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108 points by EricBurnett on Jan 16, 2010 | hide | past | web | favorite | 65 comments

I have a simple guideline for real life interactions with others that carries over quite well on-line, "Deal with issues; ignore details."

It's amazing how well this works in person, especially when trying to get something done. My number one question to another is probably, "Is that an issue or a detail?" We can almost always decide together which it is. Then, if it's an issue, we deal with it, and if it's a detail, we move on to the next issue.

This has also saved me countless hours and aggravation on-line. If I post something and someone disagrees, I quickly decide whether or not it's really an issue and only engage the other if it is. I realize that this is just a judgment call, but I'd estimate about 90% of on-line disagreements are just details. In these cases, I think it's best to simply move on.

I'm not sure I understand you, could you provide an example of what is an 'issue' and what is a 'detail'?

Examples are everywhere. In fact, almost every human interaction is an example. Here are a few off the top of my head:

Quality control rejected one program because it was indented 4 spaces instead of the standard 5, but accepted another, even though it had enough memory leaks to crash the server under certain conditions. The first was a detail; the second was an issue. It took me 2 days to get Q.C. to understand the difference.

A friend recently arrived for a dinner party an hour late and then complained to me that another spoke with her mouth full. As far as I was concerned, the first was an issue and the second was a detail. My friend thought otherwise about both.

Accounting recently spent 3 days implementing a new key policy for the private rest rooms (presumably to prevent theft) and then wrote off $50,000 of inventory because no one could find the proper paperwork. IMO, the former was a detail upon which much time was wasted and the latter was an issue that never actually got dealt with.

We spent the first hour of a recent meeting trying to determine naming conventions, but ran out of time before we decided if the customer's credit limit should be split between 2 divisions. Again, wasting time on details and not dealing with real issues. (This is a great example. One of the best ways to lose your shirt is to not deal with credit/collection/accounts receivable issues.)

My favorite on-line example: A few years ago here on hn, I posted examples of how I found some of my customers. I expected some interesting discussion, but the thread was hijacked because of the presence of 2 concepts in my original post "Bible" and "pawn shop". Lots of issues that could have provided value for people were never explored because the gang preferred to beat a detail to death. Unfortunately this sort of thing happens quite a bit on-line.

Funny how I still remember that thread. Here it is:


The unfortunate thing, which your examples actually perfectly illustrate, is that everyone has a different idea of what's important, relevant, or necessary in any circumstance. Your examples are actually all situations where you and someone else DISAGREED on what was a issue and what was a detail. Bikeshedding naming conventions is an easy one, but shouldn't QC have well laid-out guidelines so that they don't have to rely on judgment calls by individuals? Was it as obvious to your friend as it was to you that arriving at a party at a particular time is a major priority, whereas table manners once you get there are trivial?

Examples are everywhere because all human beings prioritize and act on their priorities. But we tend to have different ideas of what's important, relevant, necessary, or good. Hence... discord.

I think the parent is implying that while discussing with any second party, it is easier to mutually agree on which one is an issue and which one is details --- compared to discussing on the problem itself and finding a resolution.

I imagine it is something like this: An Issue would be something like a race condition, a detail might be something like a slight inconsistency in naming of attributes.

See also: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Parkinsons_Law_of_Triviality

People like you become good managers.

People opposite of you become good programmers and designers.

Detail is everything and oftentimes that's that one thing that makes you stand out among competition and makes the first impression count.

/end of my opinion

This is such a succinct and helpful post. I'd upvote you many more times if I could.

Good advice. However, more often than not, the devil lies in the details.

It's triage. Usually you'll want to get back to the details and address them at some point. But given finite resources, it's a waste of time to try to dig through details when more pressing issues need attention.

Fair enough. But my point was that, sooner or later, you'll need to deal with the details and I've found that is, quite often, the most time consuming part (sometimes you just misjudged which ones where the issues, and which ones the details).

You can always delegate the "details", but there's a difference between delegating and deferring (the work for yourself). Knowing what to delegate is very important, of course, which is the main point of edw519's comment, I think.

Sadly accurate. And unfortunately the tone here has been getting nastier. There was a thread a few days ago where I found myself thinking "I feel like I'm on reddit."

Nastiness is a problem intrinsic to forums. But I'm optimistic that it's solvable. So few things have been tried so far. Plus I think a lot of users here would be happy to try out (or at least put up with) design changes intended to increase civility, because that's why a lot of them came here in the first place. So this is going to be my main focus for improving HN in 2010.

> There was a thread a few days ago where I found myself thinking "I feel like I'm on reddit."

Here's a little friendly advice: the frequent, unconstructive Reddit-bashing around here is boring, and typically just makes the basher look petty and/or arrogant. It has, regrettably, been done by someone in every single thread I have read here in recent weeks. I doubt I'm the only person who discovered HN a while back, signed up for an account a while later, but now participates only occasionally on HN while actively contributing to Reddit.

If you want the nastiness reduced around here, trying implementing an automatic 48 ban on any user who uses the word "Reddit" in a post.

And for the record, I wrote that before I noticed who I was replying to.

(Edit: Looking back over my own posts here from the past few months, I see that I have become part of the "negative commenting" problem. Strange: reading my posts on other forums, under this nickname or others, I post much more positively. I shall try to do better.)

If your account is less than a year old, please don't submit comments saying that HN is turning into Reddit. (It's a common semi-noob illusion.) At karma 56k it's true ;)

I agree - Thanks for acknowledging it.

I've seen a lot more down voting of well-reasoned comments and arguments just because of disagreement, and I've seen a lot more snide, unhelpful, almost belligerent comments across the board.

I cant speak for others, but its good to know you are working on it, as I dont want to find another place.

My plan for dealing with downvoting is just not to display points on comments any more. The hard part is that to make that work, I also have to come up with alternative ways for people to find the comments they're most interested in on big threads.

An idea I just had that might help civility is to require every post to "explain itself" with a limited set of tags. Sort of like the ./ point system in reverse; you would get some set of options like "Information," "Opinion," "Related," "Off-topic" and you pick one or more. So if you want to start making a fuss or interject something outside the immediate discussion, you have to announce it.

Doing this adds filtering metadata and an gives additional incentive to downvote comments that don't contribute - they're going to be more likely to use few tags or inappropriate ones. On the other hand, posts that use a lot of tags simultaneously and actually encompass all of them are probably detailed and well-considered.

Downsides: more work to post(not always a bad thing), more room for nasty rules lawyering("This is not Hacker News").

PG has been given [literally] dozens of great suggestions like yours, yet has not implemented them. I think that he is trying to cultivate a respectful community through conversation (i.e. comments), instead of applying technological solutions.

When your entire site is a technological solution, that doesn't work. It's not natural to divide conversations and rank them based on merits of "good" and "bad". This is why flat conversations don't succumb to groupthink as quickly or as badly.

I'm definitely going to change the site. The reason I haven't yet is that (a) I haven't decided exactly what to do, and (b) a new batch of startups just arrived at YC a couple weeks ago.

I guess my reply to you would be under 'meta' because my questions to you are:

What do you mean by: 'more room for nasty rules lawyering("This is not Hacker News")'?

I like your idea; how would I choose between 'information' and 'related'- or 'opinion' and 'related'? Would 'factual' and 'insightful' be more useful as labels?

I would suggest something similar but for voting, not for posting. Instead of upvoting or downvoting one would pick from a small selection of tags. That would allow for the distinction between "agree" and "informative", for example, or "disagree" and "spam".

I have a few ideas:

1) No comments on a post until its at least an hour old

2) More time to delete my comments. I made one just a few hours ago I'd like to delete because of its tone.

3) A "stop being a jerk" flag. It would only be shown to the commenter, anonymous, and have no impact on points.

4) Alternative to #3: same flag, still anonymous, but too many flags "mutes" the commenter for 1 day.

Ultimately, of course, its a culture problem. We all need to take personal responsibility for our behavior. Whether or not that can persist in a forum of size remains to be seen (I am optimistic that it can).

Could each user get a customized view based on similarity to comments they've previously up-voted? This could be based on a simple Bayesian filter, similar to the "Plan for Spam".

This could also encourage users to vote more as voting would (hopefully) improve the filtering.

I'm relatively new here, but if I may offer a suggestion:

I don't care much for the points on comments at all. Comments that float to the top regularly defend commonplaces, and while they certainly deserve a positive vote, there's not much to learn from those.

But interesting comments, that I gather new insights from, are often written by the same commenters (->commentators? my English is lacking). Thus, a system that would work well for me, would allow me to rate individuals, so that on the next thread it will show me my favourite commenters first.

(edit: wow, suddenly lots of replies in this thread - maybe I forgot to refresh. I believe jefffoster's idea of Bayesian filtering may be more powerful than mine)

'Commenters'. Your English is fine, but could you please clarify what you mean by "defend commonplaces"? I'm guessing you mean "agree with / repeat common views on the site" as opposed to informed disagreement - sometimes called "groupthink".

Thanks, yes, I meant "repeat common views" - without necessarily meaning "groupthink" though. For me, groupthink implies uncritical thinking, whereas repeating (and repeatedly reading) common views is only inefficient. So I might down-vote examples of groupthink (if I had down-vote rights that is ;)), but I would just skip over common views without bothering to vote.

edit: although in all likelihood, I wouldn't know groupthink if I saw it, being part of the group... :)

One idea: disconnect the visible down-votedness of a user's comment from a user's visible karma- which seems to upset people. I often see posts regarding 'why are you down voting my comment?'. Not allowing a post to get publicly, visibly, lower than 0 would prevent meta discussions about 'why'- even though the hidden negative score would move the actual comment down the publicly visible thread hierarchy.

Not showing downvoted scores on comments would never cause a user to exclaim 'why aren't you upvoting me?'

Disconnecting a user's visible karma from the hidden negative points a user acquires from negative/poor comments would be important for this idea to work well.

I also have to come up with alternative ways for people to find the comments they're most interested in on big threads

I think this is the key. People come to HN because the quality of the discussion is high. With increasing community size comes dilution, but only of the average comment quality.

In fact, as the community becomes larger there are more, perhaps many more extraordinarily good comments, so long as the original contributors are all encouraged to continue participating. These great comments are really the key.

Consider the Netflix Prize. Entries were judged based on RMSE. This is not the right metric, though, because out of all of the thousands of movies in the dataset, only a few dozen would ever be recommended to a given user based on any conceivable algorithm. And the user only really cares whether the particular movie that they use the algorithm to select is good or disappointing.

Similarly, users come here to read the exceptional comments, and a community in which every comment deserved to get 3 karma points would soon find itself without users.

In this way, removing comment scores may be part of an effective solution, but it may not be the crucial component because it only indirectly changes the accessibility of excellent comments.

Instead, actively trying to make it easier for people to read what they consider exceptional is a goal worth pursuing.

Simple [possible] solution: restrict the number of downvotes and force people to prioritize. Further, you should get future downvotes only as a function of how many downvotes you already have. If you have 0 downvotes, you don't get to do it again, ever.

In this way, downvoting stops being a privilege you get at karma X and starts being something that's not to be squandered. I believe (or maybe hope) that every person here internally wants hacker news to be a good community, and that change will make them cognizant of the fact that downvotes are for special occasions where discourse is uncivil and not for "puttin' noobs in their places"

Another solution: make down votes "cost."

If a user hits the down-vote then a comment box opens requiring a reason. I don't mind down votes, but I can't stand not knowing why. It's like a (bad) dog owner who comes home and beats the dog for pooping on the rug. Poor dog did that hours ago and thinks hes getting beat just because owner came home. No lesson learned and it fosters a poor relationship between the two and encourages "acting out."

Additionally, if "the reason" received n down-votes HN could automatically cancel the DV to the original comment.

I'm sure you're smart enough to make changes that will boost the level of civility, and not reduce it. At the moment, the biggest reason not to zing someone with a cheap shot comment is the fact that you will soon find a negative number attached to the comment (how humiliating!). I suppose you could hide the points and completely hide comments that wind up with negative points (and, to have the discussion flow make sense, you'd have to also hide the responses to that comment). I'm sure you'll iterate, and find out what works best. Good luck, and thanks for caring enough to try to improve things around here.

What if you just let logged-in users have the option to turn off the display of comment points?

FWIW, One method I often use to find interesting discussion here is to just go to the threads?id= page for certain people who I think make interesting comments like you, tptacek, patio11 etc..

That won't help, because the people who'd be willing to turn them off probably aren't part of the problem.

Then again, maybe I'm overly troll-paranoid.

The vast majority of users are of the highest quality so I fail to see the benefit of eliminating points on comments. The reality is that the entire problem is downvoting comments. Trust the users, eliminate DV comments, and the quality comments will rise. What is the downside of losing DV while keeping UV of comments?

Agreed. Also, instead of hiding all comment points, perhaps the score can be hidden when it's 1 and lower, making it ambiguous, while retaining scores for comments with 2+ points.

Down-voting for disagreement vs objection is one of the issues at play. Previously, we were encouraged to down-vote for disagreement but as the masses came, the use of down-voting as a punishment less harsh than flagging started to become more common.

There's more discussion about this here: http://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=1006725

I hope the design changes work.

There is an odd aspect to online culture where pointing out rudeness is voted down or dismissed as being overly sensitive or stuffy. So, some less overt way to signal to someone that they are being uncouth might a) be less threatening to receive and b) encourage more conscientious "watchdogs" to participate in bringing social pressure to bear.

For what it's worth, when my blog recently hit both sites, the discussion was still pretty good here, and pretty terrible on Reddit.

You've done a better job holding on to original culture than most forums. Not that I'm a subject matter expert, but I made the /. -> Digg -> Reddit -> HN move like a lot of other people. I'd certainly fall under the 'happily try out changes to increase civility.'

Who's to say nothing good comes from a heated (nasty) debate? Sure, a casual user doesn't want the comment section flooded with tripe, but to shut down a discussion may be picking and discarding fruit off the vine before it's ripe.

A solution to this might be rating comment pairs. Any thread that becomes over-heated could be taken "offline" between the two users (or groups), possibly so far as scheduling a live chat if they're so passionate about their topic. The (abbreviated) conversation would only re-appear in the thread (possibly by the readers choice) if the two came to a civil conclusion.

Granted, it sounds like a nightmare to implement, but I'd grant the Nobel Peace Prize to anyone who solved the online discussion conundrum.

Nasty comments can certainly contain interesting ideas. But I believe all those ideas could be expressed just as well if not better without the nastiness.

It is often fun to play devil's advocate and argue a particular point, but a conversation (particularly when not face to face) can rapidly progress from differing opinions to a flame fest, and once the first fist has flown there is no going back. Work email exchanges are famous for misinterpretations, oversensitivity, etc., that would never happen in a personal conversation. I look forward to your efforts at increasing civility in a somewhat impersonal forum, I'd definitely be interested in seeing what comes from it.

If you ever get around to testing out having multiple voting axes, one of those axes could be civility or charitability. (I suppose that would more frequently be used in the negative direction, though.)

There are several reasons to allow comments in your blog, but the one that speaks most to me personally is learning from people who are smarter/wiser/more knowledgeable on a given topic than you are.

If you're blessed with readers who're able - and might be interested - to challenge you, call you on your bullshit, point out your faulty logic, tell you where you can learn more, and explain what it is that you don't know you don't know - then it's crazy to intentionally disallow comments, as far as I'm concerned. Sure, sometimes you'd get feedback by email, but mostly you won't. Looking at myself, I'm about 10 times more likely to leave a comment on a blog where I can add nontrivial information, elucidate a point or give a reference, than send an email to the owner. Are other people very different?

To me, a conversation with knowledgeable and intelligent readers is absolutely worth ten times its weight in fluffy or incoherent comments. Of course, there're people with different priorities. There're plenty of people out there whose blogs are essentially PR vehicles. To them, having comments is probably only worth it in terms of drawing more readers to the site; and that can be offset by other reasons. (I just guessed, without looking, that Seth Godin doesn't have comments in his blog; then I went to look - turns out I'm somewhat wrong; most entries are closed to comments, but there are rare exceptions).

I get a huge number of comments, because I write a popular blog, and many of them aren't worth my or anyone's time. I learn so much from the other kind, however, that it's absolutely worth it to wade through all the fluff. Every time I forcefully present a point of view I hope for someone to intelligently challenge it, and most days that's what happens. The value of that is difficult to overestimate.

That's the problem I have with this blog in particular.

It talks about an interesting topic (FP games programming), one that's related to my profession, where there isn't much material out there. The author is describing issues he's faced making functional programming practical, but never provides source or detailed explanations and doesn't seem to reply in the places he's "outsourced" the comments to.

This isn't an attack on the author, it's just that the blog is framed as being informative but is actually more of an opinion piece and I think it would be better as an open discussion, you know, so some of the problems can actually be worked on and potentially solved.

I expressed a similar idea here: http://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=1052676

I don't know if it's inherent in the geek mindset, but I often find that ideas are frequently met with overwhelming negativity. One flaw - often not actually fatal - is found, and the entire proposal or idea is rejected as inane. The startup community is generally more encouraging, and perhaps that's why here on HN there's usually a good mix of constructive criticism and cautious encouragement.

I can understand where the author is coming from, and I'm pleased that HN is much less aggressively dismissive.

I deal with this every day, since I run a community of opinionated teenage band geeks, which can be worse than any technical forum I've seen.

My approach is that if you want the community to grow in the right direction, you have to keep pruning the bad stuff. So my main tool has been ruthless deletion. There's no convoluted point system to distract from the conversation with endless tweaking, meta-discussion, and arguments about being downvoted.

There is also one big ban button for the mods -- no reputation or warning system. I just rely on their judgment. We have occasionally banned new members just for having terrible attitudes. Sometimes we try to talk it out first, but often it's not worth the time. Maybe this only applies to younger users, but I've found that you have to toss out the bad apples as early as possible, because their attitudes will spread.

As a result, I've been called a dictator a few times (justifiably), and there have been a few bruised egos, but everyone else raves about how great the community is. Right now there is a civil discussion about Opera vs Broadway, and a thread with over 100 posts giving kudos to one another about their accomplishments, which was started by a regular user, not me.

Many banned members apologize and beg to be let back in, but I have learned to say no, because they relapse. Some have even threatened me, but I would rather have those people complaining loudly about how much of a jerk I am, than to have my best members silently leave because the site has gone downhill (though some people will say that no matter what you do).

Anyway, maybe that approach won't work in a place like this, but I believe that if you have a strong opinion about how a community should behave, don't screw around trying to be "fair" or clever. Just pick a bunch of people that share the same opinion and let them aggressively prune the bad stuff.

I'm not sure why TomJen2's comment was barred - since he may have been asking what I would like to know: what method of "banning" have you found effective (with such a rowdy, determined group), i.e., how do you know a member's real identity: IP address, etc.?

I don't think the flaw-finding mindset is inherently wrong. I think the problem is that many people have a hard time presenting their criticism in a non-offensive way and aren't always ready and willing to accept an answer and change their minds about said criticism.

I'm not sure if it's that people have a hard time, or they don't care to. Perhaps it's just semantics; either way I agree with you.

I'm curious what PG says about this - Isn't HN's roots in his distaste for what programming.reddit became?

Having this discussion is great. I'm glad there are plans by PG to implement improvements. I have been a reader of HN for years now, but I rarely comment. Not because I don't want to participate, I do want to participate. And I want to participate civilly and without nastiness.

The reason I rarely comment is simply my own reading habits and the way the site works. I read HN on a mobile device via an RSS reader. I flag the threads in my reader I find interesting to look at further on my next work day when I'm sitting in front of my desktop machine.

However, by the time I return to a thread it's usually old and no longer active. At that point, I rarely see any reason to comment, as it likely won't be seen.

What I, personally, would love is a way to subscribe to a thread's comments in some way, perhaps via rss. That would help me to track the follow-up comments made on the few posts I do comment on. But, if there are others like me, perhaps having a way for people to more easily follow threads would bring more people into the discussion and bring more of the prolific commenters back to the discussion.

When I implemented an email notification system for commenters on my blog which notifies each commenter when a new comment is posted, community engagement skyrocketed. I used to get 4-5 comments a post and it's now regularly up in the 40,50,60 comment range. I also found that eliminating anyone who starts getting "trollish" from getting those email updates tends to make them naturally drop out of the thread because they think no further comments are being made.

Anyway, just my two cents. I may be way off-base on this idea, and if so, PG is obviously free to ignore it and I will continue to love HN all the same.

Look forward to the changes.

If only more techies understood and respected the basics of community management. http://www.dynamicalsoftware.com/news/?p=76 lists that and other people skills that modern developers need to get ahead.

Does anyone know what the author does now, for a living, if not write code?

This post is great. The contention among people is really frustrating, especially since the great majority of it is just useless babble that doesn't solve or address anything relevant anyway.

Flickr discussions in three essential sentences:

"Great composition"

"Nice shot!"

"~~o 8 You've been awarded a useless online award by a self-proclaimed expert, join the group now! 8 o ~~"

I agree to the author that faceless communication does not stipulate understanding of finer engineering points. But, sorry, just about any (troll-ridden or not) group in comp.* on my memory was vastly better with quality of comment than that. Flickr is just one big circle-pat-on-the-back.

"But with smart, technically-oriented people, I'd expect there to be more sharing of real experiences, but that's often not the case."

That was a problem for me too, finally I learned that it's just like expecting them to be good at cooking. Social interaction is a skill unrelated to a technical competence and experience in particular environment affects it more than than ones intelligence.

I agree with only allowing upvoting as _the_ metric to measure the quality of a post or comment. All posts and comments could be recognized as 'default incoming' content or 'approaching exceptional' content.

+1 for disabling downvoting.

I disagree. Being able to downvote comments to -4 (and no farther) seems like an excellent system to me, as it allows us to punish comments that are detrimental to discussion while preventing comments from being so downvoted that they have no hope of redemption (in the case of controversial but contributory comments). I'm curious - if downvoting were done away with, how would you suggest that we flag comments which are contrary to the spirit of HN?

With the flag button that already exists?

The instant you let somebody's comment be worth less than neutral value, you've built a mechanized system that makes people feel excluded. That means anybody who wants to can make anybody else feel alienated from this community. Not that I speak from experience.

You're missing a closing quote in your first paragraph! Your post is therefore irrevocably flawed, and your point completely lost on me.

This is why my blog doesn't have a comments section either. I really don't care what non-hackers think of my blog. I value the opinions (and the opinions about the opinions, complete with a useful points system) of people here much more than I would just any casual observer. Also, I don't have to worry about the typical: "[blog post about blah blah blah, continued at...]" spam.


Actually, I completely agree, but I think online identities such as commenting with your twitter account id, and other similar paradigms help lessen the number of trolls, or people who don't read their own words before they press submit.

The internet was designed to be a two way street, so if comments are broken, instead of not using them, lets take steps to clean them up a little.

Disagreement is hard. Let's go silent!

This was the first comment on this post, and I had to wonder if it was an intentional or unintentional example of the article's main complaint.

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