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I liked this article, though I think it missed the best part of Hacker News. To me, Hacker News can feel like walking through Dumbledore's office -- magical and mind-bending collections of incredible devices, ideas, and oddities.

Just yesterday someone posted a comment with links to UI design libraries that I've been subconsciously wishing for in my dreams (humaans, undraw.co), and I used it in a product demo. As a self-taught technologist, HN has exposed me to SICP, functional programming, and just yesterday someone posted a book about Data Structures and Algorithms that I started reading. Dang was quoted as describing HN as a "hall of mirrors" or "fractal tree."

The author's focus on the controversial political parts of HN seems to me like going to a music festival and commenting on the food trucks. Yes, it's part of the experience, but that's not why people go and not what makes it magical.

Communicating the beauty of unfamiliar technical topics to a lay reader is much harder than politics, but the New Yorker has done well at that elsewhere (I like the Sanjay and Jeff profile). Moderation is an interesting topic in its own right, though, especially in the age of the IRA and meme-warfare.




Since this comment gained traction, here are some better examples of what I meant by dumbledore's office:

A romp through approaches to generative adversarial networks described as if they are realms in a Tolkein world. https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=20251308

(This week's) complete guide to building a terminal text editor from scratch in C which gently holds your hand at each step: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=14046446

Stumbling down the root domain of the above link leads you to the collected archive of _why_the_lucky_stiff, a hacker artist who created technical documentation as if it were a work of literature, animating and writing songs about ruby in a unique aesop meets kaftka meets neutral milk hotel style, and who then suddenly disappeared and deleted his whole internet persona, transmitting a 96-page oblique missive years later as individual PCL files. https://viewsourcecode.org/why/

Someone documents how using the 30+ year old, tiny awk language let him do what all the latest fad big data tools couldn't https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=20293579

Several posts this past week from natashenka's Project Zero blog led me to her passion project of being the world's leading expert in hacking tamagutchis, which read as part instructional and part love letter to digital pets http://natashenka.ca/

Even though I'm ostensibly in the same industry as retail brokerages, I've never understood their business models as well as I did when I read this thread https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=20276551

Not to keep going, but just to have a less lame example than a couple introductory textbooks -- I didn't mean to imply HN as a surrogate class syllabus


I think that the Dumbledore's Office analogy is perfect for my use of HN. Frankly, it is the ONLY reason I use HN as I find the discourse (mostly) elitist and exclusive (tiringly).


Agreed on the fractal tree. My favorite part is clicking on the comments of an article whose subject I have some experience in, and finding new areas of it I didn't know about before. I can't count how many rabbit holes I've fallen down following links to downloads, videos, and code repositories.


In defense of the article, what you are talking about is a different story more "finding the Internet and programming" that isn't really unique to Hacker News. It can surely be used that way, and people likely do, but you can also find those things by searching for "top programming books" (or hanging around twitter, quora, medium or other sites). They did sort of talk about that with the early motivations for Hacker News. And you could absolutely go to a music festival and write about the food trucks, the people and the atmosphere that if that is what unique about that festival. I think they did a good job in that regard. People don't obsessively read Hacker News to help newcomers, they do so because it is all in all a technical tabloid.


I don't see HN as an intro course to programming, but more of like that older kid on the block who you notice is listening to bob dylan, and then you try again, you start to get past that nasally voice, really listening to the lyrics this time, and now you're turned on to a whole world of good music.


Sure. I should clarify that I didn't mean "lmgtfy". There are five to ten books that covers things most programmers won't learn by practicing and therefor will uncover most of the mystery experienced by self-taught programmers. There is no need to listening really hard to the lyrics when you can learn how to play. You just need to go and read material that actually covers how to design programs, rather than are about "learning programming". And you will literally find those books about algorithms, design patterns, workflow, refactoring and whatever else by searching for "top programming books". Or in discussion on most platforms. I don't think it is as esoteric as you think.


And sometimes people think Bob Dylan is overrated, that's okay too.


I like this article as well.

But I think while it legitimately criticizes parts of the Hacker News and Silicon Valley culture of missing humanism and ethics (it quoted "they’re people who are convinced that they are too special for rules, [...] Society [...] is a logic puzzle where you just have to find the right set of loopholes to win the game. [...] Silicon Valley has an ethics problem, and ‘Hacker’ ‘News’ is where it’s easiest to see."), it also ignored the fact that Hacker News is not only a Silicon Valley backyard (although often is, but the matter of fact is:), it does attack unethical practices in technology as well, sometimes contrarian.

For example, just now, I saw a submission called "Western Academia Helps Build China’s Automated Racism", one comment says,

* There are almost no ethical uses for facial recognition. It is a technology for criminals.

* Is that racist? This algorithm seems to be specifically built to detect non-ethnic Chinese faces to further discrimination.

Also, yesterday's submission of "Can ads on a page read my password?", the top comment harshly criticized targeted ads:

* I really wish awareness of this reached a wider audience, third party advertising is a terrible blight on the web that has been allowed to grow and fester - it supplies no value and compromises both browser security and our peace of mind - being bombarded by these things constantly is training most of us to ignore a lot more and focus on short focused bursts of information...

If the article can add just a single example, it could make the story be more balanced, without affecting the overall theme and tone of the article.


This comment is a very measured critique of the article but one need not be so kind. I imagine you may not be doing it our of mere politeness, I get the sense some comments are bending over backwards as a means to not play into the perspective in this article. I won't be so kind: the author imputed every bias they have about a community they know nothing about and played on stereotypes from the beginning and didn't even shy away from saying it:

> Picturing the moderators responsible for steering conversation on Hacker News, I imagined a team of men who proudly self-identify as neoliberals and are active in the effective-altruism movement. (I assumed they’d be white men; it never occurred to me that women, or people of color, could be behind the site.) Meeting them, I feared, would be like participating in a live-action comment thread about the merits of Amazon Web Services or whether women should be referred to as “females.” “Debate us!” I imagined them saying, in unison, from their Aeron chairs.

Imagine wanting to write a piece about any group or any community and having such coarse ideas of who they are and what they believe before you interview them. Do journalists not care about things like biases, cognitive or otherwise and how they can color your opinion of the subject you write about? The sheer lack of self-awareness is part and parcel of the larger problem both people on the right and the left have with the news media in general.

I'm a leftist personally, I tire of the neoliberal bent towards this place too but I have some sense of context and at least try to be aware of how my own worldview can affect the way I understand others. It's always disheartening to read articles, even if they are opinion from authors that really don't even try, even a little--especially when organs like the media, just like tech companies, have a large amount of power and ability to shape public opinion. You have to be looking for toxic and overly reactionary opinions to find them; they do flare up but are generally downvoted/flagged, and given this experience I have, this article really serves as a great example of the Gell-Mann effect as others have pointed out.

Altogether, there are some interesting bits, I had no idea of the personal life stories around dang and sctb, but it was rather painful to wade through the constant recitals of tech bro stereotypes.


It is a pretty common way to setup these stories, to play into stereotypes to disarm the reader (basically acknowledging their fears) and open them up to something else. It just isn't written for this audience or from its perspective.


To be clear, I'm aware of the device your talking about. They did that for sure for dang and sctb's character to highlight how they in particular buck the stereotype but throughout the piece the author makes it clear their focus was essentially on the fringe of comments that occur on this site and how they fit into a larger narrative about silicon valley culture. I provided the quote because it is specific evidence the author approached the writing with this perspective towards the site, and should one be totally surprised it is the dominant narrative throughout?

This is not quite related to your reply, but I will say it's rather ironic that the author had this expectation of the mods in particular because in my mind they are often the ones rushing to defense of civility and often chide people making comments of the disposition that the author expected them to have. Of course, that might be because I use this site and see dang or sctb's replies to dead comments and they don't, but approaching subjects you intend to learn about in good faith instead of tired stereotypes would be best.


One thing that surprises me is that HN is in fact, full of humanities. The non-technical topics are just as rich and interesting as the purely technical ones. To paint the opposite as this article did makes me think that the world really just wants nerds to be exactly as their prejudices imagined.


The author is certainly bringing her own expectations about HN's common biases and attitudes into play, but some of those biases and attitudes are on slightly ironic display in this discussion, aren't they? For instance, there's a clear subtext -- sometimes open text -- of "this author knows nothing about the HN culture!", basically dismissing the opening where she mentions how she learned about Hacker News originally from her coworkers at the tech startup she'd moved to San Francisco to join. The bias of "I expected the moderators to be a couple of middle-aged white guys" doesn't come from her lack of knowledge of this industry and the HN crowd, it comes from her immersion in it. Also, the moderators are in fact a couple of middle-aged white guys.

It's true that HN readers are not the intended audience for this -- she's writing for the large set of people who have little to no idea what Hacker News is. But the story she's telling in the article is not "here's how cool HN is," nor is it "here's how terrible HN is." It's a story of how HN reflects the tech culture in Silicon Valley and beyond, how politics and our current culture war intersect with the tech sector whether or not we like it, how declaring a space to be non-political has become an implicitly political statement. And I think in that light, it's a pretty good article.

(And dang, I think getting a third moderator in who's non-white and/or non-male might not be a bad thing -- regardless of their level of balding.)


> I provided the quote because it is specific evidence the author approached the writing with this perspective towards the site, and should one be totally surprised it is the dominant narrative throughout?

At least partly that is about being topical for their audience. What I am trying to point out is that just because it is written from a different perspective or for a different audience doesn't mean that it is wrong. You and I might dislike things about Hacker News, but by being here we have accepted those things. But when they write about Hacker News, they don't have to fit into the Hacker News narrative like we do. They don't have to avoid calling out what they see as bad or find what we see as good.

That certain topics can't be discussed because they disappear from view is a defining characteristic of Hacker News. But on Hacker News it has always been justified by it not being moderation. "It was flagged by users" is the common explanation. But for someone coming from the outside, that isn't blinded by internal politics, it doesn't really matter as the result is the same. The same is true of other dogmas or faux pas. For their perspective to be damaging it has to go beyond valuing different things.

The other reason I have a bit of a hard time seeing it as judgemental is because they provided a lot of space for other perspectives (and even link to discussions). And those perspective seems consistent with the different positions. The article for example does not only address your perspective on the moderation, but conclude with it. They specifically and at length talk about the style of moderation and mention things like dead comments. You might even say it is the entire premise of the article.


> That certain topics can't be discussed because they disappear from view is a defining characteristic of Hacker News

What topics are those? When I hear claims like this, it usually turns out to be a topic that gets plenty of discussion on HN—just not as much as someone feels it should. It never feels like one's favorite topic gets discussed enough (see https://hn.algolia.com/?query=by:dang%20scarce&sort=byDate&d... for why), but that's not "it can't be discussed".

> But on Hacker News it has always been justified by it not being moderation.

We answer questions about moderation all day. When asked what happened to a submission, we say what happened. If users flagged it we say users flagged it. If we moderated it we say we moderated it. How do you get from that to something sinister?

> "It was flagged by users" is the common explanation.

Yes, because it is the common reason.


I do not mind particularly if someone writes something from a different perspective, and I don't think I would have minded if that were so. The problem I have is that different perspective appears to be due to negativity bias, to be more explicit than my first comment. I say that because the bad bits (like sexist, racist comments) you point out are given more emphasis whereas in reality they are a fringe of the comments that occur and are, as I said, generally dead, meaning they aren't at all representative. That said, I don't know how their audience being different (New Yorker readers?) plays into that, you should seek to best inform your audience whoever they are, not potentially mislead them with a biased sample of a community.

Finally, I agree with your last sentences. sctb and dang are painted in the best possible light throughout apart from the paragraph of the author's expectations. I perhaps was much too mild with my praise at the end of my comment; I did find those parts important and interesting; I don't think I've ever heard of a moderator invoking actual philosophy in their methods of dealing with users. I still believe even if that was the conclusion of the article (the gallant mods fighting the hordes of tech bro sexists), the premise is still flawed because of what I've addressed above, the sexists, racists, etc are a minority contingent, just like there are in most of the popular forums on the internet.


In certain circles it's called racism and sexism.


> to play into stereotypes to disarm the reader

That's a nice way to put it. I'd have said it was a way of coloring the audiences' initial impression of the information with the journalist's own racist and sexist views.

Edit: And, I'd agree that it is a common practice in journalism these days.


Yes, it's an interesting article, but I was also disapointed that I'd never been emailed by Gackle and Bell. Then I remembered that I hadn't set an email address on my profile.


> he author's focus on the controversial political parts of HN seems to me like going to a music festival and commenting on the food trucks.

Excellent, lol. A very good way to describe it.


Don't suppose you saved a link to that comment?


Search works pretty well for this: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=20629871


Ah, darn, I was hoping for a whole bevy of cool links. Thanks! :)


HN is filled with Silicon valley nonsense, tropes, and hot garbage. But the things you describe are why I keep coming back. There's always something new to learn.


If I ever start another blog, would you mind if I titled it Nonsense, Tropes, and Hot Garbage?


I encourage it.


Honestly it is a bit weird how you seemingly jumped the thread to address my other comment. My point is still the same whether it is about programming or programming culture. This material is mostly produced elsewhere and present in all programming outlets. What makes HN different is to a large extent what they focus on in the article, including the mix of programming and mainstream news. Most other outlets don't allow this, especially not as liberally. It is easy to equate HN with programming culture, but I just don't think it is really how things are. Hacker News also has a specific different culture. Of course one might argue that allowing more popular content makes programming culture more accessible, and exposes more people to it. I just object to the slight dismissal of the article, because that is the topic at hand. But now below the fold.


It is technology + business, which is not well represented in other places.

Reddit/programming for instance is full of communists that just don't get it that somebody might be in it for the money (in part or in whole.)

LinkedIn is full of self-promoters self-promoting the idea of self-promotion and doesn't have much space for people who really care about tech.


Read Another Book.




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