Can social media even exist without political debate? What about trolls? Hacker News, the social news site run by Y Combinator, is trying to find out.
The head of the Hacker News community since 2014, Daniel Gackle (whose HN handle is “dang”) on Monday initiated a site-wide “Political Detox Week.”
To introduce the temporary ban on political content, Gackle wrote:
“For one week, political stories are off-topic. Please flag them. Please also flag political threads on non-political stories. For our part, we’ll kill such stories and threads when we see them. Then we’ll watch together to see what happens.
Why? Political conflicts cause harm here. The values of Hacker News are intellectual curiosity and thoughtful conversation. Those things are lost when political emotions seize control. Our values are fragile—they’re like plants that get forgotten, then trampled and scorched in combat. HN is a garden, politics is war by other means, and war and gardening don’t mix.”
When users sought more detail on what, precisely, would be defined as politics and blocked on HN this week, Gackle elaborated:
“Pure politics: conflicts around party, ideology, nation, race, gender, class, and religion that get people hot and turn into flamewars on the internet. We’re not so concerned about stories on other things that happen to have political aspects—like, say, software patents.”
The post about the “detox” or “cleanse,” as Gackle called it, has drawn hundreds of comments on Hacker News since it posted this morning.
Many users said this effort, even if well-intentioned, amounts to censorship. Many warned it would have the unwanted consequence of silencing the views and experiences of minority users, including women and people of color who comment on the site.
Y Combinator CEO Sam Altman tells TechCrunch,”We don’t want to be the day to day US politics site. There are a lot of other places for that. And this just shuts down the lightning rod for a few days.”
The CEO also acknowledged that, as is happening on social networks like Twitter, Reddit and Facebook, bigots have infiltrated the Hacker News community of late.
Still, every social network going back to Usenet in the 1990s faces the same problem in abating trolls and maintaining a high level of discourse. Telling people they can’t do or say something online never seems to make things easier, or improve the quality of discussions, for the moderators of these online communities.
We’ll see how Hacker News fares.
Gackle wrote in an e-mail to TechCrunch to emphasize that the “detox” is just a one-week experiment, and he’s not sure what Hacker News will learn from it.
“The idea came about because there has been an uptick in political flamewars and, worse, accounts that use the site exclusively to argue about politics and don’t appear interested in anything else. We already ban such accounts, but the trend in that direction made it seem like a good time to clarify what HN is and what it is not,” he wrote.
We asked Gackle specifically for his response to critics who believe his project will silence underrepresented people on HN, and is essentially a form of censorship. He said:
“Words like ‘silence,’ ‘underrepresented,’ and ‘censorship,’ are highly charged, and people use them to mean a lot of things, even opposite things. So before trying to answer such a criticism, I’d want to make sure I understand, and for that it’s best to be talking to a specific user about their specific concerns, not arguing in a general debate.”
HN has developed and integrated software that tries to detect patterns of abuse on its site, but hasn’t written anything specifically new for the Political Detox Week or around political content.
Gackle had plenty more to say to HN users. You can read his comments here on a reverse chronological thread of his answers to their questions.