As it has grown, Y Combinator’s Hacker News has struggled to keep its comment threads relevant, thoughtful, and above all else, friendly. Like YouTube, Reddit, and other sites with a large community of commenters, popular threads on Hacker News can degrade into grandstanding, arguments for the sake of being argumentative, and ad hominem attacks with little or no actual substance.
This has been a known problem on Hacker News for some time, leading some members of the community to create parodies not just of the type of content that tends to rise to the top, but also the discussions that arise within discussion threads. (The resulting Hacker News thread about that last link is, in its own right, pretty epic.)
In an effort to improve the quality of discussions that crop up on Hacker News, Y Combinator founding partner Paul Graham yesterday announced some imminent changes to the way comments would be posted and appear on the site. In what could be one of Graham’s last big moves*, he’s implementing a new “pending comments” system at Hacker News.
The idea isn’t new, and is something that Graham had mentioned more than eight months ago. But it’s finally making its way onto Hacker News.
Under the new system, comments that are submitted will no longer be immediately posted to the site, but will instead be placed in a pending comments queue until seen and approved by multiple Hacker News users who have over time accumulated more than 1,000 karma points. Those users will be able to endorse pending comments, in addition to flagging them for removal.
The goal is to get users to post comments that are substantial without being mean-spirited. In his post, Graham cautions against “throwaway remarks” and those that include “gratuitous nastiness.” He also warns that people who regularly endorse comments that fail either of those tests will lose their ability to endorse comments in the future.
While implemented to improve the quality of comments, a fair amount of discussion that followed questioned whether the system would work actually work. And not everyone seems happy about it — in particular, how quickly the change is being implemented and without a whole lot of warning, and how it puts more responsibility into the hands of high-karma users.
In a Medium post on the change, Jonas Wisser (who admittedly is not a Hacker News user) warns that since moderation is being done by those who are most deeply invested in how Hacker News currently operates, it’s likely to remain more or less the same:
This new system is designed to improve the quality of comments on Hacker News. But to me, it seems like it will result in more of the same, but with less dissent. And more of the same, but with less dissent, is not something I’ve ever been able to trust.
Like many big changes of this type, we won’t know how the change will actually affect the quality of comments or engagement in the community until it’s actually implemented and adopted. Until then, however, it’s at least an interesting experiment in community and comment moderation.
* PG notes in the blog post that he’s checking out of HN at the end of this YC cycle.