to wade through that stupidity as an individual. Dextorious has a lot of problems with reason; he tends to post things like “Thanks for the “democratic” downvoting.”

I looked through his comment history; there are many one-line, two-sentence comments like this one, which led to a pointless flame war. He calls Facebook “hyper-valued web crap,” but not in the context of providing real insight. Likewise, consider this comment. Others tell him that he’s not being very nice, as in a comment where Dinkumthinkum says, “You’re missing the point.” But how do you tell someone who chronically misses the point that they’re missing the point? In another thread, talmand says, “Wow, overreact much?” Yes, he does; but you can’t tell from looking a single comment what dextorious is doing, and most people aren’t going to look for a pattern of useless behavior in a poster’s comment history. I only did to make a point.

And I’m not doing this to pick on Dextorious; he’s one guy, but he’s symptomatic of similar threads I’ve seen. The latest happened today, in which jacquesm said:

The thread because this is one of the most hateful and ugly threads I’ve ever seen on HN. A thread like this would be literally unthinkable a year or more ago, and now I’m not even surprised it is here.

I’m not surprised either, and I’m not sure what to do with it in the face of cultural change. I’m not sure there’s a good algorithmic way of dealing with weak comments; one might have a Dunning-Kruger effect at work: the people who are least likely to provide valuable and non-jerky comments are also least likely to realize they’re not doing it. Most of the time, when you’re thinking about writing a comment, you should stop and ask: Is this important? Is it important enough to give it its own post? Is it cruel? Most people don’t do this. I suppose Hacker News could solve this problem by appointing super users or something like that, but such a solution doesn’t scale and has the problem of borderline-useful comments, like many of Dextorious’s. And sometimes it is genuinely hard to separate people telling difficult truths and people being jerks. Self-policing works much better but is imperfect, and its imperfection grows faster than the number of users.

This post is an effort towards cultural change, not only on Hacker News but elsewhere on the Internet. I’ve discussed the problem before and doubt it’s going to go away. I’m still going to try to help people write better comments and think better, but I worry that it’s a losing battle in most circumstances.

21 responses

  1. Back when I first started using usenet (1987) a banner was presented whenever you posted – something to the effect of “this posting will cost your institution hundreds if not thousands of dollars. Are you sure you want to do this?”. If nothing else it have pause to think about whether what you had to say was with the bandwidth. Perhaps a simple message to that effect would increase the signal to noise ratio on HN.

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    • That banner stuck with me, too. This reply aside, I still cancel out of half my comments because I realize they’re going to add nothing to the discussion.

      I wonder if it would change things if users were allowed a weekly quota of posting credits. Some sort of system that makes it more expensive to post something substantially similar to comments that are already present? I suppose at this point everybody has a pet moderation scheme they’d love to unleash on the world.

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  2. I agree with you entirely, but this isn’t the only problem with the Hacker News. Lately, that site seems to be little more than a forum for blog promotion (I do not intend this to be a passive aggressive attack on you, though it will likely seem that way). How many blog posts do I need to read about finding or not finding a co-founder? In addition to restrain in commenting, we could use some restraint in posting.

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    • I have to agree with this comment. Lately Hacker News does seem to have a disproportionate number of ‘popularity contest’ type posts promoting some inane underwhelming blog post I’d rather not read.

      Case in point, there is one on there right now called, “Extreme Minimalism: this guy owns just 15 things (andrewhy.de)”. Yippee! I care about this why? I can introduce you to 15 homeless people who own less than 15 things in the next 15 minutes – and none of them have chosen to waste internet bandwidth by blogging about it. For every decent blog link on Hacker News, there are at least two like this. It is beginning to get tedious.

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  3. I’d think, that people just lose thinking, when they start posting in low level discusions like “which is more tasty, boiled or fried egg” and when they start that useless marathon of posts, they just can’t stop doing that in other threads, that require knowledge. I say that from my own expirience, when i was younger, at that time, posts like that seemed like fuel for discusions. (Sorry for my english)

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  4. Griefing and trolling are the hallmark of the young and restless (too much time on their hands whether they are unemployed, a student or whatever) . I have no idea what age you or the HN community in general are, but I do know that on communities that attract large proportions of older (30+ and even 40+) people, the occurrence of such inane behaviour drops to near zero levels. Yes, this is merely an anecdote, but the way I see it, such behaviour is becoming much more common as internet access becomes more ubiquitous, which in turn means that those who really should be doing something more productive with their time are not, because society has led or allowed them not to. Not to draw too strict a set of lines around any particular age-group, but older people tend to have families they need to support, have homes they need to pay for, and have a job which takes up a lot of their time. Few of this type of people have the time to comment just for the sake of it, or post to deliberately antagonise. They are more productive and to the point because they need to be to lead their lives in their chosen manner. I have no solution to offer you, but trying to understand where these people are coming from may lead to one. After re-reading this – perhaps I am just an age-ist or someone who wishes they led their life in a different direction … still, its been typed now, so I will post. Hopefully you get something from it.

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  5. Unfortunately neither the internet nor software can prevent idiocy from having a voice. The solution however can be solved by the community:

    1) Don’t engage with idiots or futile arguments
    2) Don’t upvote them

    If you feel the community you are talking with do not understand you or keep missing your points or add nothing valuable to your conversation you can seek out a community which does.

    M

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  6. Back in 2001, when I was in high school, I ran a forum for the kids from the town I lived in. It started great, but after about a year, it started turning to shit. It started filling up with hateful, negative, entitled behavior that everyone interested in this topic is no doubt familiar with. Part of the beauty of the forum was its anonymous, free nature. But that was also its downfall. Moderating it was a thankless, numbing task and I decided to shut it down. I think this is just nature. Entropy. I think we are able to observe this happening because of the speed that modern life operates at. Thousands of years ago, the rise and the eventual downfall of a community was a long process. Lifetimes. Today, it can happen in a few months, maybe even weeks. Digg is a wonderful example of just how quickly a vibrant, thriving community can get out of control and implode on itself. I feel bad for Kevin Rose, it must haunt him.

    There’s a few ways I can see to avoid this fate:

    1. A naturally small community. When the topic you’re interested in only appeals to a limited number of people, things generally stay civil. Small communities are immune from the worst abuse, but because they are small, they don’t have the interesting diversity present in large communities.

    2. An artificially small community, enforced by limiting registrations. This kind of thing is common among piracy forums. Pirates are paranoid and love exclusivity. It’s also similar to the Collage fraternity system if you think about it. Everything is gravy once you’re in, but again, a small community leads to limited points of view.

    3. Heavy moderation. Moderation is a thankless job and is only realistic on a long timeline if there’s some financial incentive to keeping the community alive. This is essentially how Wikipedia operates. A small group of paid super moderators dole out power to larger groups of common mods. Unfortunately, in places where moderation becomes a part of the culture, the most active moderators tend to be somewhat sadistic, and keeping the police under control can become a challenging task in its own right.

    4. Real identity enforcement. Using Facebook or requiring cell phone verification or some other way to make sure each account maps to a real person. People are more polite when they can be held accountable. Personally, I hate this shit and I think it goes against the spirit of the internet, but it’s a valid option.

    5. A reliable reputation system. This is Reddit’s secret to success, at the moment. It weeds out crap by making it effectively invisible. The potential downside of this is that not only does it eliminate toxic content, it can also marginalize unpopular, yet still valuable, ideas. Groupthink becomes an issue.

    6. Adopting a slash and burn mentality. What I mean by this is accepting starting new communities and abandoning old ones as a way of life. I think this actually be the most natural method, because this is kind of the way the world works. Living things start small, grow, and eventually die. New things replace the old things. The downside is that, considering the pace of the internet, this can be a draining process to keep up with.

    For what it’s worth, I love open forums, and I gladly accept the price of all the bullshit and the occasional emotional roller coaster that goes along with them. I try to look at it all as an insight into the raw, animal nature of humanity. I’m not advocating complete anarchy, I think that there does need to be some law so that a community can grow strong. The founding fathers of America recognized this. They saw the necessity of freedom and the necessity of law, but most importantly they saw that the most important thing was creating a system to keep a balance between the two. I think that in the modern era, Reddit is doing the most interesting work in this area. They are growing far faster than the toxicity is seeping in, and I think they understand what they’re up against and how much work it takes to maintain balance.

    Wow, that was long. Like you mentioned earlier, Jake, I think this is actually the first draft of an article of my own. Good post.

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  7. Well done, Jake. The Norsemen had a proverb we’d all do well to remember: “Speak useful words, or say nothing.” We all slip up and become trollish, or at least churlish, from time to time, so this reminder comprises some very useful words. :)

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    • Thanks! One thing I like and admire about your posts is that even when you disagree, you’re always thoughtful and informative, which is an excellent and entirely too rare trait. And not just on the Internet, either: in academia, there’s a strong tendency to think people who disagree are simply fools or idiots or whatever, which I’ve heard, usually muttered, way too many times.

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  8. I would like to think this as a variation of eternal September and increasing noise levels which are part of all social interactions as participants tends to increase. There is only limited number of people that can post sentences worth reading—they have been already in the site an the newcomers are less likely to be like the pioneer generation..

    . http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eternal_September

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  9. I would like to see the following software developed and added to all commenting systems:

    I as a logged in user would like the ability to ban all comments from a certain individual. Maybe have
    a notice that this person has left a comment, but I would like to see that optional to.

    This person would also get feedback as to how many people don’t want to see their crap. Of course initially some would go for high scores, but I think the allure would fade over time.

    This would make self policing easier.

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  10. How about someone like Gravatar get involved with some sort of cross-site upvote / downvote mechanism and publish that alongside each commenters name/avatar?

    That way I could quickly deduce whether a commenter’s remark was worth contemplating.

    If it was cross-site then the politics / opinion / even hell-banning of any individual site should not have a dramatic affect on me unless I commented poorly habitually.

    Perhaps their may become some value / kudos associated with the consolidated vote value meaning commenters would think more about what they posted in order to protect / improve their status.

    (first comment I’ve posted for ages btw, hope you deem it worthy :-)

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  11. Ease could be acting as a filter here.

    A one line comment is easier to write than a multiparagraph mini-essay. Simply because of this, I would expect more short comments to exist. Since one liners tend to not be insightful and have a tendency to be trollish, over time I would expect short, easy to write comments to crowd out long insightful comments.

    But not only are these comments easy to make, they’re easy to read and to upvote. I’ve watched several subreddits devolve from their purported topic to rage comics only vaguely tied to their stated topic. When I post some image macro to my Google Plus stream, I reliably get multiple plus ones and reshares. When I post something on philosophy or math, I don’t see anyone engaging with it. The meme is easy to digest while anything more substantial takes effort.

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  12. There’s an old saying in statistics. Half the population are stupider than average. These are your late adopters. They turned up on wikipedia, spoiled the atmosphere and created a ghastly bureaucracy for themselves. They inhabit YouTube comments. Now they’re on HN.

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