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: . 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.

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