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I wish you'd consider investing less time in technical countermeasures to dumbness (all of them are gameable, and the brand of dumbness you're fighting is not at all incompatible with an intuitive talent for that gamesmanship) and more time into just setting better community norms.

It is hard to imagine that the site guidelines you write years and years and years ago when this place was tiny are, intact and without change, the optimal guidelines for the site in 2012.

It's also the case that the things you say to guide the tone of the community, for better or worse, have a huge impact on how the community works.

If it should be a norm of HN that criticisms be kept constructive, and that the community should have a default position of supporting entrepreneurship (and, more generally, of supporting attempts to build anything) --- and, that should be a norm. --- why can't you just say so? Not in comments, buried in random threads, but in somewhere prominent on the site. Like, for instance, the guidelines. Which you need to update. Please.

Having used to be mod/admin on a rather busy and strife-filled SMF-forum the past 6-7 years, I can confirm that this works surprisingly well.

I say "surprisingly" because, like a lot of tech hackers, I often think about a technical solution before I think about the simple social one. But I've noticed time and time again just how much effect the simplest changes in user-interface can have on the entire "mood" of a community. And "simple change in UI", includes the guidelines, or--I don't know--there's actually a lot of space for a notice below the comment submission form where you can give people the "right" idea (what you want to see in this community).

The personal anecdote goes a little something like this: We have a real solid group of mod/admins with a hands-off approach (way more hands-off than the invisible ones at HN, but that's a different gripe), so we had our fun with the innocent tiny changes, like changing the descriptions of individual sub-forums ever-so-slightly, like a pun, or a little in-joke. After a few years however, all of the descriptions had mutated into something that was not at all descriptive anymore. All the "old" members (which includes the mods of course) knew perfectly well what the sub-forums were meant for. But the new members did not. As new members look to older members for social context, there was a sort of generational loss in relevance, and at some point people almost entirely just posted whatever, wherever. It was chaos! And so I had the brilliant idea that, hey we can change those descriptions so that they're both descriptive and somewhat funny (utter genius, I know).

The amazing thing is, that it took only about 2-3 weeks before people starting posting on-topic things in the right sub-forums again.

The moral of the story is: people really tend to respond really well to just flat-out being told what to do. Really well. Amazingly well. Frighteningly well.

Better than some tech solution that tries to subtly "guide" them, in particular (or at least much easier to implement).

Your experiment matches Dan Ariely's experiment very well. In his book, "Predictably Irrational" when people are made to remember the ten commandments or even the thought of ten commandments, or any such honesty pledge, their dishonesty level drops drastically.

One of these days, I'm going to make a chapterwise summary of that book so that I can remember the experiments and behaviours at a glance.

I wonder why such a phenomenon occurs, when five of the commandments have nothing to do with morality.

Also, in the Army we had the Warrior's Ethos, the Army Values, the Soldier's Creed, and the Creed of the Non-Commissioned Officer crammed down our throats daily. While are some awesome people in the Military, I've run into just as many dishonorable people as I have in the general population.

You are missing a control, so you can't really judge. Maybe it would have been a stinking, fetid den of iniquity and moral puss had they not.

Or, more likely, they might be somewhat worse, for some reasonable definition of somewhat.

How is it inaccurate to state that the morality of military members was the same as the general population, but not inaccurate to suggest that only degenerates who need constant supervision join the military in the first place?

"I've run into just as many dishonorable people as I have in the general population."

Can you think of any group this would not be true for given a sample size or population as large as the military?

The point was that I can't. The study mentioned above claims that people act more honestly when they are reminded of a set of values to which they are supposed to adhere. I was simply stating that while I was in the military (for about a decade), we were constantly reminded of the set of values which we were supposed to follow, yet I saw no signs that such a practice has any effect whatsoever on an individual's behavior.

Honest, decent people who join the military (or any other group) will likely remain honest and decent. Dishonest people will most likely remain dishonest until their actions prevent them from getting what they want.

In simple, harsh words, basically you say that teaching of good values has no value. I think that the things are much more complex that that.

Perhaps those values from military doesn't have/had any resonance because they weren't, in fact, good? Or, told in a good way? (I'm thinking now that tyranny in teaching generates repulse not acceptance)

Also, if we consider that the teaching was correct (both as content and form - I dunno of course) who knows if the "soldiers who didn't change" would be worse if this teaching would be applied?

I think that the human being is the victim of influence and good influences play a determinant role on his behavior. But now what means "good" - this is entirely another chapter...

You make very good points. There could obviously be people who had rose-tinted view of the military only to have it shattered in the first week. That could have easily made them bitter about the whole teaching process.

Secondly, I don't think the ideals help if you don't agree with them. You choose to become an Doctor and remember the Hippocratic oath. Same with Engineers and Lawyers. If you find half way through, that you don't want to be an Engineer or a Doctor, you can always bail out and switch. But with the military, bailing out is completely out of the question.

I said no such thing. The teaching of good values entails quite a bit more than merely repeating a set of values or a specific creed.

While people may or may not like what the military does, most of its creeds/values are for the most part positive things. The Army values for example are Duty, Loyalty, Selfless Service, Respect, Honor, Integrity, and Personal Courage - pretty generic and not nefarious at all.

Did you hang out with those people during civilian life? How can you say the various credos had no effect on them if you do not have the same experience without the credos.

I was clearly speaking from my personal experiences and perceptions, which are obviously not intended to be considered the equivalent of a formal scientific study.

But since you asked, why would one have to have experience with that exact group of people prior to coming to a conclusion? I agree that it would be ideal if that was the case, but there are many studies considered to be scientifically valid that use one group of people who come from similar circumstances as a control, while only testing on another group. In my example I suppose the control would have been the people I know from outside the military. As I stated though, my comment was just an anecdote from my personal experiences, not a peer-reviewed, published article intended to expose the author of the other study as a fraud.

And SoftwareMaven said that you don't have a control. What he meant is that, if these values hadn't been reminded there's a very high probability that honest people might have done dishonest things, and dishonest people might have done dishonest things of far greater magnitude.

There was someone who knew that before Dan Ariely: every priest of the past two thousand years, who led a congregation on daily prayers or confession.

The priests did not write research papers and publish it in peer-reviewed journals. Neither did they bother with controls in experiments. So please don't be snarky.

This makes a lot of sense, and is worth experimenting. The comment/reply box should have some simple placeholder text, along the lines of: Don't be a dick.

How about "Be kind and constructive." instead?

Oh definitely something more like that. I was not serious about the exact wording I used, I just wanted to convey the point.

The SMF forum? Or another forum running SMF? I only ask because SMF (well actually its predecessor YaBB SE) was what got me active in contributing to open source projects. Solid software that SMF.

No, no, another forum running SMF.

But solid software, really? I give them one thing: it works. Can't recall encountering any real big bad bugs either, so yeah in that sense, quite solid.

But given that you contributed to it I assume that you've seen the code? I've had to make some modifications/hackery here and there myself and the amounts of time I've cursed at it for being a tangled and obscure mess... combine that with the childish language in the comments, urg.

I guess that's one important thing it taught me: never be flippant or rude in your code comments because it'll invariably end up making you look like a fool. Kind of like that "Muphry's Law[sic]" someone quoted in another thread. In "production code", but I found it easier to change my habit to "in general" because you never know who's going to see your code, and even your 3-months-future-self might as well be a different person when reading code is considered (except future-me does tend to share my sense of humour).

Because of that, all my own modifications ended up looking like rather ugly hacks as well because there was simply no "coding style" to join in step with.

(and the templating system (that is neither). and the amount of semi-duplicate subroutines and their names!!. "post", "post2", "message". And trying to guess in which of the five "/∗ probably the most important module of SMF ∗/" giant includes you're going to find a certain routine is about as predictable as trying to guess the name of a PHP library array function without reading the docs ... I really should stop, sorry :) )

It does work very well, I must repeat that. But only as long as the original magicians are still there taking care of it I'm afraid.

I've not contributed for a good number of years. I just didn't have the time. I assumed it was still running smooth. Maybe it has fallen off in recent years. Sad. But they had a pretty good MOD system I thought for the time. But I agree that the code was not organized all too well.

We used it since at least 2007 (not exactly sure, we switched from PhpBB around the time exploits were discovered every other week or so). It's still quite smooth and works fine, I just don't like looking at the code, nothing changed in that respect :)

Ok, I'll try that too.

If you would ever consider putting a quote in the guidelines, I heartily recommend and humbly submit Teddy Roosevelt's Man in the Arena

  It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points 
  out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds
  could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man
  who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust
  and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who
  comes short again and again, because there is no effort
  without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive
  to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great 
  devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the
  best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and
  who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring
  greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold
  and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.

The man in the arena. Classic. And fitting with the theme of entrepreneurship too, at least for me. When I started my first company I went to a business after hours event to meet and learn from people who'd done it before. One very bright woman took me aside into an office away from the party, told me there's one thing I need to know about business and that it's about the journey, not the destination then she turned on a computer, went online, and printed out this exact quote. She said its what got her through the hard times and after having to read it many times I can say it gets me through them too.

I really enjoy that, that is a great quote. It is the last thing I read before posting this comment and I instantly started looking for a more diplomatic way to tell you that I think it's a bit poetic and would likely be skipped by people who don't have the time to decipher the metaphors. Then again, it seems to have worked.

We can always make the understanding of metaphors a required step for signing up.

Tongue-in-cheek, how hard would be to make a captcha?

Examples from [1]:

Metaphor: Argument is war I shot down his argument He couldn't defend his position She attacked my theory

Love is a journey: Our marriage is at a crossroads We've come a long way together He decided to bail out of the relationship

[1] http://pinker.wjh.harvard.edu/articles/media/2006_09_30_then...

Great stuff, love TR, should be read by all entrepreneurs and my kids too. But I would point out, snark off, that the Man in the Arena in ancient Rome was a slave, butchering another slave while rich citizens watched.

"A thing is not necessarily true because a man dies for it." -- Oscar Wilde

As an example, Tim Ferris has this right above the comment submission box (getting to users right when they're about to take an action):

  Comment Rules: Remember what Fonzie was like? Cool. That’s 
  how we’re gonna be — cool. Critical is fine, but if you’re 
  rude, we’ll delete your stuff. Please do not put your URL in 
  the comment text and please use your PERSONAL name or 
  initials and not your business name, as the latter comes off 
  like spam. Have fun and thanks for adding to the 
  conversation! (Thanks to Brian Oberkirch for the inspiration).
Screenshot: http://cl.ly/Ipex Guidelines are nice, but most people won't see them. It might work better to get to them right when they're taking the action.

How about just adding a flagging option for each comment and making the flagging weight related to the karma of the account. Therefore the opinion of people who have in the past made high quality contributions are weighted stronger than those of the others. And this is something I am suggesting with an almost pathetic karma...

That sounds like a second voting system, or am I understanding incorrectly?

I'm going to resubmit an idea that has been brought up before (it's not mine- it may be yours, in fact): two buttons for voting. One for agreement/disagreement and one as a rating specifically for quality of the comment.

In the "old days," there was more-or-less agreement that the vote was for quality of comment -- feedback about the value of the participant to the community -- and agreement/disagreement was voiced (if necessary) in comments. As a rule I (and others) would upvote comments we disagreed with as long as they were thoughtful. There were exceptions, of course, as you have aknowledged, but this was a pretty good guideline.

Now I think things have turned around a bit, and votes have started signifying agreement/disagreement more than quality of comment. I think this takes the community in the wrong direction.

"Cool, now there're two ways for me to punish someone I don't like." The flaw, if you want to call it that, with this suggestion is that it is a mechanism based on the idea that people are decent, reasonable, and well-informed. Which is not a bad thing, but it is not well suited to fixing a problem caused be people behaving indecently, unreasonably, and/or with little experience being "Good HN Citizens."

How the votes get turned into "punishment" will have to be tested and tweaked. I think it is worth a try, because it sets the expectation for what your votes mean be the nature of the button that you are about to press.

You seem to be thinking that this is largely trollish behavior. I suspect, however, that most of it comes from ignorance of the expectations of the community. I'm not sure there is a fix for the trolls. But for noobs that watch reality tv shows and want to come here and be the acerbic judge I think we can stop it by keeping the behavioral expectations in the forefront.

The flaw with the idea isn't what you say. I think it's important to expect decent, reasonable behavior. The flaw is, 'ok, we have two buttons. Now what?'

I would start with having the quality score 'float' the article and pretty much ignore the agree/disagree score in karma metrics. But I would probably keep that a secret.

True, unfortunately. But the flipside of having more people on the site is that there is no longer any need to ensure that everyone's comments become public on every story. You can afford to be choosier about what actually shows up, you just have to come up with a proper filtering mechanism. I think karma can be adequate, there just needs to be a more effective system of distributing and using it than what HN uses currently.

It could be too radical, but we could end anonymity in the sense of keeping public track of who upvoted, downvoted or flagged what.

The obvious fix for that is to have slashdot style moderation where you have a single vote to assign to one of many categories: offtopic, flame bait, funny. Insightful, etc.

Why not make the upward facing arrow be text like "good quality" or "useful" or "thoughtful"?

Also remove the downvote button and replace it with "flag this comment"

People would click on [flag] too often, making it hard for mods to monitor the queue of flagged content.

Also I should be allowed to veto at least one YC applicant per batch.

You of course are allowed to joke because more people know who you are and allow it (so your comments aren't greyed down for everyone to see). (I've noticed this a few times at least). So now the poor puppy of a newbie user thinks it's ok to tell a joke (because he doesn't know who you are) or be funny and then BAM he gets slapped with a newspaper full of downvotes and runs away yelping all confused with his tail between his legs. What happened what did I do so wrong?

Now personally I'd rather be able to tell jokes on HN than be able to veto. But then again I'd have to sift through the bad jokes that other's tell.

In any community like this it takes some time to learn the rules. I'm sure there are quite a few people who don't necessarily know who "pg" is for that matter.

Maybe overthinking this one a little.

May I please be the first to say "WTF"? I know who you are, I know what you contribute, but... WTF?

It's an old joke. You make a request and somebody acquiesces more easily than you expected, so you follow up with an absurd request like "Also, can I have a million dollars?"

And now I went and explained it. Sorry, tptacek.

Ah, got it (humble pie eaten, apologies tptacek).

People should stop piling onto you with downvotes. No apology necessary.

That too, but also, I'm going to wear him down with this someday.

To add to your thought when negotiating it's always important to offer nominal kickback generally. Lest the person feel they left money on the table.

If I am selling something and asking $1000 and the person comes back with an offer of $500 and assuming I am willing to take that offer (because I was shooting high) I need to offer some "kickback". This could be as simple as saying something like "well, if I accept can you pay within 5 days?" Or perhaps, "can't do $500 but I'll consider $600". Otherwise the buyer feels perhaps "hmm wow that was to quick and to easy" and might back out of the deal. Strictly my experience over many years.

Well in every joke lies a bit of truth: http://www.scribd.com/doc/25450984/Freedman-Compliance-WITHO...

Oh, thanks. Now I get it. I think the problem was I missed that this was a reply to pg's acquiescence. It was several pages down by the time I read it so the joke was lost.

Given the risk/reward tradeoff for a YC investment, vetos are pretty worthless. Even if you were the most brilliant vetoer ever, there is very little upside for YC.

Instead you should ask to be able to green-light one applicant per batch. That way, it would be possible for your contribution to be very valuable.


Apart from the content itself, I would suggest to place the guideline link more prominently. Maybe even at the top, directly before the "New" link.

To support this proposal: When I first arrived here (from your homepage), I didn't notice anything about guidelines until I stumbled upon a comment which mentioned them. Then I eventually found them on the bottom of the page (which can be quite long), where I seldom look at.

I think they're mentioned when new users sign up, and also when they make their first post.

I'm not keen to make a new account to test this out though.

What I do personally is keep a (relatively short) file of hn usernames I find particularly good and those I find particularly bad. I go and read comments from those I find good sometimes, in addition to encountering them through the normal course of articles.

The bad ones, I reevaluate whenever I see another comment, but I've never yet seen a good reason to remove someone from that list. Sadly they never seem to end up hellbanned. It's uncorrelated largely with agreeing or disagreeing with views; it's just that there are a group of people who are, as the OP said, really negative, irrational, and destructive to civil discourse.

Not to deter you from the social standards approach, but I thought the concept of measuring comments was clever.

The problem I see is - How do you know if a comment is negative or not? Surely, you can tell, but problematically that might be tough.

Maybe swap out the "post comment" button for 2 "commit" buttons 1 that says "Positive" the other that says "negative". (This could be done a myriad of ways, but you get the point)

You could then measure a users tenancy to post useful positive/negative comments based on the average votes that type of comment receives.

posters that consistently have low average scores for their comments could lose posting rights, for a period.

I could see keyword association much like PG's email spam filter working for this.

"... community should have a default position of supporting entrepreneurship (and, more generally, of supporting attempts to build anything) --- and, that should be a norm."

I disagree and find such a community engineering approach dangerous for the health of the very community it's trying to "save". I think there are two big problems with it: (i) It gives too much power to the gatekeeper(s), be it software or human, and (ii) it creates a bias for positive comments.

This is the typical dilemma: Bad comments and a free forum are two sides of the same coin. Although I hate snarky, nonconstructive comments as much as everybody else, I think that trying to curtail one may also damage HN's innovative and free atmosphere, which is its main asset.

> Although I hate snarky, nonconstructive comments as much as everybody else

Sure, I sorta agree, but ... there's snark, and then, well, there's snark.

Sometimes snarky, non-constructive comments can be really funny and/or satisfying. I don't want them to dominate the conversation, and a lot of snark is just sort of stupid, but ...

It seems to me that the (arguably) best discussion sites are those governed by benign dictatorship: firm moderation and clear guidelines. Yes, there are edge cases where judgement must be made but clear guidelines make this easier.

Whenever I think of a good example of a community that has managed to stay pretty high-quality for some time, I can't help but think of Matt Haughey's Metafilter. I'm sure the nominal charge for membership helps, but the (paid) moderators are very good.

I'm sympathetic to your point, but I fear that the worst offenders are among those least likely even to read the guidelines, much less adhere to them.

Unfortunately I agree, it is no big secret that tech as a segment has a fairly sizable portion of it's population with smartest guy in the room syndrome. The problem with smartest guy in the room syndrome is they already know the answer. Therefore they are not information seekers and they disregard anything that is objective to their world view. It is what killed Slashdot and sadly it is becoming unbearable here. Self policing does not help with this personality type, because they have no vested interest in anything other than everyone seeing them as the smartest guy in the room. Their concern about the community only extends to their recognition. It is a self centered world view and therefore I don't think that self enforced measures will work on this personality type. I almost think a third measure is needed, like a flag as abusive. Knowing that they can be flagged as abusive (even if the system dumps the flag and does not use it in any calculations). Will cause them to reflect on the policy, as it directly threatens their ability to use HN as a platform for self glorification.

HN does have up votes, down votes, and a third flag option.

You have to view an individual comment to get the flag option. I'm not sure what the down votes are for. "This comment does not belong on HN", maybe.

I have no idea what the flag is for. "This content is so bad it needs to be removed, not just hidden", perhaps.

I agree with your post though! I'd be wary about having too many options for marking posts.

Currently downvotes are simply "I disagree" (causing plenty of good comments to pile at the bottom, side-by-side with spam/hate/douchebaggery).

"Currently downvotes are simply "I disagree" "

My observation is that downvotes also signify comments that have one of more errors of fact. Of course "fact" is also open to interpretation and not absolute.

You could say "you can only be President for two terms of 4 years each" but someone could dispute that because Roosevelt was President for longer or because in their country that is not the case. Etc.

A downvote because of inaccuracy without a comment isn't very helpful of course.

Originally a downvote meant that the comment was impolite, stupid humor, or way off topic. If it was incorrect or you disagreed, you were expected to say why. I personally dont like driveby downvotes.

I like this post a lot. It perfectly sums up why I quit reading Slashdot. There was a time when reading Slashdot posts could expose you to new ideas, real world examples of technical solutions, and other people trying to learn more. Now it's mostly pedantic sniping, and lame cliched jokes from socially frustrated wankers.

I do most of my reading on Reddit (front page reddits are just cotton candy, but there are good ones to be found). I only started reading HackerNews about a year ago, and mostly just for the articles from lesser known blogs that don't get posted on Reddit. Being something of a HackerNews newbie I haven't been around long enough to notice a change, but I hope it doesn't go the way of Slashdot.

It's good that you bring that point up. I disagree with you, and if I could be so bold, I'll paraphrase tptacek's post above: communities are built on principles that goad people to excellence, not forbid them from mediocrity. Communities are built by principles, not by laws. I firmly believe this, and it's why I agree that more good will come on HN from stating what people OUGHT to do instead of listing the kinds of behaviours they oughtn't engage in.

True, but wouldn't it better rally the rest of the community to keep those offenders in line? If their harmful comments don't get upvotes, they lose their audience.

Yes, that's true. However, giving proper guidelines can help in a lot of cases. When a person uses a site for the first time, he'd search at least somewhat for some basic guidelines. After that, he'd be tied to the same routine, and might not easily change with the changing guidelines.

I know that the worst offenders won't read the guidelines, but a little faith in the rest of them would go a long way improving the quality of content on this site.


There is not going to be a "one-size-fits-all" solution to this problem. A multi-faceted solution including both technical and non-technical elements would likely work best.

The easiest part of the solution to implement would of course be the text in the vicinity of the comment box. This text would establish certain core tenets that we can all vote on with Paul.

The technical aspect of the solution could monitor how often certain users are being down voted. The down-vote history of an account could then be used to "weigh it down" somewhat, so that it takes more up-votes in the future to bring their comment to a higher position on the page.

That is okay, they don't have to do that.

So long as it is a group norm to do adhere to the guidelines those who don't will be downvoted and their conduct will have little influence on the community.

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