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Moderators of HN: please stop changing post titles
572 points by there 1058 days ago | 46 comments
I would ask that the unknown mysterious moderators of this site stop changing post titles long after they hit the front page.

The guidelines at http://ycombinator.com/newsguidelines.html state: "You can make up a new title if you want, but if you put gratuitous editorial spin on it, the editors may rewrite it." but this should not apply just because the title submitted does not match the article. When the actual article's title makes no sense or provides no context, it should be allowed to stay changed.

A story is currently on the front page with a title of "Where the Heat and the Thunder Hit Their Shots" which was just changed from its previously edited title of something about visualization.

"Where the Heat and Thunder Hit Their Shots", while actually the title of the article, says absolutely nothing about the content of the article. Is this an article about weather? Photography? Nope, it's about basketball. Why is it on Hacker News? Oh, the submitter liked the visualizations, which is exactly what the previously edited title said before it was changed.

Another example: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=3875857 was a story about Light Table and the title was edited to reflect that until it had at least 100 points. Then a moderator changed it to the story's actual title of "On concepts and realities" which said absolutely nothing about it and probably caused lots of people that had already visited the link once to read it and think it was something else.

Moderators, please stop doing this.




I can give an example of a title change AWAY from the original article title. I was quite puzzled by that when it happened, and I've never heard an explanation of why it happened. I heard about an article from a researcher on human genetics who was writing to other human genetics researchers on an email list. I meet many of those researchers in person in a local "journal club." The researcher was asking for responses from his colleagues about the article, and I thought the article was interesting enough to bring up here on Hacker News. My submission of the article here

http://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=2813270

was under the original article title, namely "23andMe disproves its own business model." The ensuing Hacker News discussion had several commenters (who apparently had paid their hard-earned money for the services of the 23andMe company) complaining about the title, which I didn't editorialize or spin in any way. I agree that the article was controversial, but a legitimate researcher in the field thought that it was a worthwhile read, which is the only reason I submitted the article to HN. After I no longer had my edit window for the submission title, some anonymous person with title-editing power changed the title to "23andMe finds Parkinsons only 24% heritable" (which is a title that reveals considerable ignorance about human genetics, and doesn't fairly represent the content of the submitted article). As I post this, the original article is not showing up to me by following the original link, but Google's cache

http://webcache.googleusercontent.com/search?q=cache:http://...

confirms the original article title.

I can bear with curators here changing article titles to original article titles (or to titles that condense original article titles to less than 90 characters, which is the hard-coded length limit here), but I sure would like an explanation of what a user is to do if it's possible to submit an article with EXACTLY the original article title (my usual practice) and then have the title changed to a stupid-looking title that is still under my screen name. If curators are going to do that kind of thing, they should at least sign their edits to take accountability for them. (That is the usual practice in another online forum where I have editing powers on other people's posts, where I use this same screen name I use here. If I edit someone's submission title, an edit trail identifies that I did that.)

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>If curators are going to do that kind of thing, they should at least sign their edits to take accountability for them. //

Yes, it's very rude to alter someone else's text without claiming 'credit' for doing so or referring the edits back to be accepted by the attributed author.

FWIW it's also an infringement of the moral rights enshrined within copyright law. You can't modify someone else's work without a license to do so (generally); I couldn't find any reference to such a license term in the YC site details. Without such a license a posted story that the moderators dislike [is it just pg?] should just be deleted, the site clearly has no duty to carry the story (by which I mean title and strap linking to the original article) but it also appears to lack any license to amend said submissions.

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While it is true that comment submissions to HN give an implied license for HN to post the content, with copyright being held by the submitter, you can't copyright names, titles, or short phrases (see, e.g., the 6th entry down in this FAQ section from the Copyright Office - http://www.copyright.gov/help/faq/faq-protect.html). Because of this, there is no license needed to amend a title to an article as no one owns rights to it legally.

That said, I once had a legal submission amended to a title that was really wrong legally and therefore sympathize with the sentiments expressed by tokenadult. It is one thing to clarify or to trim fluff from a title but it is another to guess at what a better title might be for a technical area that is beyond the expertise of a moderator. Hence, caution ought to be used. On balance, though, I have found the moderators to be thoughtful when they do make such changes and so I am sure this is just one of the hazards of trying to monitor a site that can include complex materials from varying sources.

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That said, I once had a legal submission amended to a title that was really wrong legally

Because I always appreciate your posts, and I would hate to be misled by any title that was put on them by someone else, I'd love to see the link to the example you have in mind.

Thanks for your comments on the legal background to the issue at hand. Certainly my claim is not that HN cannot do whatever HN's leaders like. I am simply suggesting that I would like to be on notice, as one user among thousands, about what best behavior here is.

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>you can't copyright names, titles, or short phrases //

That's not quite true.

The "title" of a submission is part of the submission the submission itself being the work. As long as the work is sufficiently substantive then copyright will protect it as a whole.

The linked document refers to things like the title of a book wherein you wish to use the title separately to refer to the work. An author can't claim that you infringed their copyright simply because you referred to their work. This is not the situation at hand. HN is not merely using the title it is altering it and presenting it as the substantial part of the complete work that it indeed is. If you think about it you'll see how untenable your limited interpretation is, under your interpretation I can take a Harry Potter work and retitle it and add my name as author because all I've altered is the title and name ... to recap it is a particular use of the title that your link refers to and not to modifying without license.

Now, arguably in the listings of stories HN could write a new title but on the page when presenting the submitted work they would still lack license to present the work modified (ie with their title).

HN should either reject the work as a submission, retract the work or seek a license to modify it. The simplest thing would be to just add some boilerplate that says "by submitting content we reserve the right to alter it for editorial purposes". Though it would be nice to allow the user to choose to retract the story or allow it as edited.

There may well be a fair use argument for content created in the USA. I doubt there is for content created by European users.²

FWIW altering a title could also cause defamation or be an act of libel but such situations are relatively unlikely. Modification of a substantial part of a copyright work without a license is infringing already. IANA(IP)L but arguing that a HN submission¹ is a work for copyright purposes seems pretty straight forward.

--

¹ that's not machine generated or particular short so as to lack discreteness or substance enough to qualify for being a work.

² I've not seen enough case law on internet content to determine how location of created content is judged; is content created via your form considered to be created where I am, where your company resides, where your servers are or what.

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Completely agree. It bit me once: I submitted a link to a free epub book (hosted on GitHub), titled

    Backbone.js Fundamentals [free ebook, epub]
(here: http://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=3831954)

it surprisingly made it to the front page (250 votes), but soon a mod changed the title to

    Backbone.js Fundamentals
So, a lot of unsuspecting visitors (my guess is about 25000 - my personal experience tells me most front page links get 100x visits more than their votes) clicked on this link, expecting to see a web page but end up downloading a random epub. Very soon the poor guy's GitHub account was suspended temporarily due to excessive bandwidth usage.

I felt very bad and angry at the time.

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My most upvoted comment (85 points) in my second most upvoted submission (554 points) is a complaint about exactly this. In my case they changed the title from:

"Lights -- impressive html5 / webgl presentation built with threejs"

to:

"Lights"

http://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=3107946

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I remember this one. I deliberately didn't click on that story or upvote it, because I though it was a linkbaity article - what was the f'ing submitter thinking? I have to click on that link to see if it's something even remotely interesting (and presumably profit such a nasty submitter by more ad-views)? No, thank you.

After a day, I thought maybe it's something really cool that's got so much upvotes and then clicked on it and was literally blown away.

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>and was literally blown away

Where did you end up? Did you land on something soft?

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Literally is literally an auto-antonym used to emphasise a figurative expression. But you win the Grandma Nazi of the Thread award. (!!)

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Actually, I always chuckle when I see people use literally when they mean almost, so I intentionally misuse it to make others chuckle (though, admittedly I think it frustrates more people than it chuckles!) :)

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This happened to a story[1] I submitted yesterday. The title that I submitted was something essentially:

Analyzing the MD5 collision in Flame (Alexander Sotirov's Summercon Slides)

I thought it was useful/informative to include Sotirov's name in order to lend credibility to the analysis. I did not link directly to the pdf, however in the spirit of the submission guidelines I thought it would be appropriate to include that the main body of the link were slides from Summercon. It was changed to:

Analyzing the MD5 collision in Flame

It is not apparent to me why the title was changed. In my opinion the changed title was less informative to the reader and the original title did not include any spin/hyperbole/offensive material. Mainly I am just curious as to why the title was changed. I think it would be helpful if the moderators would post a comment when a title was changed. This would help inform the community about when a title is changed and educate us about what is and what is not proper. In the long run I think this would help make the moderators job easier...

[1] http://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=4098713

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Yes, yes, 1000x yes. Changing titles to remove gratuitous editorial spin is one thing... changing titles just for the sake of changing them is silly and counter-productive.

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probably caused lots of people that had already visited the link once to read it and think it was something else.

Many times have I been looking for an article I read previously and cannot find it. It's a combination of headline editing, a really poor search engine, and the way things fall off the front page mix with things that haven't hit the front page yet.

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On occasion, I have experienced my submitted headlines being reverted back to the original source's obscure headline. More often than not these obscure headlines were made for a print newspaper or magazine where the lede (which HN readers can't see unless they click through) explains the story.

In addition, the 80-character limit sometimes makes it difficult to include the original headline for some of the more wordy publications. This forces rewriting.

I remember HN submissions used to allow headlines that were 90 or even 100 characters long. Why not bring back these limits?

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I wish the title field was exactly eighty characters so that you would know where your title needed to be cropped, instead of bruteforcing it or piping it to wc or cut.

  -<td><input type="text" name="t" size="50"></td>
  +<td><input type="text" name="t" size="80"></td>

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I think, basically, the OP's request is to start distinguishing between "spins" of titles for polemical and other questionable purposes (which should be reverted), and titles that are honestly modified in order to call attention to aspects that are interesting to HN readers, but might be marginal in the original context of the article.

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Yes, it's aggravating. In an ideal world there would be a comment and explanation, but since this would often end up derailing the subject of the pos into a discussion about moderation, I suggest mods just abstain from doing it or else send a note to the poster. When I rewrite the title of an article I do so with a view to making it more accessible to HN readers.

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Upvoted cause you're apparently the only mod that saw it worth their time to give a reply.

Mods should obviously, as a rule, own up to whatever they moderate. I've seen many a forum go down in flames because of "invisible modding". You almost can't blame them, it's human nature that great power wielded anonymously will end up being abused.

So, the obvious solution is to fix the software to display "edited by ..." whenever someone edits something. I say "fix", because it's almost a bug. All popular forum software has this feature, and there are almost no good reasons not to enable it.

Failing that, mods can easily start taking this matter in their own hands by simply adopting the habit of appending a short tag to whatever got edited, for instance {ani} in your case (or soemthing like that).

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Kinda funny how no moderators have responded... makes me uncomfortable that this community seems to be arbitrarily moderated by invisible people.

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See http://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=4102598 (posted a little later than your comment) -- though I'm not sure anigbrowl is a regular moderator, he just mentions that he sometimes does change titles.

That's all I see, though -- and I agree, I was expecting to see a conversation that doesn't seem to be happening.

Well, hopefully the mods are listening and will be more cautious in their future edits....

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Definitely agree. I have been following light table religiously and missed the https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=3875857 story because I probably saw it after the change. If a submission gets up-votes it is a sort of validation for the submitted title. Tailoring a post title to the HN community is an excellent way to bring attention to articles the community most definitely enjoys, but would otherwise miss.

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I would prefer that the alternative of posting either a link or explanatory text be changed to allow both.

Often a title, original or otherwise, simply doesn't provide sufficient context to clearly explain a link. A few well-chosen words of prose could help here (more so if the text could be editied / modified while the post was sitting in queue). Gameable? Perhaps, but we can vote down / flag in that instance.

"Heat & Thunder" was pretty non-obvious to me, and until I read the comment here about the data visualization, struck me as particularly non-interesting.

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I agree; that's one thing that I think has really gotten worse from the Slashdot model to the Digg/Reddit/HN model. The Slashdot blurbs weren't great, but a bare list of links even more emphasizes linkbait and what you might call "easy" content (articles with one clear point that can be summarized in 5 words). In that ecosystem, anything that takes even three sentences to explain the appeal of tends not to go anywhere.

I end up not submitting most of the long-form or academic things I think HN readers might find interesting as a result, since just from the headline probably nobody will know why it was submitted or why they should care. Sometimes if I think something is really good I'll make an exception and submit, followed by posting a comment explaining why I thought the submission was interesting. That occasionally works, but I think most people don't click through to comments on the New page.

I'm not really blaming the readers, because I find the same problem browsing the New page myself: in this list of cryptic headlines, the only thing that stands out are controversy-type headlines ("Why you should never X"), and the rest is hard to skim.

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I also decided not to click through on the "Heat & Thunder" article until I saw here that it's about visualizations.

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Another title change example: http://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=4121698

I submitted a link with the title: 'Linus to Nvidia: "Fuck You"', which was changed to: 'Aalto Talk with Linus Torvalds'

My original title was much more accurate (especially since I linked to a specific part of the video).

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At the very least, a comment should be automatically added logging "Title was changed from X to Y".

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I'd love it if a moderator would post something when they change a title so it's clear what happened and who did it, but it would probably generate a lot of useless meta threads debating the change (and of course, it would actually reveal who the moderators are).

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That can be solved by all mods posting as "mod" and not having a 'reply' link to that comment. (I am not advocating removing 'reply' link though)

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I agree whole-heartedly. Moderators frequently changing titles is an annoying practice. The article's links are not descriptive (they're just id numbers), so the article titles are how I mentally keep track of which submissions I want to, or don't want to, read. Changing the the title makes me have to guess if it is a new submission to hit the front page or just an old one with new clothes, so to speak.

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Also couldn't agree more. It's very frustrating when this happens. Sure my browser show's the link as "Visited" but when I don't recognize the title (or more specifically it doesn't seem to be in reference to anything I've read that day) I end up opening it again. As stated sometimes the reason the article is up here is not the primary focus of the article itself.

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An example of mine: http://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=3165794

The article was originally called Better disagreement. I chose to call my submission 'How to Disagree' on Steroids: DH7. Someone later changed it back to the article's title.

You could say my title had an editorial spin (I'm looking at 'Steroids'), but I resent the edit for not even keeping the explicit reference to DH7 and PG's article.

I have chosen this title because I assumed most of HN knows about PG's article. This submission is essentially a rehash, and therefore not interesting HN material (better link to PG's article). Except for the DH7 part, which was original. By changing the title, I hoped to tell readers about that, so they don't lose time, nor stop reading before even reaching DH7.

I also hoped a karma boost from this submission, but the title edit (which I think was responsible for the lack of upvotes) quickly squashed that hope. Which is the real reason I was pissed off, I must admit. Plus, the moderators cannot take the time to ponder every fishy title. I stand by the rationalization above however: the best HN title possible certainly was not Better disagreement. That title was meant for LessWrong, not HN.

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I had posted the recent one and after it hit the top of the first page, I received an email to not editorialize titles in HN posts, and it was changed.

On reflection, it was quite clearly a spin and I could have made that title much better. The mods are generally looking out for the community and trying to keep titles as representative of the as possible.

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Wish they just took care of this elegantly with the already in place voting system. Let multiple links be submitted with different titles and let people vote up the one with the good title. Why let some mod with personal opinions and not enough time to know every subject and article dictate things? Let the community decide.

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Is there any hard and fast rule on who gets mod privileges? Is it a karma thing or a trust thing?

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I think it's mostly some YC staff/partners/alumni who are mods.

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I agree with this, your examples should not have been changed. I would like to see the converse -- if the title is the same as an article's but the article's title is linkbait or sensationalized I would like it to be changed to something that tells me what it's really about.

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I don't want them to stop but just stop doing it on titles that are already fine. Sure, get rid of "gratuitous editorial spin" but not helpful titles that have context!

Pretty sad this post itself has been made dead actually.

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I've had this problem too. They are way too overzealous about this.

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slightly OT: I recently been killed by HN and writing an article on it: it wasn't easy to get resurrected as well as actually realized I've been dead!

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Truth be told, you moderators are obsolete. I know that changing titles makes you feel like you are important. But the only thing you are really needed for is stopping spam. Stop ruining peoples post titles with your false fear of "gratuitous editorial spin".

You should only change titles if the title doesn't even remotely match up with the content. e.g. Title: Heat win championship / Content: Thunder win championship

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Upvoted this submission, since it's important and we should talk about it.

At the same time, I think the title-editing as actually practiced is great. I'm pleased with the results whenever I notice the changes. (Which is usually after someone gives good reason for the changes).

This is perfect and in line with the reason we're allowed to edit our own submissions for a while. It's basic tweaking to make things fair and accurate, instead of link-baity and sensational.

I can give one personal example.

In hindsight (past few weeks' performance) the original title was right and I was wrong, but I complained about the title here or another story: http://hackerne.ws/item?id=3993657

Basically, I complained that it used the word "barely above its opening price" (or another, similar word like "barely"), which I thought unfair, since 23 cents of gains in a day is perfectly normal and if sustained would be a good trend forever.

The title was changed. (In hindsight, the negative title was justified, and my complaint was out of place.)

This is a place where we are a tight community that can do things like accuse each other of stabbing one another in the back, or stealing each others' text or ideas, or whatever. People upvote. THe story comes out. Responses are written. Soon enough we know if the original, sensational title is justified or needs to be toned down either a little or quite a bit.

On the whole I think the moderators do an excellent job on the titles and it serves a really important purpose. I'm not sure how to fix the other complaints mentioned here. (Maybe put a history in there for search engines or if people want to know how it was submitted).

I know I much prefer this to the broken titles that slashdot users had to put up with (even after complaints) back when that site still had a readership... proactive is much better here.

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Or at least an explanation of what was changed and why. it would give a little more transparency to the site. And the same goes for link deletion, etc. It would be nice to know why such and such comment or submission was shelved (though some are guessable, others are not as much).

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The people taking this action are in charge of how the content should be presented here. You can always vote with your feet.

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[deleted]

That is false. I've had titles of my own submissions changed by someone else, and as the submitter of the Light Table link replied in that thread, he or she did not change the title, either.

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Yes, there are moderators. PG and a handful of people can change such things.

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