Some things I love about Hacker News (and a few I don’t)

About two years, I stumbled across this small social news site called Hacker News (HN), started by Paul Graham (PG…read his essays!) of Y Combinator (YC). For those of you not in the Silicon Valley bubble, PG is a really interesting guy who is helping to shift the balance of power in the valley from investors to founders. Over the last few years, YC has pumped out something like 200 very (very) high quality startups, each initially funded with low tens of thousands, instead of the more traditional hundreds of thousands or millions in the angel and VC investment world. But more on all that another time. I heard about HN years ago (I think Michael Arrington recommended it on TechCrunch), but hadn’t spent much time there. However, I was applying to YC (didn’t make it, unfortunately) and the application guidelines ask you for your HN username, so I signed up and started interacting.

That was two years ago, and HN has quite literally changed my life. It’s by far the best community I’ve ever been a part of online, and perhaps one of the best offline as well. I’ve learned a ton, gotten involved in other ventures that I wouldn’t have otherwise, and made lots of very valuable connections. There’s a lot to say, but here’s the gist of what makes HN so awesome:

Less sizzle, more steak

HN is inherently different from Reddit (a YC company, btw) and Digg, for a few reasons. I think the association with PG / YC has helped tremendously, but there’s also the fact that it’s not a democracy. PG and the YC alumni have the power to kill stories and comments, or change their titles, and I think this has a tremendous effect on keeping the right kinds of people interested in the site, and also shaping the behavior of those who stick around. Tech community sites always seem to be a victim of their success, and as the community grows and becomes more diverse, the only content that reaches the top is that which appeals to the lowest common denominator. So after the site gets a more mass-market audience, you start to see lots of flamebait, top 10 lists, funny videos, etc. It’s designed to appeal to our baser instincts, and it usually works. By contrast, HN discourages any kind of hyperbole, top 10 anything, linkbait, etc. Titles are encouraged to be short, descriptive, and simple. And often if they aren’t, an editor changes or kills them. Submitted stories that link to blogspam instead of the original article are often changed to point to the richer source. The end result is an incredibly high signal-to-noise ratio. I often find that almost every single story on the front-page is an in-depth and thought-provoking piece on a deep and intellectually engaging subject. Where else can you find that?

Deep intellectual curiosity

HN definitely skews more to the subjects of technology and startups, but you can find good articles and commentary on almost any intellectually-engaging subject (and if you can’t, you should submit some). As an example, some of the top articles from the last week or so include this piece from Gourmet magazine on bribing your way into exclusive restaurants, an article about how to fail a Ph.D., an article about how India’s “red rain” may contain life from elsewhere in the galaxy, and a report about marginal tax rates at different socioeconomic levels. And all of these stories have amazing commentary by the HN users, which brings me to my next point:

Rich conversations

The comments on HN are incredible. Mind-blowingly so. Maybe I’m stupid and other users aren’t impressed, but hanging out on HN is like sitting in a room with a group of thousands of super-smart folks with incredibly diverse life experiences and deep domain expertise across a huge variety of topics. And all you do all day is bring up interesting topics and really explore them in detail, listening to the folks with the most experience in each topic, asking questions, etc. I love all the articles on HN, but I’d estimate that 2/3rds of the value I derive from HN is in the comments, not the articles. And why are the comments so incredible? Glad you asked:

Amazingly accomplished members

I doubt anyone tracks the stats, but it sometimes seems like 50% of the rockstars in the tech world are on HN, from founders and CEOs to investors. It’s not uncommon to see a news story about a technology company and then see the CEO or founder on HN telling folks what’s really going on.

And on top of that, you’ve got the real stars, the folks slugging it out in the trenches of small, medium, and large companies all over the world. Some of these folks are much, much smarter than their humility would lead you to believe. When I see stories on patent or startup law, I wait for grellas to show up and tell us what’s really going on. If security issues are up for discussion, I know that I’ll learn something when tptacek posts. And then there are the folks who have such an intelligent and unique voice that you can tell who the comment is before you see their username (patio11 and edw519, to name two).

Incredibly supportive and helpful community

Multiple times per day, people post links to their new startup or project and ask for advice or feedback and the community always responds. I can tell you from experience that you can expect: a) encouragement for launching something (this is huge), b) positive feedback on the stuff you’re doing right, and c) someone kicking your ass for the areas you’re falling short. It’s a humbling experience to have people who have started, built, and sold startups for tens of millions going through your baby startup project, but it’s a great way to turbocharge your growth.

Additionally, the HN community is always ready to offer advice. Not sure if you should take that promising job with a startup or go back to grad school? Want to know who’s hiring? Want to meet like-minded people in Toronto, Tokyo, or Timbuktu? Need a cofounder to apply to YC with? These are the types of questions that get answered on HN every day, and it creates a vibe that’s hard to find elsewhere. People email you back if you reach out to them, and it’s not uncommon to get emails from other HN folks about a post submitted or a good comment.

OK, enough fawning. In spite of all the awesome-sauce, there are some things I don’t like:

Huge time-sink

This is one of those negative things that’s the result of something positive, but the consequences are definitely negative. I can easily burn up a couple hours a day on HN. That’s almost without trying. I head there when I’m bored, when I hit a hard problem, or when I’m standing in line at the grocery store. I’ve learned an incredible amount over the last couple years, so I wouldn’t say it’s a waste of time, but it’s easy to spend too much time here, instead of applying what you’ve learned.

Can tend towards group-think

There’s definitely a variety of opinions on most topics, and watching several very smart people skillfully debate all sides of a complex issue is a rare treat. That said, there are a number of positions that aren’t well-received. Some of them are related to typically controversial topics like politics and religion, so the community tends to avoid those subjects altogether. But there are other examples as well. For example:

A bit elitist, especially about programming vs. business

For whatever reason, hackers seem to really look down on business folks, portraying them as empty, vapid suits and no skills other than schmoozing their way into a top MBA program. Speaking as a developer who served as a product manager at a large company, there’s definitely a cultural divide from the other side as well, and business people don’t always give tech people the respect they deserve either. On HN, you see this kind of attitude being displayed all over the place, sometimes explicitly, but often more subtle. You can almost guarantee that any post about a disagreement between management and the tech guys will result in the community posting support for the tech folks. And the hackers almost always minimize the contributions of the business folks to a venture. The really ironic thing is that the majority of the startups and projects created by the HN crowd will fail, not for lack of technical excellence, but because they don’t understand the fundamentals of sales and marketing.

However, in spite of these caveats, I deeply value the time I’ve spent interacting on HN, the amazing stories I’ve heard, the connections I’ve made, and the lessons I’ve learned through the experience of others. If you’re into tech, business, startups, or anything that might appeal to a group of independent, logical, curious, and incredibly smart folks, please do check out HN. Just be sure you read the guidelines first.