On Hacker News, how neutral does a title have to be?

(written by lawrence krubner, however indented passages are often quotes). You can contact lawrence at: lawrence@krubner.com

The Hacker News guidelines state:

please use the original title, unless it is misleading or linkbait.

The title of my last blog post is:

Amazon has absolutely no idea how to run an app store

The original title of the article posted to Hacker News was:

Amazon has absolutely no idea how to run an app store

In other words, they were the same, which is in keeping with guidelines that Hacker News has published.

dang, one of the moderators of Hacker News, re-wrote this as:

Amazon is relatively new to the job of running an app store

dang wrote this justification:

That title is over the top, so we replaced it with the much more neutral first sentence of the article.

spoondan offered this response:

The first sentence of the article is, “Amazon is relatively new to the job of running an app store, and some of their mistakes are either hilarious or infuriating, depending on how much money you’ve lost trying to deal with them.”

The decision to switch the submission title away from the article’s actual title is unjustified. The decision to switch it to a selective edit of the article’s first sentence is even worse.

meesterdude also disagreed with dang’s decision:

Actual title: Amazon has absolutely no idea how to run an app store

Why did the title change? It used to be the same as the original article, but now it’s been needlessly editorialized to be kinder to amazon. Seriously? What the fuck. That’s not HN’s job, and is a disservice to the article, and the community.

galactoise added:

The weird thing about the title change is that the new one isn’t even true – they’ve been running the Kindle app store for quite a while…

The user “dang” posted further down in the comments saying that he changed it because the title was “over the top”, which didn’t seem like a good reason to me (but then again, I’m not a moderator). I can understand the desire to avoid sensationalism, especially if the belief is that this anger over third party Alexa skills is only about the problem in the article. In reality, though, this is just one of many issues that currently has the community up in arms, so I don’t think the original title was as hyperbolic as they believed…

galactoise also added:

The original title is correct in the literal sense – it is not an embellishment. There is ample evidence to support this assertion, and all of it is accessible in the Amazon Developer Forums. If you would like to make the claim that the OP is editorializing, the burden of proof is on you to show that Amazon does understand how to properly run this app store. Good luck with that, though.

overgard responded directly to dang with:

There’s nothing neutral about this — the original title accurately described the posts content (IE: they were infuriated at amazon). The new title doesn’t reflect that at all — you could imagine all sorts of alternate ways the article could go. “Amazon is new to running app stores” could be a profile of how amazon has developed their app store, or it could be about the general challenges of companies starting an app store, etc. This new title is impressively vague as to what the article is actually about, it tells me nothing. The original title was obviously about some people that were very upset about amazon’s policies. The outrage was an important part of the title! The point of the article is that people are upset. If you take that out, you’re just obfuscating things.

venning felt my original title was borderline linkbait:

I think it is precisely that harshness that pushes the original title towards linkbait. Again, I’m not questioning the legitimacy of the involved developers’ emotions.

The point of a linkbait title is to elicit an emotional response that is disproportionately strong compared to that of the actual content. As such, they are worded strongly.

I agree that “relatively new” was a bad emendation. I probably just would have removed “absolutely” from the original title and left it at that.

overgard responded to venning with:

Why is eliciting an emotional response bad? Sure, emotion devoid of anything else is just rage, but in this case the irritation the developers had was an important part of the story.

Removing emotional context doesn’t make a story more “objective”. If someone wrote a story like “russia invades china”, and the story got edited to “russia parks some tanks in the capital of china”, clearly even though both stories are “accurate”, the second one has actually lost information.

kzhahou also responded to venning:

Linkbait: “This company sucks at app stores!”

Non-linkbait: “Amazon sucks at app stores!”

The first is linkbait because it forces you to click to learn which company it’s talking about. It would most likely make the reader think it’s about Apple, or maybe Google Play Store, both of which are probably more interesting than Amazon’s store. The second title is NOT linkbait because even though it’s inflammatory, it conveys enough information to let the reader decide whether it’s worth a click. The reader immediately knows:

* It’s about Amazon app store.

* It’s going to be very negative.

If the HN reader is interested in how Amazon’s app store is doing and how users are reacting, then it will stand out as a link worth clicking. If the HN reader doesn’t care for an opinion about amazon’s store, or doesn’t want to read a strongly-worded one, they’ll pass. There was no baiting at all.

I argue that the editorializing of the article created MORE of a problem, because it wiped away an important piece of information for HN readers: that this is a strongly-worded negative review. The edited title (“Amazon is relatively new..”) conveys no information about the article. Frankly, it now sounds like a very dumb article.

(venning had more to say, and is worth reading.)

My own response to dang was:

I am sorry to say this contributes to the feeling that the HN rule about titles is entirely arbitrary. Most of the time the rule seems stupidly rigid and inflexible. After all, why can’t developers highlight the aspect of the article that would be of most interest to the readership of HN? But then, suddenly, an exception is made, based on wholly subjective criteria. How do you define “over the top”? Have you tried to get an Alexa app certified? Do you understand how bad the situation is?

I’m in favor of flexibility regarding the titles, and if HN supported such flexibility, then your decision in this case would seem less arbitrary. But given the rigidness applied at other times, this seems like an odd exception.

I’ll point out that the current title does not come close to expressing the level of frustration that developers are currently feeling regarding the Alexa app store. Shouldn’t the title give some indication about the real conflict?

In the end, these decisions rest with dang, and in the end no one post really matters. And every referee occasionally makes a bad call. But it would be nice to know that the rules are either followed, or loosened for everyone. I personally would be happy to see more flexibility. I would like to be able to use the title to highlight which part of an article would be interesting to the audience at Hacker News.

But above all else, it would be nice to think that the trend is away from arbitrary enforcement.