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Why Online Communities Decay Over Time (rs.io)
158 points by adbge on May 23, 2014 | hide | past | web | favorite | 143 comments

> "When communities grow to a certain size, people no longer expect to interact in the future, and thus are more likely to defect – to be petty, mean, aggressive..."

This is one of the most off-putting things about HN in my opinion. It's better than bigger social sharing sites like Reddit in that tired jokes and posts with little thought are usually voted down to the bottom, but posts that poke holes in the original argument are often top comments.

A lot of technically-minded people take great pleasure in finding and fixing bugs. The problem is that finding errors in human interaction leads to pedantry, nitpicking, and cherry-picking. This is especially true as the community grows and interactions with all but the most visible people becomes rare. People have less incentive to give others the benefit of the doubt, and more incentive to find the problems and point them out.

I'm worried about our once-little community, but I don't know how to prevent the petty fault-finding from resurfacing in such a large and shifting community.

"It's better than bigger social sharing sites like Reddit"

I think this sentence is wholly flawed. Reddit is divided into subreddits, each subreddit has their own unique community and moderators. /r/askscience for example, is one of the best science help communities on the entire internet.

Their level of discourse far surpasses hackernews by any objective metric.

There are plenty of other subreddits with similar quality, /r/askhistorians comes to mind.

HN is the equivalent of a single subreddit and should be compared as such.

Your post is a good example of what the parent was talking about. Everyone has their opinion. Instead of contributing new ideas and venues of explorations your post is "debugging" the parent post on a specific thing while missing the meat of the conversation. It doesn't matter if his analogy is flawed because the main point was about HN being predominantly critical.

I agree, what's your opinion of this forum in that light? How would you rate the moderators of content here?

To move a level up the ladder, What do you (or any other commenter who feels like responding) look to get out of this community?

Finding good links, hearing news and occasional commenting if i think I can add something valuable to a thread.

That isn't a good comparison because of the limiting nature (specific format) of those subreddits. For example, the Ask HN and Show HN threads tend to be much higher quality than HN in general.

Pedantry, nitpicking, and pedantry are a step up from pure fluffiness. The question is how we can go the next step.

I find a lot of HN commenters try to put words into one's mouth. They even seem to feel they are being clever, and they are indeed imitating the outward forms of clever commenting. Maybe that's as far as we can expect human society to go.

There is no next step. HN occassionally has some good commentary but ultimately it's hampered by the fundamental design of the place. It's not a place where extended, drawn out conversation can occur over a long period of time. A popular conversation topic results in unwieldy threads that hamper continuation of topics. And because of the way topics decay it's rare for a subject to be discussed outside of a 24hr or 48hr window, give or take.

HN compares unfavorably to an older medium: usenet, where read messages wouldn't clutter up threads and where it was easy to continue discussions for indefinite periods (even months) and to return to previous topics or split off side discussions. As long as HN stays the way it is it'll always be hampered by limitations which ultimately cap the quality of discussion.

It's kind of amazing that no forum or other communications system developed in the past 20 years has been as good as USENET (either in the late 1980s, or with a good client with killfiles, global cancels, etc.).

Well, that just concentrates on the good parts of USENET. The spammers had a field day with it and pretty much destroyed it. Maybe there is an opportunity here in the form of something halfway between a moderated forum and USENET.

You could piggyback this onto bitcoin, make a client that listens to specific messages to identify channels embedded in the blockchain? Every message would have to be a payment to a specific address to get a message onto the channel, the moderator(s) of the channel would be the recipient(s) of the bitcoins in reward for moderating the channel.

If a moderator decided to 'kill' a post they'd have to make another message to the same channel so for them (minus transaction costs) it would be a '0' affair.

Before the green card lottery , I don't remember any commercial spam; the worst thing was stupid cross posts (easy to kill) and specific moron posters (kill files). The biggest problem I had was a lot of content which didn't make sense to me (cfps and such) since I wasn't even a teenager, but which came from good posters.

But the green card lottery was shortly after commercial speech was allowed on the Internet, and everything went downhill after that. Even the WWW feels sub-optimal if you want to find information.

So much agree. Another big design flaw hampering good conversation: I'd like to read replies to your comment, but HN funnels me to reading only 1 reply, and then onto 1 reply for that comment, each one hijacking the conversation. And we can't collapse threads which makes it even worse.

This doesn't address the larger community issue, but if you use chrome check out:


I use the first one and it makes HN much more readable.

The karma system (and the ratio) also discourages conversation. You cannot expect too many upvotes in a subthread.

Don't forget that a lot of people get on the internet for leisure.

I used to work in a bicylce shop as a kid. In the workshop over the bench hung a sign that read "if you've got nothing to do, don't do it here". It was rude but quite effective. The next level up (for those that didn't get the hint) was that the guy running the shop would pretend to 'oil the spokes' (as if that was ever needed) causing several people to hastily depart the workshop area because they were being splashed with lube oil. He would pretend to see a lot less well and shake a lot more than he usually did during these episodes. Super nice guy by the way, long since deceased.

One problem with internet websites is that it is not clearly separated into work or leisure, which leads to people in leisure mode disrupting other people's work mode.

This is not an easy problem to solve and I'm sure that this is not a binary issue either, but some form of continuum.

> This is not an easy problem to solve and I'm sure that this is not a binary issue either, but some form of continuum.

It's not even a continuum; it depends heavily on cultural notions of how life is divided, or should be divided. The home/work/third place trichotomy isn't universal in the first place, and people on the internet have exhibited plenty of evidence that they consider it every combination of the three.

How does that apply here though --- surely everyone browsing HN is doing it for leisure?

My browsing of HN is leisure about 70% of the time. At other times, I do various kinds of work (in that I am making a concerted effort to create value, rather than intending to enjoy myself) and very occasionally do "home" type things (senses of belonging, kinship, shared struggle, etc.).

By creating value, do you mean that the comments you write are themselves valuable, or do you mean things like driving traffic to/recruiting for your company?

People that post Show HN links are not here for leisure. They want feedback, new users, critique etc. There are many more examples I'm sure.

Surely not.

> Don't forget that a lot of people get on the internet for leisure.

There is a purpose besides leisure, selling to the leisure group or building technologies to improve the internet's effectiveness for selling to the leisure group?

Looking at pictures of cats, pornography and buying trinkets are all clearly leisure activities.. but commenting on vaporous articles about living underwater is something I expect to get academic credit for according to the social norms established by scholastic reports.

Free idea: Build a social site that, even when it has many many users, breaks people into smaller groups in such a way that it remains enjoyable to all. You could analyze user behaviors and interests to do this. I've considered doing this myself.

I've see this called the 'Warrens' model. Reddit does this with Sub-reddits. Keep the niche small group feel available, while aggregating useful stuff upwards.

Any more context? I just searched that term and it seems to have come up blank.

Unfortunately I'm unable to find the reference. It's probably a different word, but the idea is the similar, and I specifically recall it referencing Reddit and other communities with a similar "small group" branching model. Warrens came to mind because of rabbit warrens, but that's probably not quite it.

This is most likely the reference you were looking for:


"breaks people into smaller groups" by "analyzing user behaviors and interests"

I, for one, welcome our new artificial intelligence social media overlords.

Any idea how to solve the echo chamber/filter bubble problem?

For most people, that's a feature, not a problem. Humans love to have their own opinions reinforced, and they don't like being challenged by countervailing views.

The amount of processing power/such that would take... You'd need Google's resources to crunch user data at that level.

I think the problem is the threaded/upvote system. When higher voted comments get boosted to the top, then — how should I put this? — there are certain categories of comments that will inevitably appear simply based on past karma. Take Reddit, for example. If somebody mentions something "random", SOMEBODY will post that "penguin of doom" story. Even if the first 20 people decide to refrain, it's gonna happen eventually on account of the upvotes that people know will be given. I don't participate in that stuff, but whenever I see a gap like that, it's very tempting just to "get it over with" and reap some upvotes. Similarly, even if 20 people on HN decide to not post a negative hole-poking-in-argument comment, that vacuum will have to eventually be filled by someone. It's like some sort of perverse, community-driven Markov chain.

In my experience, there's less of this on MetaFilter, where it's simply a flat discussion.

> A lot of technically-minded people ...

Yes. More and more people know what internet and IT are now, and can not live without them. But they haven't learn well enough about how to interact with others and express their feelings since most of the time they are talking with text anonymously (with regard to privacy). Plain text is usually not enough for them to guess the exact meanings and feelings. So I think people should be polite first.

I have surfed on the internet for more than fifteen years, but I still don't know the best way to avoid conflicts. Everyone, not only the techically-minded people, can become crazy just for a little misunderstanding. Maybe we have eaten too much fast-food.

Actually, I have to say,I find that quite useful. If I know that the comments are likely to contain the most the most robust critique available, the quality of that critique gives me a shortcut to assessing the article's strength.

One idea: introduce some cost for entry. Some popular sites have switched to invite-only write privileges, including comments (yes, there is precedent with trendy tech sites). Similar but less elitist: you have to do something to post or comment, like show your profile on other sites. Not perfect, but from my experience a lot of potential troublemakers chill out when faced even with simple hurdles.

Both not good. I've another idea: turn some HN submits into article-friendly places, and only thoughtful articles are welcome from the replies. We can have a small homepage on HN to attach our small articles about interesting news. Maybe the submitter can choose which mode to use. It is like Reddit but still has difference.

It has to be the same people contributing content as the ones doing the fault finding. If those 2 jobs are done by different people the distribution of checks becomes a mess.

The real problem with online communities is that the people who are upvoted the most are the ones who spend the most time commenting.

Generally, very successful people don't spend large amounts of their time commenting on online forums. In this manner, the biggest 'losers' in the real world, with the most time to waste on the internet, become the biggest 'winners' in the online community.

The end result is that the cultural norms of the online community end up being set by people who are the least qualified to create or enforce any kind of healthy norm.

edit: just wanted to say that I recall reading something similar on a blog a long time ago, although I cannot remember the name of the writer.

> The real problem with online communities is that the people who are upvoted the most are the ones who spend the most time commenting.

I remember a claim of a similar but opposed problem: that low quality short content is much more rewarding that long, thoughtful responses. See a funny cat pic? I chuckled, upvote. See a long answer that doesn't quite fit your opinion? Downvote, or ignore at best. Short and funny trumps long and thoughtful.

This is not a problem in HN thanks to moderation, but it happens a lot in other communities.

Too black and white. Why not be funny, short AND thoughtful? Why does everyone here have such tunnel vision?

Because often points cannot be made in a short manner and still be understood. Just like in this very post some points need some explanation of their context and the thought chain leading to them, or people will not understand how the poster arrived there and simply voice their disagreement, instead of sitting down for a while and thinking about the post and trying to recreate that chain of thought on their own.

From a gross accumulation of points, yes. From a 'most likely to go viral' standpoint, we've noticed quite the opposite.

In the several communities my team and I manage, those most likely to go viral / frontpage / call it what you will, are members of one of two camps: Great curators or trolls.

Trolls will generally go viral almost immediately based on the sheer volume of interaction with their posts (think, nude selfies posted as 'fashion').

Being pretty proactive with the banhammer will enforce the norm reasonably well, as people will pretty rapidly figure out that in order to make it to the leaderboard, you need to not be banned. It's more Hunger Games than Cocktail Party.

Also as a bit of a tangent - those who spend the most time on site are overwhelmingly not top commentors, contributors, or voters. They're consumers. We have several thousand users who spend an average of 4 hours on site /per day/ who've interacted with a post less than ten times.

> The real problem with online communities is that the people who are upvoted the most are the ones who spend the most time commenting.

To the extent that this is really an issue, its quite easily addressed by using the average net upvotes rather than total net upvotes for whatever weighting, if any, the comment display system gives to poster score/karma/etc.(If you want to also give some weight to engagement without encouraging post frequency, you could accumulate a score using the average in each day or week, so duration of regular engagement would be rewarded, but high frequency would not.)

Of course -- I think that to the extent that excessive influence by frequent commenters is an issue, its more because most of the volume of comments is going to come from them, independently of any reward system.

Yeah. One imperfect step towards addressing this is having hard limits on the number of comments that can be made in a given time range.

Of course, nobody wants to do this because then they would lose some of their traffic.

Occasionally a user is particularly invested in an online conversation for really valid reason, e.g. area of expertise, Show HN, etc. So having a hard limit in a large scale (x comments in an hour or y comments in a day, as opposed to z comments in 60 seconds) may actually abruptly lock-out a particularly valuable contributor.

While the blog article mentions interesting points, I don't think its insights have much to do with technical communities such as Hacker News or Stackoverflow.

HN is mostly very civilized. (Granted, some of that is due to moderators.) So the blog's bullet point about "trust" devalued because of one-time transactions does not seem relevant. It's relevant for reddit/atheism but not HN.

To me, the problem with HN, SO, etc is the voice of experts getting drowned out by amateurs. The growth rate of new amateurs joining will always outpace new experts and each year the signal-to-noise gets worse. I haven't seen a clever self-governing mechanism that addresses this social dynamic. The upvote/downvote/karma history is not enough to solve it.

Experts in one field are amateurs in all the rest of them. So even a community of just experts in some field would have a much larger number of amateurs than experts across all fields.

That's true but I'm not constricting "expert" to just domain expertise. An expert in <whatever_technology> who has worked hard and invested time into acquiring that expertise is often also an "expert" at not being a nuisance in the fields that he's an amateur. He's able to ask quality questions (instead of inviting snarky lmgtfy.com). He's an expert at being a non-expert.

Even if Paul Graham doesn't know Rust, I think it's safe to assume that any questions he'd write in an online community would not be ridiculous (is Rust slower than Bash?). Any amateurish observation he'd have, at minimum, would have some intelligent thought behind it.

Whilst I agree with the general thesis of the article, this paragraph seemed very distasteful to me:

> There is no reason to trust people you will not interact with again in the future. There’s no incentive not to defect. At the end of my last relationship, our interactions became significantly less pleasant as it became more obvious that it was over – I would not have to deal with this person in the future, so why bother going through the motions of kindness?

Without meaning to be rude or make an attack on the author's character, the author does sound like a bit of an asshole there.

How about being nice to people because you're a nice person, rather than because you want to get something out of it? If you could murder someone and get away with it, would you? I wouldn't, because in abhor the idea of killing people. Similarly, I would act decently towards another human being even when I have no incentive to do so, simply because I am a decent human being and I don't like the idea of causing unnecessary pain and suffering to others.

As they say, a gentleman remains a gentleman even in the gutter. If you need to be surrounded by other decent human beings to be decent, if being surrounded by jerks automatically reverts you to jerk behaviour, perhaps you're not a decent human being after all, only a chameleon sort of person who will do whatever they think they can get away with.

I hope a majority of people here would behave the same way as me - decently, irrespective of the surroundings and likelihood of "getting caught". And there's the rub I guess - a community composed mostly of decent human beings will be less vulnerable to this effect than one composed mostly of selfish people who only act decently when they can see a tangible payoff.

That may be another path to survival: find the assholes and keep them out, and then perhaps you can deal with growth more easily.

Game theory is just an explanation; people don't use it explicitly to make decisions, they just follow their gut, and evolution has caused our guts to produce rational decisions most of the time. It's the same as the theories of attractiveness based on symmetry and secondary sex characteristics: you don't look at a potential partner and think, "He/she looks so symmetric, I bet if I were to have kids with him/her they'd have a higher chance of survival." You just intuitively find the person attractive.

Lots of people use game theory to rationalize behaving in a selfish way.

This rhetoric of such-and-such an idea being natural, and therefore inevitable, is always used as a core justification for any ideology, whether feudalism, monarchy, communism or social darwinism. They are not all correct.

It's pretty obvious that humans are not exclusively rational machines designed for 'winning', we have all sorts of other mechanisms which act to make us function well as part of a unit, and these mechanisms have secondary consequences which mean that we are perfectly capable of acting against our own interests, or against the interests of our genes. We should be embracing that, not trying to cut it out. We shouldn't attempt to use the evolutionary process as a moral guide.

I think this article is meant to be addressing communities at the large scale, which really means humans at the large scale. And the tough part about humans at the large scale is that basic economics kicks in: humans respond to incentives.

Sure it might be tasteless or sad to observe, and yes there are people that defy this. It's still going to happen though.

Only in dealing with the realities of this is there actually a shot at mitigating it.

Yes, I also felt very strongly about that. In my own life, I find kindness and compassion to be an intrinsic good; I am not kind because I am using game theory to attempt to maximize the returned kindness, I am kind because I get more pleasure out of being kind than the alternative. Even if I never interact with the person again, I feel happier after being kind to someone than if I am a jerk.

I do worry for people who feel like the author of this article. I can't imagine how miserable it must be to only feel joy when other people are kind to you, and not the other way around. I guess I am lucky in that way, that I feel so much happiness when I share my kindness with someone else, even more so than when someone is kind to me; I am actually in control of my own kindness, so I am therefore also in control of my own happiness.

Also, his argument is more or less a seat-of-the-pants assertion with a bit of ad-hoc logic thrown. The game theory doesn't sound bad but human behavior often defies single simple or clever explanations.

I'd like to see data backing this up. But I'm pretty sure he's not using any data because there's little data supporting any blanket assertions; HN is different than Facebook is different from discussion board X - even at scale.

I forget the web page - I think from another HN reader - but they made the point that these challenges are the exact challenges that distributed computing wrestles with. For any problem set that a lot of resources are working with, how do you properly surface the most valuable results, how do you combine and summarize them, etc. There are a lot of discussion community sites that just try to pull in their own homegrown algorithms ("let's have a moderator!") but I suspect a lot of these experiences could be improved by reading up on distributed computing algorithms.

This fits perfect with what PG said in a Tech Crunch Interview in 2013 http://techcrunch.com/2013/05/18/the-evolution-of-hacker-new...

● "[Paul Graham] wanted to make Hacker News a place to recreate the way Reddit felt in the good old days"

● "He explains that [Hacker News] was community of insiders in the hacker world, and it has gradually been getting diluted."

● “That is what I spend all my time thinking about,” he says.

● He worries that Hacker News will become what he calls “an old crumbling building.”

● “The community has been in a perpetual but slow decline because the site is growing,” he says.

>'The probability that I will interact with any one user ever again on a site like YouTube tends toward zero. I have no real incentive to be polite or to put much effort into anything I say.'

My sense of a terrible 'community' like YouTube is a bit different. I've always had the impression it's more about performing and the size of the audience - more about votes and reactions than expected interactions.

No matter how nasty or inane your opinions are, you can share them on a related YouTube video and receive anonymous validation from other people who agree with you. When you're feeling bad about yourself and want to lash out, you can post something vile and get a response.

I believe this was a source of a lot of complaints about changes to the comment system. It hurt ones ability to receive instant gratification by dropping a comment on the top of the stack.

In the bat analogy, upvotes/karma are a sort of secondary 'junk food' blood supply that costs the giver nothing and some bats don't care for it as they prefer real sustenance but others are addicted to it. The 'community' ends up as a circus of votefiends bludgeoning each other for another hit.

Regarding to HN, problem is that social proof takes a huge part in determining what gets on the front page.

People check /new, see that some post already has 1 or 2 upvotes, checks it instead of some without any upvotes. The upvoted one gets even more upvotes (because more people are reading it), and it's on the homepage.

A bunch of my submissions made the homepage and from what I've noticed, the threshold is about 7-10 upvotes in the first hour. So can we fairly say that a dozen of people decide what's on the homepage? Maybe.

My suggestion: don't show upvotes in /new for 30mins after submission? As a trade off, a little time might get wasted on low quality submissions but maybe there would be more better quality submissions on the front page.

This is a good idea. There is a "Feature Request" link at the bottom of each page. Please resubmit this there so it is receives greater notice.

Done! Thanks for your comment :)

Daydreaming here... so how about a community that funnels users into buckets automatically? Think of an HN where you only discuss an article with a pool of ~500 people instead of 80,000. When new users join, they're distributed to the smallest groups. Nobody is overwhelmed with an influx of noobs. And you might actually be able to start remembering the names of the active people in your group. Perhaps you could see top comments from other groups, but not interact with them directly.

I've had some pretty extensive conversations around that theme with a bunch of other HN'ers (some of who have moved on in the meantime), and that's pretty much the solution we hit on. Keep only the +x and -x active users in view for you at any one time.

One problem we foresaw with that approach is that it becomes hard not to have duplicate discussions or missing chunks of information. In the end we did not do anything with the idea but it was certainly interesting.

That's a rather interesting concept. My big issue is that I'd be missing the best content from other buckets. Perhaps content can 'emerge' from a bucket after garnering a certain % of support from the bucket?

To avoid the Matthew effect, the best users should be re-distributed, too. -- still nice?

If that was the case, I'd worry about the buckets becoming like German universities - the best minds can't get together, so we all lose out.

Maybe, if there are not enough geniuses. Now I'm thinking about the relationship between birth of lives and birth of communities, and why we must rush into a crowded place.

In the past, people like to read newspaper in the streets. Now, we read news from HN. If there is no comment box any more, no one can try to be a superstar in such a prominent place. Then we can just upvote and downvote a news, then talk about it somewhere else. And HN can let the submitter recevie links about discussion from others and show them under the post. Or just receive any links, then the submitter can place it at another positon.

I don't think most HN users know anything at all about German universities, much less any bucketing they might do, so that's probably not the most helpful analogy.

I learned about that particular situation from one of pg's essays (something I figured I could assume was common knowledge around here).

I've read most/all of pg's essays as well, but I have no recollection of anything like that, so...

> German and Dutch governments, perhaps from fear of elitism, try to ensure that all universities are roughly equal in quality. The downside is that none are especially good.


Only 2 sentences? No wonder I don't remember it at all.

Can someone explain the German university thing to me? It sounds interesting.

Well, I searched on HN and googled it, but nothing found easily. So this is why I don't like slang sometimes.. :-$

See my reply to gwern above.

That's a very interesting concept!

What if it were geo-local? When you post an article or text post everyone sees it but you only see comments from people within 100km of your location.

I think there are already several apps in that space, but maybe I'm thinking of things that are more localized.

You definitely can't just do everyone within a given radius from you because a person on one side of you won't be able to communicate with someone on the other and that's incredibly confusing. You could split the buckets up by location, but some people would have to put up with living on the border (well, just like a country or state).

Slightly tangential, but this is a problem that is being worked on in MOOCs. It is ineffective to have a forum for all 10,000 or 100,000 participants in a class. Issues may be surfaced there but it is a terrible venue for authentic discussions and building relationships with classmates.

There is one startup spun out of Stanford that is doing MOOCs by emphasizing the small group. At the beginning of the course, you can either create your own group and recruit others or join a group (generally 4-8 people). Those who do neither after the first week or so of class are randomly assigned into groups with others who were also not proactive about joining a group. It is easier to do discussions and group projects when there is a permanent group of 4-6 other students, and some of the courses have components where the group will submit work together and the rest of the class can see it.

Perhaps something that groups (or even just a weighted score) people and comments by voting habits. If I consistently vote up memes and receive votes from other meme voters, then show me more of that kind of content and give my posts more visibility to that crowd. But if I regularly downvote memes then sink those posts from me, and sink my posts from them.

I imagine tuning such a system would be very difficult though, and you don't want users stuck in a bucket that they don't feel fits them.

SomethingAwful is consistently high quality and has been for the 7.5 years since I discovered it. 190,000 users now, I think 90K in 2006.

The secrets seem to be

a) charging people $10 one time to join/post and view more than a few pages of a particular thread

b) segmenting into different subforums - over time they become different communities within SA that have their own quirks.

c) ruthless moderation that can and often does lead to posting probations and bans (requiring another $10 to reverse)

In particular, the politics/history, sports, video games, and arts discussions are very good.

It is hard to appreciate the change in tenor the network experienced when AOL gave its users access to Usenet. I have never considered it in the context of the prisoner's dilemma as a one shot exercise but that certainly has an intuitive appeal.

We see it here on HN of course, someone creates a new user account, makes a single low value snarky comment and then off to oblivion.

An interesting counter example is twitter, which I've seen that as people become more invested in the reputation of their 'handle' the less ill considered their tweets seem to become. When that isn't the case that is also interesting.

Twitter is a terrible place for conversation to take place. There is no capacity for nuance or well-reasoned thought. It's a site for announcements, not nuanced musing, as expected from a place where every comment has to be a soundbite. Occasionally there might be a two-way conversation that works well, but that's not the norm.

It was a pretty big change in tenor depending on what group you were looking at. I will say the some groups (comp.lang.objective-c) had some seriously nasty trolls already. I remember getting pretty liberal with my killfile. I am not sure that was a good thing thinking about it.

It took a while to find, this old kuro5hin article is a good read on the subject:


Titled "Attacked from within" it details the problems in scaling a community and community life-cycle very eloquently.

Oh, I remember that. This is the best thing ever written on the subject, but I think its conclusions are regularly ignored because people want to have their cake and eat it too, with regard to fostering vanity. Everyone wants the community but they still want to be the superstar in it.

Another thing that seems to be the case is that new members are unable to become assimilated into existing culture because the entrenched users quickly become the minority and are unable to enforce cultural norms. The culture is co-opted by the newcomers.

>>The culture is co-opted by the newcomers.

I must admit I've not seen this yet. In the forums I frequent the old elite rules...to the point where the admins trust the powerful members to manage it to some extent. If 3 powerful people decide that a new user is undesirable then said user is a dead man walking. Obviously not very democratic etc...but its super effective in maintaining the peace....the powerful members provide a base-line that absorbs most of the BS...the admins step in when something dramatic happens.

You're thinking of individuals. The point is that, even if the "old elite" have the power to just say "Ban that newcomer" and the newcomer gets banned, the "old elite" do not scale while the influx of newcomers certainly can. One, two, three, even 20 bad actors can be dealt with by a small group of community gardeners. But thousands of bad actors are just on a totally different scale and cannot be dealt with in the same way.

This is similar to the situation of event security guards. They individually hold more power than any member of the crowd, but if the crowd collectively decides to rush the stage, they can't really stop it from happening because it is physically impossible for 50 people to overpower 10000.

But when does this ever happen? Startups generally are not communities, and communities generally don't see exponential growth.

But VestedContributors can also be really tricky. They know enough of the rules to skirt them, sometimes break them, yet they are popular so they get given passes on their poor behaviour.

New users attempt similar rule breaking; get banned; and re-join to troll.


> The vested contributor is someone who believes they are entitled to a degree of indulgence or bending of the rules because of the duration and extent of their past contributions. In some cases, this view may be shared by other community members. The indulgence of vested contributors undermines FairProcess and the WikiNow. It is demoralizing to those who have made less widely recognized contributions, and to recent arrivals. An inside club or "cabal" can arise where there are a number of vested contributors who reinforce.

That is certainly true. I find myself in exactly such a position on one of the forums I frequent. While not exactly popular, I'm quite immune to most rules simply because I post a lot of content and have a knowledge set that is not common on that forum.

So yes VestedContribs are problematic - ultimately it comes down to the forum admin making a call on whether tolerating some BS is worth the value contributed. And that threshold is remarkably low in my experience - people post so much crap that its not difficult to stand out as "value".

I must admit I've not seen this yet.

Generally that means that the forum just hasn't grown enough in popularity. There are exceptions of course, depending on how heavily moderated the forum is.

"i) new members are unable to become assimilated into existing culture" "ii) entrenched users quickly become the minority and are unable to enforce cultural norms." "iii) The culture is co-opted by the newcomers."

I just feel like that breaks down in terms of logic. The new members must have a _different_ culture to the entrenched ones correct? If they had the same one there would be no conflict. They must have a different one and enter at such a rapid rate (the AOL example) as to overwhelm the existing base. And they must all have a pretty similar new culture so that it can become the dominant culture. But now the dominant culture reflects the majority of users which is what we'd want right? Anything else would be elitist and/or totalitarian?

How does it follow that it is elitist?

What if the culture of whatever forum really liked fart jokes and then the majority stormed in and started talking about the weather? Are the jokers being elitist when they say they don't like the changes that have happened?

Keep the new members away from each other so they can't influence each other while they're learning to become part of the group. Have small groups of existing members mentor each newcomer until they've assimilated. If they can't learn to work with the group in a certain time frame, ban them so they don't start corrupting existing members.

Maybe start a regimen of group chanting.

A potential solution:

Implement a comment recommendation system. Based on comments you've liked and disliked, the system will push comments you would like to the top.

The quality of the community you see is then completely up to you. If you like poop jokes, you'll see poop jokes. If you like pedantic attacks, you'll see pedantic attacks. And if you like insightful comments, you'll see insightful comments. As you stabilize on a community you like, you can start responding to their comments, and then they too will have the chance to vote on your comments. If they like you they'll start seeing more of you, and a micro-community will evolve naturally for free.

If you think about it, it's pretty much the same thing as twitter, except the social graph is built more implicitly. In exchange for a larger selection of relevant content, you have to sift through more noise. But it probably feels better to vote if you know your vote counts differently for some users. You're no longer just one number in a statistic, but part of a much more complicated ranking system. Best of all, your votes significantly affect your own experience on the website.

A dynamic social graph like that would probably obviate the need for even categorizing content, let alone "jumping ship" when the community decays.

There are some drawbacks though. If you implemented it in reddit/hacker news, there would no longer be a "front page of x" to serve as a symbolic milestone for your submission. Without context, "2000 upvotes" has ambiguous importance. Also, a different ranking system exists for each cluster in your social graph, which sounds like a fun engineering problem.

I found this recent article about online harassment and moderation much more optimistic: http://www.wired.com/2014/05/fighting-online-harassment/ (Primary source: http://gdcvault.com/play/1017940/The-Science-Behind-Shaping-... ) Even with 67 million users, the developers of League of Legends have apparently reduced misbehavior substantially using fairly simple (although non-obvious) techniques.

I wrote a post a while back about how the design of your social tools can help solve this problem:


If you look at sites that are based on following users or categories they are able to scale to much larger sizes without breaking down.

I think part of the reason it that the communities finish talking about whatever it is they are talking about. When I started reading HN, a lot of the ideas that are common fare were new and interesting. Now, some are borderline cliche.

Some other influential writing on this subject:

Clay Shirky: "A Group Is Its Own Worst Enemy" http://www.shirky.com/writings/herecomeseverybody/group_enem...

Xianhang Zhang: "The Evaporative Cooling Effect" http://blog.bumblebeelabs.com/social-software-sundays-2-the-...

The solution (in so far as there is a solution) is to cultivate a culture. Large communities remain civil through culture.

Last week I wrote a post called "How to Cultivate Culture" that received a good amount of attention (outside of Hacker News) about this: http://www.sitebuilderreport.com/blog/6-ways-to-cultivate-cu...

I agree with the general premise. However, I also believe there's probably a way to shift the threshold depending on the culture and community.

When I was asked to be a moderator of brand-new (at the time) forums for a very popular Minecraft mod pack, it was being flooded with quite a large volume of people who would not adhere to some basic rules. The rules were quite simple and straightforward, but that didn't stop me and the owners of the site from straight banning large numbers of people.

The pure shock of forcing the "Yes we will see you again, you are not anonymous, and your reputation matters" into the system caused a lot less posting activity to take place on the forums, but the quality of each post was well worth it. A lot of people got banned trying (and failing) to wrap their brains around this concept.

The end result was I actually felt proud of helping shape an online community that was large, effective, and constructive. As it grew, so did the number of other moderators and that "critical point" kept shifting right, so we could have more users and still maintain a quality community. However, this requires a very proactive approach.

Great article. That being said, seeing some proposed solutions to this problem would have been nice. One strategy that Reddit employs quite well is the Subreddit system. This creates smaller sub-communities that aren't victims of the 'large' community problem. Of course, overtime a subreddit becomes a default or gets too many subscribers... but it's still a decent solution.

I think it'll be interesting to see how growth affects Hacker News. I'm still very impressed with the quality of the articles and comments (yes, there are some bad ones here and there, but compared to most sites HN is excellent)... I think the downvote threshold for HN has actually been quite successful in encouraging people to post useful comments. It gives a goal for people with low-karma to strive for, thus encouraging them to post better content. I think a more extensive reward system like this has potential for creating a better community.

> Of course, overtime a subreddit becomes a default or gets too many subscribers... but it's still a decent solution.

And then it spawns off one or more new subreddits, based on the desires of the users. I feel that's a pretty good way to handle the situation.

I agree with the author's thesis but I think other reasons apply to other communities.

Ideally, you would like to ensure the "greatest good for the greatest number" in a community. Consequently, good or happiness in a community is measured according to the preferences of the majority sometimes to the detriment of the minority. That is why, relative to the number of more intellectually engaging posts, you will see more LOLCats and animated gifs on the front page of Reddit. As somebody on here mentioned many people go on the internet for leisure, and intelligent/civilized discourse for them does not fall under that header.

As far as I know, HN was started to foster startups-tech community and I am optimistic because HN's subject matter is specific enough and the community concerned with this subject matter is small enough, for it not to devolve into another Reddit (meaning no offense to Reddit, I still visit there).

"* you will see more LOLCats and animated gifs on the front page of Reddit.*"

You'll see less of them these days. Reddit changed its default subreddit system last week and one of the big ones that got the boot was /r/AdviceAnimals.

I am not sure if this has ever been done, but what if an online community grew to a certain size and then closed it's doors to new members?

Could that community avoid the pitfalls of what the article is describing?

I could see a place where enrollment closes at a certain point, then reopens once a person leaves or becomes inactive.

I would actually like to see if this would work.

>>> These locusts were AOL users. In September of 1993, the company granted Usenet access to their entire user base, which triggered an unending deluge of noobs into the Usenet community.

Amusingly, I joined AOL in September of 1993. It was not long after I graduated and lost my university log-in, along with the e-mail address that came with it.

I chose AOL for a simple reason: I could dial up anywhere in the country and keep the same e-mail address no matter where I lived. AOL also greatly simplified the process of using the Internet. I ran a small business via my AOL address.

Each update to AOL software came via some promotion or other -- an insert in a magazine, or even a pile of AOL disks at the supermarket. At some point it became possible for an AOL user to access the Internet without the AOL software, e.g., by using mainstream e-mail and browser software.

> "When communities grow to a certain size, people no longer expect to interact in the future, and thus are more likely to defect – to be petty, mean, aggressive..."

Wow. I can't say whether this is true or not, but how depressing. Instead of counting on this behaviour, what if we tried to change it? Kindness, respect, and general "give the other person the benefit of the doubt" attitudes could make a huge difference. I just can't get around the idea that not interacting with the same person means you can not care how you treat them... that's crazy.

> I just can't get around the idea that not interacting with the same person means you can not care how you treat them... that's crazy.

Its actually quite rational. It may be immoral -- or at least amoral -- but its not crazy.

One of the purposes of collective mutual benefit organizations -- labor unions, the state, etc. -- is to mitigate the effect of this by providing a manner in which a group of people can act and be perceived as an entity with which an actor will have to interact with in the future even when they may not have to do so with the particular individual.

"The development of trust and kindness between two people depends on the probability that they will interact in the future."

Not true. Communities can - and should - use other incentive systems to encourage good behavior. 1) Point systems 2) Public shaming 3) bans / hell bans / abuse flagging / suspensions 4) various combinations

The threat of taking things from people that they've earned, even if it's as silly as 'fake internet points,' can be an extremely powerful enforcer of behavior, given the system is set up properly.

"Decay" is a loaded word reflecting the author's bias. All communities change over time as they grow. Their culture then reflects the users. We may not like that community but clearly a lot of people do (after all these are the largest sub reddits we're talking about right?)

This is sort of the "This neighborhood was so great until all the yuppy/hipsters moved in and the art stores were replaced with coffee shops serving $6 lattes" argument.

Agreed. Saying that communities decay is the same as saying pop music sucks because it appeals to the masses. Millions of people love that content and who are you to say whether they should enjoy it or not?

We should be building better tools that can adapt and grow with the community.

I wrote about this a couple of years ago, with a possible set of solutions: https://medium.com/i-m-h-o/c4c4074591ba

Don't necessarily agree with this point. If the total interaction for the community decreases with the influx of new users, and community abandonment > recruitment, the community hits decay.

I will give you the value argument as a bias. The idea that "it's not as cool anymore" absolutely holds true, and imo is a more apples-to-apples comparison to gentrification.

One persons decay is anothers gentrification.

Two online communities that I had to leave because they became really mean and decayed over time was IWETHEY and KURO5HIN.

Even Slashdot decayed and when Dice bought them out it was more about commercial stuff and less about technology and making cool stuff.

Reddit is over-run with trolls on various sub-reddits they started out in /r/atheism as fake atheists trolling people and then spread to other sub-reddits. Mostly 12 year old kids who think it is funny to grief people.

Maybe it's just a lot simpler: size and success attracts douchebags and morons. It's not limited to online communities. Cities, sports teams, rock bands, movies, you name it, you see it happen again and again. Success attracts the kind of people who act like a-holes in any context.

And yes, I'm aware of the great irony of posting this rather superficial comment in this thread. But I'm not sure if I'm actually wrong...

> I have no real incentive to be polite or to put much effort into anything I say. Even my reputation will remain intact – who’s going to witness it?

> When communities grow to a certain size, people no longer expect to interact in the future, and thus are more likely to defect – to be petty, mean, aggressive, and to put little effort into their contributions.

If this is true, then HN should put users karma score next to their username when they post.

Karma on HN doesn't work. I've been here 500 days, but because I only post from time to time I only have 335 karma and I can't downvote. Since my karma per post is just over 2, that means I've only made ~150 comments in that span, one every three days.

So all the politics posts get upvotes from people who have enough karma to upvote, but not enough downvotes because people like me can't downvote.

In this way you can post a liberally biased article and all the Democrats will upvote it and the Republicans can't downvote it. So you get several hundred upvotes on your submission.

There are enough new members that can't downvote who have the ability to upvote to put any garbage article on the front page as long as it appeals to enough of them to overpower the people who consider the article not to belong on HN.

I could post some political garbage every day and get a huge karma/post score. At least 10 per each link submission which is more than 4x what I'm getting just commenting.

I think karma scores have a negative impact on sites, because they encourage people to post agreeable (or antagonistic), shallow content. Reddit is an easy example of this. There are 'karma whores', which just try to accumulate as many (or few) points as possible, on the site, which negatively impact actual discussion.

Hacker News tracks average-karma-per-post, which if it was the only metric available to the user, might be a good fix for this problem. You'd still get feedback on how people perceive your comments overall, but it couldn't turn into a competition over points.

Does anyone know of any websites that have implemented such a system?

I'd say online communities "diverse", not diverge. E.g. http://i.imgur.com/4sftcoo.jpg

There's a simpler explanation. The average person is not especially bright, funny, or articulate. The larger a community, the more it regresses to the mean.

I really like this for not defaulting to the standard, lazy, fallacy-of-self-exclusion explanation of "most people are dumb."

The same effect seems to occur with large social movements. I've noted for many years that once anything becomes a "movement," it becomes shallow, trendy, and dishonest... even if the original seed of the movement had a good point in the beginning. Once it becomes big there is no longer any incentive for people not to abuse the movement as a marketing gimmick or a source of political power.

The author hasn't been to reddit in years if he thinks that r/atheism and r/politics are still default subreddits.

This is the most valuable article I've read on HN all week. The fact that it's not on the front page is dissapointing. EDIT: It IS on the front page. Hurray!

Personally I feel HN itself is having this very problem with its community right now. It's not only gotten too big but user "Probablyfiction" nailed it on the head. Too many newcomers destroy the existing culture instead of assimilating into it. The more I read about immigration problems in the USA, Europe (mass influx of Arab immigrants), Africa (mass influx of Chinese immigrants), Isreal (influx of African refugees) the more I notice this same assimilation problem exists in real offline communities as well. [New] Growth (too much too fast) can hurt communities by destroying the original characteristics, culture, and qualities that made them successful in the first place. Time and moderation needs to be given to ensure the new follows the rules of the old when applicable.

To add a counterpoint: I browse very frequently but rarely ever post. I actually think some of the older posters are worse than the newer ones. A lot of HN regulars seem to me to be so caught up in it that they can't see the big picture -> comments mired in pedantry and cynicism and negativity. Sometimes it's very hard to be able to step back for a moment and take a breath of fresh air. New thoughts and fresh perspective aren't always bad.

HN will probably end up as a case study for the maximum user threshold an online community can sustain, while still having an above-average discussion quality.

Reddit has already been through that cycle. Reddit ca 2006, before subreddits, was not too unlike hacker news, in that it had inteligent posts with inteligent discussion. The seeds to what Reddit eventually became was certainly there, but they it did not yet dominate. I think subreddits actually made it worse, since the people interested in having online communities went to smaller and more specialized subreddits, and gave up on the default subreddits, not even trying to hold up the online community.

On hacker news, there are no "sub hacker news", and it seems to me like hacker news is deteriorating at a slower rate than reddit did. My guess is that the fact that there only is one hacker news, and no subcommunities is a partial reason for that.

Reddit remained interesting right up until the Digg 4 migration in 2010. Not wonderful, but still a place where you could have a real discussion in a default subreddit. Where you would get actual answers in AskReddit, not just a stream of pathetic jokes.

That suggests that a very slow bifurcation my be a good solution to this problem. Not so fast that you end up with a ton of splinter groups that lose cohesion, not so slow that you end up diluting the community.

I wasn't there in 2006, so I have to admit I don't know what was lost.

But really like what it is right now: An extremely easy way to set up your own forum for free.

Well, to be fair, people have been concerned about HN getting too big and losing its community for at least two years now, iirc.

And ChrisNorstrom's account is about 3 years old, so that fits a stereotype of those with the highest concern over a perceived drop in quality being the newest old-timers.

That's because newer members have no memory of how things once were. They have no way of comparing the current quality of the community with the previous quality of the community. Of course its older members who complain about this problem.

Heh, the crux of my point was the concept of "the newest older members."

There is a bit of survivorship bias at play. People who complain and don't see things improve leave. The only ones left are the ones who didn't have a problem.

I seem to recall the "don't claim hn is turning into reddit" already when I signed up 3 years ago. Sure enough, a little manual "webarchive blame", shows that that text appeared in 2009 already. [0]

[0] https://web.archive.org/web/20090712034454/http://ycombinato...

Nice post, Well thats the cycle of life. Everything has an expiry date!

It is the same with pop records or bands however the music industry appreciates and understands that nothing is forever. People should apply this thinking to community sites and expect a cycle of life. Instead we have myspaces worth billions to then be worthless and Facebook where they don't see it coming.

Much like pop records or bands there are some things that have a different life cycle. People still by records by that outfit that called themselves 'The Beatles' but there is no 'Beatlemania' any more.

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