[personal profile] mjg59
Hacker News is a fairly influential link aggregation site, with stories submitted and voted on by users. As explained in the FAQ, the ranking of stories is roughly determined by the number of votes divided by a function of the time since submission. It's not a huge traffic driver (my personal experience of stories on the front page is on the order of 30,000 hits), but it's notable because the demographic tends to include a more technically literate and influential set of readers than most other sites. The discussion that ensues from technical posts often includes meaningful feedback from domain experts. Stories that appear there are likely to be noted by technology workers, especially in the Silicon Valley startup field[1].

That rather specific demographic appears to correlate with other traits. There's a rather more techno-libertarian bias on Hacker News than on most general discussion forums, which is consistent with the startup-oriented culture that it springs from - the desire to provide disruptive solutions to real world problems tends to collide with existing regulatory frameworks, so it's unsurprising that a belief in individual rights and small government would overlap with US startup culture. There's a leaning towards the use of web technologies rather than traditional client applications, which matches what people are doing in the rest of the world. And there's more enthusiasm for liberal open-source licenses over Copyleft licenses, which makes sense in a web-focused environment (as I wrote about here).

Now, personally I'm a big-government, client-app, Copyleft kind of person, but for the most part I don't think the above is actively dangerous. It's inevitable that political views will vary, we'll probably continue to cycle between thick and thin clients for generations and nobody's ever going to demonstrably prove that one licensing model deserves to win over another. But what is important is that the ongoing debates between these opinions be driven by facts, and that it remain obvious that these disagreements exist. As far as technical (and even political) discussion goes, Hacker News doesn't seem to
have a problem with that. Disagreeing with the orthodoxy is tolerated.


This seems less true when it comes to social issues. When a posting discussing the myth of the natural born programmer[2] hit the front page, the top rated comment is Paul Graham[3] off-handedly discounting the conclusions drawn. The original story linked to a review of peer-reviewed scientific research. Graham simply discounts it on the basis of his preconceptions. Shortly afterwards, the story plummeted off the front page, now surrounded by stories posted around the same time but with much lower scores.

How does this happen? There's two publicised methods which can result in stories dropping down the order. Users with high karma scores (either via submitting popular stories or writing popular comments) are able to flag submissions, and if enough do so then a negative weighting is applied to the story. There's also a flamewar detector, a heuristic that attempts to detect contentious subjects and pushes them off the front page.

The effect of both is to enforce the status quo of social beliefs. Stories that appear to challenge the narrative that good programmers are just naturally talented tend to vanish. Stories that discuss the difficulties faced by minorities in our field are summarily disappeared. There are no social problems in the technology industry. We have always been at war with Eastasia.

This isn't healthy. We don't improve the state of the software industry by hiding stories that expose conflicts. Flamewars don't solve problems, but without them we'd be entirely unaware of how much of a victim blaming mentality exists amongst our peers. It's true that conflict may reinforce preconceptions, causing people to dig in as they defend their beliefs. However, the absence of conflict does nothing to counteract that. If you're never exposed to opinions you disagree with, you'll never question your existing beliefs.

Hacker News is a privately run site and nobody's under any obligation to change how they choose to run it. But the focus on avoiding conflict to such an extent that controversial stories receive less exposure than ones that fit people's existing beliefs doesn't enhance our community. If we want to be able to use technology as an instrument of beneficial change to society as a whole, we benefit from building a diverse and welcoming community and questioning our preconceptions. Building a social echo chamber risks marginalising us from the rest of society, gradually becoming ignored and irrelevant as our self-reinforcing opinions drift ever further away from the mainstream. It doesn't help anybody.

[1] During the batch of interviews I did last year, two separate interviewers both mentioned a story they'd read on Hacker News that turned out to have been written by me. I'm not saying that that's what determined a hire/don't hire decision, but it seems likely that it helped.
[2] The article in question discusses the pervasive idea that some people are inherently good programmers. It turns out that perpetuating the idea that some people are just born good at a particular skill actually discourages others from even trying to learn it, even those who are just as capable.
[3] One of the co-founders of Y-Combinator and creator of Hacker News.

(Edited to fix a footnote reference)

Date: 2013-10-15 05:08 pm (UTC)
zorkian: Icon full of binary ones and zeros in no pattern. (Default)
From: [personal profile] zorkian
Yeah, I'm not really a fan of HN -- but since I fit the demographic it's comfortable, and I really do like reading about all the fancy stuff going on in my industry (as, in the end, I do work with most of these companies/people).

That said, it makes me sad, and I don't really know what to do about it. HN succeeds, in part, because groups like YC and pg who make it succeed. Sharding the market and having a "socially thoughtful" group probably doesn't help, because then we just have two echo chambers.

If you have thoughts on how to improve this, I'd love to hear them.

Date: 2013-10-15 05:30 pm (UTC)
tim: Tim with short hair, smiling, wearing a black jacket over a white T-shirt (Default)
From: [personal profile] tim
An echo chamber isn't a bad thing when it's supportive, rather than being a group that amplifies the dominant culture's toxic views. Since I have to deal with people just like the ones leaving anonymous comments in this post (they're more subtle when interacting in person) every single day, I don't feel I'm missing out on anything when I go to a private space that's limited to people who support intersectional feminism. I'm in no danger of not hearing the opinions of patriarchy-supporting rape apologists.
(screened comment)

Date: 2013-10-15 06:21 pm (UTC)
tim: Tim with short hair, smiling, wearing a black jacket over a white T-shirt (Default)
From: [personal profile] tim
Patches welcome.

Date: 2013-10-15 06:24 pm (UTC)
From: (Anonymous)
Why are you able to moderate comments in an article you didn't author?

Date: 2013-10-15 06:26 pm (UTC)
tim: Tim with short hair, smiling, wearing a black jacket over a white T-shirt (Default)
From: [personal profile] tim
Why do you think that?

Date: 2013-10-15 06:32 pm (UTC)
zorkian: Icon full of binary ones and zeros in no pattern. (Default)
From: [personal profile] zorkian
You know, you make an excellent point. Thank you.

I'd much rather be in an environment where people feel safe and comfortable to express and be themselves. Is there something out there right now that is this.. HN-but-better?

Date: 2013-10-15 06:37 pm (UTC)
tim: Tim with short hair, smiling, wearing a black jacket over a white T-shirt (Default)
From: [personal profile] tim
Dreamwidth and geekfeminism.org, though those are more specific and obviously don't have the whole upvote/downvote system.

Date: 2013-10-15 06:44 pm (UTC)
zorkian: Icon full of binary ones and zeros in no pattern. (Default)
From: [personal profile] zorkian

I'm aware of individuals on DW, but few who do this kind of discussion (aside from ending up here at [personal profile] mjg59's posts every once in a while when I see them on HN). Perhaps I just need to curate my reading list on DW better?

I find the voting system useful since it is a lower barrier to entry than waiting for someone to actually write up a whole blog post about something. If I relied on just blog posts, I'd hardly ever read anything. :-)

Date: 2013-10-15 06:53 pm (UTC)
dreamatdrew: (Ragabash)
From: [personal profile] dreamatdrew
Hey Mark, explain that last bit? I'm failing to parse that and I would really like to know how that works.

Date: 2013-10-15 08:17 pm (UTC)
zorkian: Icon full of binary ones and zeros in no pattern. (Default)
From: [personal profile] zorkian

In essence, what I want is to read stuff that is "interesting" to m. Since my personal interests are pretty closely aligned with many of the people on HN, the voting system allows me to quickly see what they find interesting.

The voting system is a very low barrier to collecting this information -- people can click a little triangle and give information about what they found interesting, instead of having to post a blog entry about it. I read interesting stuff all the time, but I almost never blog about it. Yet, I am likely to click the triangle -- giving some information to the system.

A little information from a thousand people gives a ranked view of stuff that has a high probability of being interesting to me, but stuff someone chooses to blog about has a much larger false negative rate -- I miss things I would have found interesting, but it wasn't interesting enough for someone to take the time to blog about. (I also read very few blogs.)

Date: 2013-10-15 06:34 pm (UTC)
dreamatdrew: Spider Jerusalem's shades (sort of) with the text "I hate it here" hovering above (ihateithere)
From: [personal profile] dreamatdrew
And you have just perfectly illustrated the allure of the echo chamber. Sadly, you're wrong, and they are dangerous, no matter their alignment. Any space which attempts to silence a dissenting view simply because it is dissent is antithetical to reasoned discussion.

Date: 2013-10-15 06:38 pm (UTC)
tim: Tim with short hair, smiling, wearing a black jacket over a white T-shirt (Default)
From: [personal profile] tim
If I don't state my opinion because I'm afraid I will receive rape threats, death threats, criticisms of my appearance, or possibly because I'm afraid I will be fired from my job if word gets around, do you think I'm being silenced?
Edited Date: 2013-10-15 06:39 pm (UTC)

Date: 2013-10-15 06:49 pm (UTC)
dreamatdrew: Spider Jerusalem's shades (sort of) with the text "I hate it here" hovering above (ihateithere)
From: [personal profile] dreamatdrew
Yes, you are. That is not the issue at hand, though it does dovetail rather well.
Because the poor excuses for people who do this are attempting to (and here is the key) silence you, the dissenter, because you are voicing a dissenting opinion. The means they are using to do so, while horrific and worthy of a blunt-force cranial realignment for the perpetrators, are not relevant to the point I made.

Also, and I may very well be wrong here, but you seem to be conflating the concepts of 'echo chamber' and 'safe space'. The two are not mutually inclusive, and while the second has the potential to mutate into the first quite easily, the reverse is not so likely.

Date: 2013-10-15 06:52 pm (UTC)
tim: Tim with short hair, smiling, wearing a black jacket over a white T-shirt (Default)
From: [personal profile] tim
The reason I'm afraid of those things is because of the same kinds of people who have left anonymous comments in this thread, and because I know that some of those very same people are my co-workers, my potential employers in the future, and other people who have power over me or might have it in the future. A space where if I mention rape, I have to spend the next half-an-hour either dealing with threats or explaining to people, again, that rape is a bad thing and people who are raped are victims, is not a space where I can freely talk.

Again, every single time I see "echo chamber" get used, it gets used pejoratively to describe a space where I don't have to constantly dodge slurs and insults and people telling me that I'm not really a human. I'm told I have to accept all of those things because of "free speech". But if that's what an echo chamber is, sign me up; if wanting to be treated with respect means I have to reject free speech, then I reject free speech. (I don't actually think that, but I do care about people more than I care about abstractions.)
Edited Date: 2013-10-15 06:54 pm (UTC)

Date: 2013-10-15 07:03 pm (UTC)
dreamatdrew: Spider Jerusalem's shades (sort of) with the text "I hate it here" hovering above (ihateithere)
From: [personal profile] dreamatdrew
None of which I am arguing with, and in fact on what you have just said, I agree with you completely.

Which does not address the original point: attempting to silence a dissenting view simply because it is dissent is bad, no matter the view, or the method.

Date: 2013-10-15 07:07 pm (UTC)
tim: Tim with short hair, smiling, wearing a black jacket over a white T-shirt (Default)
From: [personal profile] tim
*sigh*

The thing that gets tedious to explain, to people to whom this stuff is abstract, is that it's not a view and not dissent when somebody promulgates the belief you're not human. That's violence, plain and simple. We experience it as violence, because it is violence.

When my co-worker made an anonymous threat against me and another co-worker because we spoke up about queer rights at work, and said "we don't want you around", that expressed intent to act upon that desire to deprive us both of our livelihoods. Not an opinion. Not dissent. Just the raw exercise of power.

Words have power. Language has power. I would think that programmers, of all people, would get it, but I guess most don't unless it's their life or their livelihood at stake.

Date: 2013-10-15 07:34 pm (UTC)
dreamatdrew: An orange leopard gecko half hiding behind the leaf of a 'lucky bamboo' plant, looking directly at you. (Default)
From: [personal profile] dreamatdrew
Item one: Do not assume you know me, my history, or what I take from abstraction vs what I take from experience. My history is my own, and you do not have the right to question it, nor erase it.

Item two: A threat, while it technically may be dissent, is not just dissent. Says so right on the tin. You want to silence actual threats? Go right ahead, I'll help procure the arms and ammunition (figuratively or literally, your call) to do so and be right there with you taking them down.
BUT:

Item three: None of the above contradicts what I said, implied, or even meant in the original comment. What I DID say, since you seem to be missing it, is that person/group A deciding that person/group B is not allowed to be heard simply and only because B expressed a view that was not A's is wrong. And if you actually read that statement, you would realize that this is what has been done to you in every example you have offered to support your premise that your echo-chamber is good while someone else's is bad.

Item four: You would think that a programmer would understand the concept of equivalence, and lack thereof.

Date: 2013-10-15 07:41 pm (UTC)
tim: Tim with short hair, smiling, wearing a black jacket over a white T-shirt (Default)
From: [personal profile] tim
Are we done now?

Profile

Matthew Garrett

About Matthew

Power management, mobile and firmware developer on Linux. Security developer at Google. Ex-biologist. @mjg59 on Twitter. Content here should not be interpreted as the opinion of my employer.

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