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The dark side of HackerNews: negativity at best, suppression at worst

I’ve always been a believer in the open discussion promoted by HackerNews, a programmer & tech industry community I’ve been involved in for several years. In recent times, the emotional undercurrent in the community has gotten more negative, and I heard dozens (I dare say hundreds?) of my friends and colleagues mention this in 2012, and I fear it is accelerating.

But I still hadn’t really lost faith in HackerNews until this morning.

This morning, Michelle wrote a thoughtful post on this blog about sexism in tech, and she added it to HackerNews for discussion. In my opinion, Michelle’s dealing was completely fair and even-handed, but the reception on HackerNews was mixed. That’s not surprising, because like anything else involving civil rights of a minority, sexism in tech is a hugely controversial topic. Because of that, and because many different voices can be heard on HackerNews, we expected a lively debate.

That’s part of what I love about HackerNews. It’s a community given toward open and honest discussion. And however uncomfortable it can be at the time, I believe honest discussion creates more fairness in the longterm (it’s no mistake that one of our core values here at Keen IO is Confrontation Without Hostility and another is Radical Transparency, which is the name of this blog). I believe open & honest discussion, like what HackerNews promotes, is an accelerant to justice of all kinds, especially social justice.

“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” — Martin Luther King, Jr.

Within about ten minutes, Michelle’s post had about 20 comments, from different perspectives, and it was on the front page of HackerNews.

The debate raged for about an hour, and then out of nowhere, new post activity slowed markedly. A friend pointed out to us that, for some reason, Michelle’s post had been buried on the third page!

Now I’ll drop the formal tone. Something seriously fucked up is going on here. The numbers don’t add up.* Either:

  1. The post is being flagged en masse by our fellow HackerNews community members.
  2. Or the post is being intentionally suppressed by someone closer to the top of HackerNews.

Neither scenario makes me proud of HackerNews.

I’ve lost faith in HackerNews in the short term. I’m standing up and saying something about it because, hopefully, we can remedy this in the long term. After all, drawing attention to justice-oriented problems is most important ongoing tactic in solving them.

That’s all Michelle was trying to do in the first place.


* On the numbers: Here’s a screenshot of her post, ranked 82, despite having 88 comments in an hour. If you’re not familiar with HackerNews, here’s another screenshot for reference — it depicts the front page of HN at the same time, and far less active topics occupy the top five.