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Ask YC (dang and kogir): How about some transparency?
218 points by swombat 916 days ago | hide | past | web | 57 comments | favorite
In view of the "new management" listed at http://blog.ycombinator.com/meet-the-people-taking-over-hacker-news , first of all, congrats, and hope the job is not as thankless as it might have the potential to be!

Secondly, I (and I believe a number of others), whilst appreciating all the efforts that you guys are making to keep HN a great place to be, frequently feel baffled, hurt or just insulted by the way that moderation is applied.

I believe that the main reason for that is not actually bad moderation, but lack of transparency in the moderation. When you don't know why the article you just submitted dropped off the front page suddenly, you tend to assume the worst (whatever "the worst" might be contextually).

So here is a simple plea: please, please, please, make an effort to make the moderation more transparent. This will inexorably reduce and perhaps even eventually eliminate all perceptions and claims of foul play, and help keep HN a healthy place.

Transparency is such a fundamental, almost universal startup value. Surely it should be an HN value too.

Those who hide behind secrecy and refuse to explain their actions do so at the expense of trust. Be on the right side of this debate, please, please, please.

Right! Let me try to set you at ease, at least a little. Yes, we will make an effort to make moderation more transparent.

In fact, we already have. It was my decision that PG should out me as moderator, and that was mainly so I'll be able to answer users' questions.

I think your points are mostly correct and entirely understandable. Qua user, I feel pretty similarly, so I don't anticipate much trouble seeing eye to eye about this in the long run. I'm optimistic that we can eventually please both the bulk and the core of the community—though that will still be far from everybody.

Also, there's no one on the team arguing for secrecy. The question is not whether to be more transparent, but how.

A few points from the moderation side.

You should know that what appears to be HN's "secrecy" has in reality mostly been extremely limited bandwidth. For most of HN's existence, PG ran it at the same time as he was building YC plus having two kids. That made for an awful lot of dropped packets. One might argue that he should have handed HN off sooner, and one would in my opinion be completely wrong about that. So without HN's "secrecy" there would have been no HN.

Second, it's been true for a long time that you can get answers by emailing info@yc. (We're going to change that to hn@yc, but that's not up yet; I'll add it to my profile when it is.) I'll be taking over the HN-related emails from Tara, who has been valiant but will soon be relieved.

I intend to be a lot more responsive in the threads, partly because we know that community concerns around transparency need addressing, so we'll make a priority of it, but also for two non-obvious reasons: (1) I've written software for navigating and moderating HN very quickly, and (2) I type faster than PG.

Beyond that, there are a lot of questions about how to get this right. Many of the factors aren't obvious. I have more to say about this, but this comment is long enough, plus I'm tired and my brain hurts, and we'll have lots of opportunities to discuss it further.

Strongly suggest setting up http://meta.ycombinator.com for the same reasons we did so on Stack Overflow. Self governance and public discussion of policies is hugely important to sustainable community.


Also http://metatalk.metafilter.com/ as an example of this working well.

Thanks! This is just what I was hoping to hear and presages very well for the future of HN!

Here's an example that I've observed a few times... And I'd love to know what is actually going on in these cases...

I often submit articles with a slightly tweaked title. Eventually, a mod (you, I guess!) gets a'fixing and the title is fixed to be exactly the one on swombat.com (the rationale for that is slightly dubious seeing as I'm both the writer and the submitter in some of those cases, but let's pass on that!). What I've noticed several times is that at the same time as the title being fixed, the article suddenly dropped 10 or sometimes many more places...

It's easy to interpret that as "moderator didn't like my article!"... But what is it really?

I don't remember any specific examples, but there are different sorts of moderation decisions we make, and it's not uncommon to make more than one of them at once. If you want to discuss specific examples, email me.

Also, I'm going to be the head moderator for a while, but not the only moderator. I'll answer the questions, but not necessarily do everything.

It would be great if you could allow users to flag inappropriate titles (linkbait / editorialized), rather than systematically reverting.

Title changes are a topic unto themselves and we'll probably have a dedicated discussion about them. We're not going to change the policy; the policy has far, far more benefit than cost for HN. The trouble is that the costs are visible ("hey who changed my title") while the benefits are all just taken for granted. With that kind of accounting, anything will seem bad.

What we can do is have a way for title changes to show up for users who want to know about them.

Sometimes, the original title is meaningless, and either the subtitle or a short, neutral summary are more informative.

Some flexibility in that regard would improve my HN experience.

We often combine a title and subtitle for this reason. What we strive not to do is make stuff up. The key to a good HN title change is that it is made out of pieces already there: doc, h1, and h2 elements, mostly; or the first sentence of the story, if necessary. If the original title is misleading or linkbait, that is how we change it. But if the original title isn't misleading or linkbait, we don't change it at all.

Daniel, see my reply to dang's comment above.

2 of the most common reasons that make people think mods are randomly killing stories which they don't like:

1. People sharing direct links to their HN submission, asking their friends to upvote. I believe the HN algorithm auto-flags such posts.

Most people don't know about this, so they assume the worst (PG killed it because he didn't like the article/author). Those who do know about this now get around by telling people "Go to /newest and look for my submission".

Most times people just want their friends to upvote the submission, but sometimes people are genuinely seeking comments on their submission.

I don't know the solution but the current way of dealing with this is too heavy-handed and causes a broken user experience.

[EDIT: What if you merely reduced the weight of votes from direct link visits, instead of flagging the post?]

2. Users can themselves flag stories off the homepage! Again, it appears that most people don't know about this. So, even a story which got to the homepage in a legit way, sometimes gets flagged off because enough people think it's lame. This has happened a number of times for controversial topics like sexism in tech.

Once again, outsiders assume it's because HN mods are horrible people.

Finally, I think PG's inclination has always been to fix HN's problems with software, but what it needs is more human solutions, not more code.

Do things that don't scale ;)

Here's a suggestion for the "how" by Titanous: a public moderator log https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=7493990

Agreed. Lobste.rs currently has a public moderation log on their site.

off-topic: but can you update your profile to say "formerly known as 'gruseom'"?

I am irrationally attached to the old handle.

That's touching, but I probably won't. All things go.

Hi, though!


Your "outing" is appreciated. [deleted/emailed]

I'm happy to answer, but I don't understand your question. Maybe email info@ycombinator with it so we don't dilute the thread.

May I suggest that the new approve-a-comment software seems ideally placed for any meta-thread talking about moderator actions. I would love to see why a moderator took action, and even some valuable commentary on that - but the ability to vote to stop such a thread degenerating into uselessness seems the best use of self-policing.

The silent majority want HN to be the best it can be - and we are quite willing to help, as long as it's not that much effort :-)

I don't want more transparency. It just gives people something concrete to argue over, and you can't please the haters, so don't waste your time trying.

That sounds like an interesting twist on the concept of "security through obscurity," and is equally misguided. If the moderators are doing things the community doesn't like, exposing a log of moderator actions will hasten course correction.

Of course, that presumes that the moderators care what the community thinks and are willing to change their behavior accordingly. I do presume that's the case.

Very different from security through obscurity. The problem here is that a vocal minority can sway opinions and make it seem like lots of people are behind something. One lengthy disagreeing rant might seem like a one off. Ten lengthy rants will likely cause a moderator to pause and listen and maybe even respond.

In the end, the mods will need to decide how to handle shit and while input from mere mortals is a good thing, it is not required for them to do their jobs. We already have very democratic tools here and lots of power: more so than inmost other societies. If you really disagree with something, by all means speak up. But mods are not elected officials representing your interests. They are not here to enact the will of the people. They are here to maintain civility and ensure that the rules are followed.

>>If the moderators are doing things the community doesn't like, exposing a log of moderator actions will hasten course correction.

Not on HN. This place can beat a dead horse so bad that it'd get up and run off. I don't think HN mods should be transparent at all. But hey, let them try it out... I assure you we'll have 2 or 3 front-page articles every week about some mod-action and the threads will get so pedantic/specious that the mods will have to take action on those threads too... which will lead to another story... which will lead to more mod-action.... ∞

I always loved the SomethingAwful "Leper Colony" page. It was a list of who was put on probation, banned, or permabanned, and a link to what they did to do this. It had a quick explanation of why it happened.

It was a great way, as a lurker, to get an understanding of the rules via watching others fail to follow them.

This is a different beast here, as no one is paying to be a member, but I wonder if there isn't something to learn from how that page operated.

I'm not a huge fan of The Awful Forums, but I do like their probation system. Right now, a moderator on HN can either permanently take away a user's privileges or do nothing. Probation is a nice middle ground. If the user persists in behaving badly, then the banhammer can be brought out.

It's also useful to have a notice such as, "This user's commenting privileges were suspended for 100 hours for this comment." By making the punishment public, the commenter is (hopefully) shamed into behaving better in the future. And like you said, it may even prevent others from behaving similarly.

This is also why I liked that comment points used to be displayed -- you could learn what a good comment was by looking for the ones with zillions of points, and also what a bad comment was by looking for the ones that sat at 1-2 points while responses to it scored much higher.

Why? Are you here for discussion or for karma score? Isn't it enough that downvoted comments become gray?

With displayed score you end up with digg/reddit where people just post short memes and try to get a high score displayed in the easiest way imaginable.

> "Isn't it enough that downvoted comments become gray?"

Nope. That doesn't show you the difference between a barely-passable comment and an excellent one.

I learned a lot during my early HN days, when comment scores were visible, simply by looking at what sort of comments tended to score 5 points vs 1 point, or 15 points vs 5 points, or 40 points vs 15 points. Here on HN, "just post short memes" tends to be met with negative signals; thoughtful, helpful, and accurate responses are met with positive signals. I found it helped to be able to see that, and I think many newer HN commenters have the same misconception as you do because they haven't had that same training.

By being able to read examples of bad comments, you can learn to recognize those discouraged behaviours in yourself, resulting in you writing better comments in the future.

I don't think the problem lies in transparency. The problem is scaling the community. How to keep the signal high? Naturally, people are trying to organise things by adding rules when you simply cannot relay on "level of trust". Sadly, there is a hidden cost with every regulation. For example, I stopped actively participating in StackOverflow. I pine the days when SO was a lot smaller community with high signal to noise ratio, but, more importantly, it had that human feel.

These days, it's very different. Topic are being parsed and filtered by robotic moderator that cannot possibly let something even remotely option-based slip through. Comment that are relevant, but with subtle jokes are deleted. I remember when Joel and Jeff were actively answering questions to have the critical mass. Now that answers and questions would be closed or moderated. e.g. http://stackoverflow.com/questions/652788/what-is-the-worst-...

I agree, the main site seems to be 90% "Write code for beginning programmers who are too lazy to do any research on their own."

However, the chatrooms are an excellent place to have those opinion-based off-topic discussions. I find I've spent far more time idling away the hours in JS chat and learned far more.

I think a bigger issue is that the front page is too important. It's always going to be the page with the most views, but compared to most other aggregation sites, Hacker News has very little memory and makes access to the archives difficult.

This is part of what shapes its community, of course. There's probably at least some reasoning behind why it works that way, but it seems to me that the lack of memory distorts the importance of the front page.

Is it possible that it sometimes doesn't have anything to do with moderation at all?

Every submission has a big 'flag' button on it. I don't know exactly what that does when clicked, but I assume it tends to make submissions drop further into obscurity.

Some topics that get a lot of exposure (the NSA and bitcoin come to mind) are likely to get heavily flagged when they appear, which probably doesn't look much different to moderation.

It's absolutely possible, perhaps even likely. The point is, without any transparency, we don't know. People have a fairly reliable tendency to assume the worst option - the simple cure for that is transparency.

I'm gonna play the devil's advocate here. Obscurity might actually be a good thing for this community.

> The point is, without any transparency, we don't know.

But either way we are told to use flagging functionality, so we should continue doing it. Just because you or I, think that an article should be flagged and therefore taken off the site, doesn't mean it should. We cast our vote and move on. I'm curious as to what your expectations are of the people on the site when more transparency is involved? That to me is the glaring question - how do we create an environment where the behavior of the community is consistently following the rules?

My increasing frustration with HN has nothing to do with the technology or the moderation, but more so about the other 20% of the people whose contribution adds zero value (whether that be they are upvoting terrible comments, submitting unrelated material, or not following guidelines). I believe you and I are in the same boat - we are extremely passionate about seeing HN succeed. Our environment dictates that if we continue to follow the guidelines and promoting the same values, the community will thrive. If everyone does this, then the community succeeds, regardless of whether moderation exists. Perhaps we should be focusing more on educating bad actors on why they shouldn't act out of line, rather than question the good actors (mods) intentions?

I'd like to see a moderation log like on Lobste.rs [1]. They list all the actions their moderators take and why. This includes renaming posts, deleting posts, and banning users.

Their description of the moderation log: "All moderator actions on this site are visible to everyone and the identities of those moderators are made public. While the individual actions of a moderator may cause debate, there should be no question about who the moderator was or whether they had an ulterior motive for those actions."

[1] https://lobste.rs/moderations

Yup, I agree 100%. The lack of transparency is incredibly frustrating, for all of the reasons mentioned above.

I wish I had more to say than "+1," but I wanted to give more than just an upvote. "you tend to assume the worst" really resonates with me.

This comment went from +3 to (currently) -1. Interesting.

> Secondly, I (and I believe a number of others), whilst appreciating all the efforts that you guys are making to keep HN a great place to be, frequently feel baffled, hurt or just insulted by the way that moderation is applied.

Could you give some concrete examples? Articles can get dropped off the front page when many people click the flag link (i.e. it's not always driven by the moderators). Also, I believe submissions with a high comments to up vote ratio are weighted down (the rationale being that it usually signals a controversial topic prone to flame wars). There have been cases of questionable hell banning, but this can usually be resolved by contacting the mods privately AFAIK.

Might be worth a try to publish all the stuff affecting ranking, like site/domain-specific penalties, (hell)bans etc.

I wonder if ranking is domain specific or maybe too many from a specific site. There was a time where a whole slew of medium.com articles were being submitted, it was a little old.

I would hope sites that are just link aggregators are given less weight while sites (like medium) that are prone to having interesting content but get over submitted have an adaptive factor.

Someone once published a statistical analysis of the HN front page, where they were able to distill which domains are penalized. Medium.com was one of them. The post itself was quickly flagged and dropped from the front page, and I can't remember the link, sorry :/

The link is http://www.righto.com/2013/11/how-hacker-news-ranking-really...

I subscribe to Ken's blog and even sent the link to Daniel:

  Wow. This was some seriously good research and nailed some of the penalty
  numbers exactly. I mean, he did basically have the ranking formula and only
  had to solve for the variables, but it's still much better than anything 
  else I've seen.
It fell prey to the ring detector before either Daniel or I saw it on HN.

Posts drop off the front page because of a variety of reasons, from flagging by users to being hit with the penalty for having a poor upvote / comment ratio.

It's not the staff's fault that people jump to assume An Act Of Malicious Moderation if a story drops.

So why not be transparent about those reason? Who does it hurt to have a heavily flagged post display "this post was flagged by 15 people", or to let a post that's against the guidelines be identified as such?

I don't think it's necessarily that simple.

Many people on HN run on a logic system, many seem to be emotional.

So when someone post some cute puppy that has cancer logical people might flag it. Many puppies die of cancer everyday, we don't hate said puppy but we just like to look at the bigger picture ie curing cancer and perhaps not eating animals if we love them so much.

But emotive people don't get it and I can see it quickly turning into a why do people on HN hate puppies so much conversation.

Plus logical people don't want to look like assholes.

Meh, but who knows maybe it'd create constructive conversation.

There are people whose job is to get crappy content on sources of traffic like HN. The less information you give them, the harder it becomes for them to game the system to fill us with spam.

It might be interesting to expose the algorithm more (not saying the entire thing, but if auto penalties are applied which ones).

One of the best ways to increase transparency would be to make the source for HN available. There's already an official GitHub repo for issues -- why not have the source there too?

The source is available at http://arclanguage.org/install

It's not 100% the same as what runs Hacker News, but it's very close.

The date on `news.arc` in that tarball is from 2009. I know a bunch of changes have happened since then, pending comments being just the latest.

On this I defer to Daniel, and will help implement whatever he thinks is best.

Does HN have any set community guidelines written out?

There is a link named "guidelines" at the bottom of the page. http://ycombinator.com/newsguidelines.html

These are rather out of date though. E.g. it says "Otherwise please use the original title, unless it is misleading or linkbait", which does not really reflect the current policy of "use original title no matter what".

I would love for that one to be kept as-is, and for HN moderators to actually follow their own guidelines on that.

When submitters change titles for clarity, and moderators revert it to an obscure original title that no longer has context, HN loses value.

That's quite wrong—we follow that guideline meticulously. All day long we change titles because they're misleading or link bait. Mostly it goes without notice, and that's by design: we try to be unobtrusive.

rapid feedback is important for the user just like it is for the developer

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