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You could view this as a UX issue. New members don't get enough information from the HN interface to infer how to behave. Now we've got a theory, how can we address it?

(a) more recent arrivals don't have as much of whatever quality distinguished the original members

Try to make it obvious who distinguished members are, so people can emulate them. Colour-coded usernames based on age/reputation, starred 'high quality' comments, reputable upvoters (quora-style).

(b) the large size of the group makes people behave worse, because there is more anonymity in a larger group.

Try to reduce anonymity. Tiny little grey names are fine for 100 users, but after a point they all look the same. We're visual animals - maybe we need recognizable avatars, symbolic or otherwise, so we recognize the people we're replying to. Even allowing users to choose a single unicode symbol in addition to their username might be enough.

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