I think the reason is that he resonates well with a large group of people (hackers) that are smart and able, but are often very introvert. They often don't get the credit they deserve, are bored with the typical business and corporate stuff that they find simple and shallow, and don't understand why they don't get to where they want to be, and why the world is as it is if you are intelligent and introvert. Paul Graham is extremely good at putting these feelings into his essays and giving hackers a hope that they are something special, and that maybe it's not them that are doing it all wrong but the world.
I read a comment here some time ago that stuck: A guy felt disilusioned at the world and typed the word "why" into google (true hacker style I might add) and PG's essay "Why nerds are unpopular" came up in the search results. This essay, and many like it, give meaning to a lot of people that find youtube, myspace, and Fox news to be below their intellect and don't understand why nobody in this world seem to be able to think for themselves and have their own opinions.
(this post makes no judgment as to the normative value, good or bad, of creating empowering fantasies if that be the case.)
As with any reasonably well-known person, there are followers that adhere to PG too religiously. I can't speak for these people except to say that they are the minority on HN.
Paul's writings are inspiring in the same way as Rand. But they are different because they span the gap between fantasy and reality. His main message of "Make something users want" couldn't be more pragmatic.
Certainly some essays are more speculative and philosophical than others, but most tend to be focused on one idea: How to do something that is exciting and meaningful to you and fit that into how the actual world works; spanning the gap between your personal fantasy job and the reality of making that into a business.
i couldn't agree with you more that graham has a deep understanding of the startup and its economics. you seem to agree with me but with qualification, which i can live with.
an aside: do you think making things that people want really results in the creation of value? i mean to ask this particularly vis-a-vis the creation of something i might call first order goods, or things that we really need. in other words, does it make sense, when talking about creation of value, to differentiate between those things humans need (e.g., food, water, energy sources) and those things that we want? for instance, is the world of value (see graham's essay on the fixed pie fallacy) constrained by underlying natural resources which are necessary for things like fun internet sites that people want to build on top of? i'm sure someone has written about this so anyone who could point me to such a writing or give their own thoughts--that'd be great.
i ask this as part of the question of whether value creation is really so simple. i think this is probably true for the world we live in (u.s. circa the year 2000), but not true for all universes.
I still have hope that this will never develop into a full-blown personality cult, partly because people keep posting reminders that PG is not perfect and PG is not always right, especially whenever anyone suggests that PG is right because he's PG. Also, people who disagree with PG here are not shouted down.
She felt herself screaming silently, at times, for a glimpse of human ability, a single glimpse of clean, hard, radiant competence. She had fits of tortured longing for a friend or enemy with a mind better than her own.
Most of the people who end up on here, or in PG's orbit in general can find themselves in this quote. It isn't PG himself, per se, but the kind of people he attracts and hangs out with.
Most of the people who end up on here, or in PG's orbit in general can find themselves in this quote"
I guess I am in the minority then :-)
I "glimpse competence" all around me every day. And while I am bright, I don't have "fits of tortured longing" to meet someone with a better mind than my own. :-).
I enjoy meeting other bright(er than me) people, sure.
But "tortured longing"? No ! :-)
Yes I know you said "most" and "in general", but that Ayn Rand quote is (imo) purple prose (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Purple_prose) . It might make sense within whatever novel it came from, but as a description of people who hang out in news.yc I don't think it really fits.
As for tortured longing, well, might I just put forth that some of us still work in some pretty dismal offices. Purple prose to be sure, but then, its hard to quote Rand without that particular hue!
That wasn't the intended effect of my comment. Sorry!
The only part I was disagreeing with was (emphasis mine)
"Most of the people who end up on here, or in PG's orbit in general can find themselves in this quote (by Ayn Rand)".
When you say
"Just saying that Paul attracts a certain kind of person that has a strong tendency towards technical competence. These types of people often like to hang out with others of this type and so it has less to do with the man himself and more to do with finding people of like mind"
it sounds much more reasonable, and more importantly the quote's luridness doesn't obscure what you are trying to say.
I certainly agree with this. Paul's essays really struck a chord with me.. especially 'Why nerds are unpopular'.
I've been programming since a young age and I used to love making little 3D graphic demo's in QBasic. I always found it frustrating when showing my friends what I had created.. they didn't really appreciate what it took to draw a 3D cube on the screen. :(
Why such a Syndrome exists is probably related to the nature of evolution, where diversity is a desirable feature to increase the overall complexity, evolution's apparent goal.
Unconventional thinkers are a blessing.
As in the open source world, Paul Graham's influence is in proportion to what he gives away. He spends time packaging his ideas into forms that others can benefit from, and he asks for nothing in return. Call it open source business planning.
There are other people that give away ideas, too, and they all have influence disproportionate to their personal success, think Joel Spolsky, ESR, et al. However, none of them have the passion to help their fellow man succeed that Paul Graham has, so they all tend to be treated as second-tier gurus.
PG cannot be compared to other "success coaches" either, because he does not seek personal gain for his ideas, only return on his investments. You get the feeling that he does not have ulterior motives in his writings.
Understatement of the year.
This statement infers that you read his essays. Did you? If so, good. Read them again. If not, read them for the first time.
I've read, followed, attended, and met many "self-help" specialists. Dale Carnegie, Napolean Hill, Zig Zigler, Wayne Dyer, Tony Robbins, Stephen Covey, and many more. But for hackers who want to take it to the next level, none of these guys holds a candle to pg. Why? They all help me to feel good. He helps me to do better.
And it doesn't hurt that, along with others, he has brought yc and hn to us. His essays brought me to this site. You guys keep me here.
After years of cleaning up other people's messes, I'm moving up to the next level and building the cool stuff that was always inside me. Those essays and this site have encouraged me alot. And I bet I'm not the only one.
His essays also allowed me to fine tune my bs filter on situations and people, be they jobs, vcs, popular opinion, etc. A lot there.
Finally, he seems to not be a prick, and believe or not, that is a very rare quality. I have never met the guy, but he seems to be trying to make a positive change in the world and doesn't seem to be leeching of off people's hopes and taking advantage of them, like a record company or leadership track in a corporation would.
When I started, I didn't know what I was doing, I just went for it, and I've learnt the hard way much of the way through. So when I first started reading PG's essays years ago, I connected immediately with the ideas and with his natural inquisitiveness about the process. You can learn so much from other peoples' experiences. And he definitely exudes a sincerity that I think is hard to fake and hard to come by too.
PG and co have also created an invaluable resource in the HN community and in PG's writing as a resource to connect people who share the same desire for independence and creating great things. To me, there's no question that that has significant value for many people.
heh. heh. Sorry for pointing attention, just funny :)
> So - why do you guys listen to him ?
Because he says interesting things eloquently and succinctly? If you have interesting things to say that you can phrase well, I'll listen to you, too :)
In general, I think he falls into the category of George Soros or Jeff Hawkins or Aaron Schwartz - people who are financially secure by their own making, but haven't given up on working hard toward something.
"So - why do you guys listen to him ?"
a combination of
(1) expertise - PG is considered a "top 1%" Lisp hacker - has written some of the best books on lisp.
(2) worldly success without selling out/ doing nasty things (Viaweb and its sale)
(3) original thinker and excellent communicator ( his essays)
(4) has an attitude of "giving back to the community" by
(a) reaching out and actively engaging the community and
(b) working hard to enable others to attain successes similair to his own, from the position of someone who has "walked the path". (YC)
and (5) (as someone noted before) seems to be a genuinely nice and helpful guy.
This combination of these is very rare.
It is interesting to compare PG to another hacker, Peter Norvig.
In my (admittedly limited) perception, Norvig " scores" as well as PG on points 1-3 and 5, but not so much on point 4 (which is all right, different folks and all that).
Norvig seems to be more remote and inaccessible and more "wizardly".
( NB: I am not saying this is true, I am talking of perception. Peter Norvig is a very friendly, very nice guy)
Matz/Guido/Kernighan .. all these folks seem to have more detached online personas, though they all embody the expert + nice factors.
I think the key to PG's popularity is in the combination of excellence/expertise and his "help others be successful" actions.
PS: I don't agree with the "cult" description - a cult is where the leader is essentially worshiped (PG is admired, there is a difference) and his sayings are uncritically accepted (PG gets pushback and criticism on YC)
I was raised in the Banana Republics of Central America in the 80's. My parents were ministers, and because of this, my understanding of finances and economy were severely limited. My parents worked 100 hour weeks building churches, youth camps, a Bible college and a private school for dirt poor farmer's children. And my parents received a salary based on individual churches donations. Money just always showed up. And because of the favorable exchange rate in Central America, our near poverty level US income allowed us a very comfortable living in Central America.
Now, fast forward 10 years later circa the late 90's. I was working as an ER nurse in inner city Chicago. I was working tons of hours while my wife was going back to school, but we never seemed to make ends meet on my $40k salary. The money just never showed up, and I really never understood why. It always had as a kid. Meanwhile, I would read about high tech entrepreneurs making a bundle in the first dot com boom. I was really intrigued, but I never really understood what was going on. And, I could not get my mind around all the money that people were making in the high tech industry.
Fast forward another 6-7 years. I was living in LA, making a bit more cash, but still working as an ER nurse. I hated my job as an ER nurse, so I was trying to get a break into the Special Effects field because I've always loved computers and computer graphics. Problem was, the people that I knew that worked in the field really didn't like it. The hours were downright abusive and the environment was sweat-shop-esque: working 16 hour days, 7 days a week with 1/2 a day off every other Sunday for laundry, getting laid off when the movie was done, and unemployment for 3 months waiting for the next gig.
I picked up a copy of Hackers and Painters at the Fry's in Burbank because of a review on Slashdot. I'm sure it was just where I was at the time, but precious few books and essays have influenced my thinking more.
How to Make Wealth: Explained what I didn't understand from my childhood--wealth creation as the basis of the economy and how to create wealth. Defining financial issues as "The money problem." And, then casting that problem as a solvable problem. It's not just about working a lot of hours, it's all about creating wealth.
Why Nerds are Unpopular: Explained most of my problems in High School and why I hated the experience so much.
Hackers and Painters (the essay): Connected the dots between the art world that I was trying to succeed in and the world of programming that I loved as a child.
Over all, Paul's essays really helped work through a lot of what it meant to live in the US, how this money thing worked, and how to solve the money problem. Furthermore, he connected the dots on how to start my own startup, and eventually solve the money problem doing something that I really enjoy in the process--working with computers and creating things. I've been preparing myself to be a founder ever since.
I've gone back to school, and this summer, I'm completing my BS in CS. I've paid off the vast majority of my debt over the past 4-5 years in preparation for the serial entrepreneur life. I moved to Silicon Valley last year, and I'm getting to know people in the tech biz.
So, it's not that I have a shrine to PG next to my monitor. And, it's not like I'm burning incense in front of my copy of Hackers and Painters. But, I do deeply appreciate what he's communicated in his essays. I'm very grateful to him for sharing his experiences. And, the ideas that his essays have communicated have changed my thinking enough that they have actually changed the direction of my life.
I think you will find that many people read what Paul writes because he consistently writes things that provoke useful thought. That can be beneficial even if you don't agree with everything he writes.
In fact, even if you violently disagree with what he writes, if he provokes you into thinking about something you think is important, that's a win for you.
He writes well, far beyond the extent that good writing can be expected from a Harvard student. His writing is at once concise, interesting (at least to this audience), and convincing.
Y Combinator seems pretty successful, and PG is good at it. (I'm not going to give reasons for the success of YC here.)
His books On Lisp and ANSI Common Lisp are arguably among the best books about Lisp.
He is making his own dialect of Lisp (see http://arclanguage.org/). I've looked it over, and it looks like a good language. Probably not all the hype cracks it up to be, but then, nothing ever is. Sure, it has its bugs and a few other problems, but it shows a lot of potential.
There are probably others, but this is all I'm going to write right now.
Also, the acquisition of reddit has already justified several years of ycombinator. If a YC startup is a major success once per 5 years, the program is very successful.
I guess it goes the other way. PG is a good listener and thus a good thinker. That's why he's popular among the tech community in particular.
People may choose to read his writings because there is a certain element that he talks which some people appeal to. Just like with Obama, his dedication to a cause draws people that Hillary perhaps lacks and vice versa. Calling it a cult may be a bit of an oversimplification because of the mass number of people. If connecting with a large number of people and earning the respect you do comes at the cost of being called such a term, then Edgar Allen Poe should by all means have monuments and statues among Literature students.
I've been thinking about this idea and by re-phrasing your question, "Why are certain people special?". I think you can make this a more general case than just one person working in a narrow field. But I'll confine my observations to the technology world and software world specifically.
So why are certain people special?
Maybe it has the same reason that in the past "what made them so un-popular".  The intellectual curiosity, ability to see change to "what is possible" instead of what is common practice. Seems harmless doesn't it? But a core mindset of questioning current practice and suggesting a new possibility instead of blind acceptance is threatening and outright dangerous talk to followers. I've observed that in certain types of decision making there are "leaders" and "followers". I'm pretty sure there is a good reason for it. From birth to the time you are old enough to go out into the world you generally accept what you are told is "the right way" to do things. This works for routine decisions like cleaning your teeth, twice every day to avoid decay. For a fair percentage of the population, doing what you are taught, told or pressured to do is pretty much the norm. Don't question why? Follow the standard procedures, get the job done. We need this type of thinking and obedience so we don't fall into chaos. Life is complicated enough without having to make hundreds of non-trivial decisions every week. What about other non-trivial decisions?
- Leaders, followers: Sometimes you have take lead in order to change. There are some that recognise you can improve a process by changing it. Then make those changes, Going against the norm, bucking the system. Continuing change in the face of criticism. You can see this clearly in Art. Whole art movements can be turned upside down by one group or individual artists exhibiting paintings. Science & technology is fundamentally driven by change and what is new. Old ideas are swept aside and new industries created when the fundamental understanding of a new idea is made public through experiments, papers and media. Usually by individuals, never whole teams.
- Communication: The ability to get an idea across is probably a good idea. So anyone who write, speak and argue rhetoric is a good bet. The Internet has really expanded this ability to communicate. Before the Internet, you had to read great ideas filtered through the whims of Journalists in your local newspapers. If you where lucky (or if the writer was lucky) you might read their ideas in Journals or trade magazines.
- Makers: Building your own tools is another. I don't what it is about having to make your own tools. Maybe it's the "dog-food" syndrome. Something inside makers that compels them to think up new ways to do things. Making you own stuff also keeps you humble. If you build your own things, you have a greater understanding of what you think and talk about. Less prone to the fancy talk of speculation. 
- Scepticism, cynicism: Take an idea, problem or situation, as is. Critical questioning the validity instead of trying to take the cheap route of downplaying a good ideas with cynicism. Instead propose a viable alternative. There is a fine line between scepticism and cynicism. The former if taken on the chin allows you to improve. The later as a means to destroy and denigrate.
- Generosity or meanness: When was the last time Bill Gates wrote about business, software or gave something away for free? I hear Steve Jobs hasn't got the time so he employs a "blog double" to write on his behalf.  In a gift culture, the generosity of the written word, software or ideas displays a "special quality". Show don't tell. Show through speech, the written word, software. These things are free but rich to consume.
- Smashing the 'status quo': In technology, there is more reward in making new things instead of re-hashing the old. New ideas and movements in technology are periodic. They come and go. So being able to not only question the "status quo" but smash it open is a bonus. This is the most dangerous quality. It's easy to follow. It's much harder to put you time, effort and reputation on the line.
Some people in the tech-world who have these "special qualities". To some degree or another I'd include Phil Greenspun, Joel Spolsky, Richard Stallman, Bruce Perens, Brewster Kahle. There are probably others that I don't know about. But these are the qualities I'd look for.
Of all the qualities I observe, I think smashing the "status-quo" is the most admirable. There is something "deliciously subversive" in not answering to a "boss". In not having to work at the yolk of another's Company. To work on your own ideas, in your time. Instead of someone else's half baked ones at times they set. Then try to profit from them. To question the very nature of what is considered "traditional work".
That idea alone makes Paul Graham special.
 Take for instance the amount of blogs on google appengine. Most are speculating and not talking about the problems building applications.
I know it's a cliche, but it fits here.