The struggle to moderate Hacker News

(written by lawrence krubner, however indented passages are often quotes). You can contact lawrence at:, or follow me on Twitter.


“From our perspective, the big surprise is how little control we actually have. We have to play our cards very carefully and very wisely, or even that control will sort of evaporate,” Gackle said. “There’s often a strong wish to solve these contentious problems by changing the software, and, to the extent that we’ve tried things like that, we haven’t found it to work. What does seem to work better is personal interaction, over and over and over again, with individual users. That, case by case by case, seems to move the needle. But it’s very slow.”

“If we’re trying to change something deep, the ingredient is time,” Bell said. “Patience allows us to be ambitious—to imagine people being more kind to each other, for example. It sounds kind of crazy.”

For Gackle and Bell, moderating Hacker News has presented an opportunity for self-work. Together, they have read up on nonviolent communication, sociology, and psychotherapy. (Bell found Carl Rogers’s “On Becoming a Person”—a 1961 book about personal growth that became a bible of the humanistic-psychology movement—particularly valuable.) Gackle is drawn to healing workshops; Bell, to Indian philosophy. They seem, at times, to be applying old, humanist techniques to a culture obsessed with the future.

“Something that’s deeply interesting, I think, to both of us,” Gackle said, “is the way in which one can arrive at a nonviolent reaction to somebody by having greater awareness of the—” He paused. “I’ll say violence in oneself. By which I mean the kind of agitation and activation that is causing people, including ourselves, to react in a kind of fight-or-flight way that leads to misunderstanding, conflict, and, ultimately, Internet flame wars. This seemingly trivial stuff, about people getting mad at other people on the Internet, is actually tied to this much deeper and more fascinating process of what goes on between people and what goes on in oneself.”

“It’s another opportunity for us to influence the system, by exemplifying the kind of patterns of discussion that we would like to see,” Bell said. “We just want to constantly set an example.”

In April, the Times ran an essay by Sarah Lewis, a Harvard professor, titled “The Racial Bias Built Into Photography.” The essay was a historical inquiry, inspecting lens development and film-emulsion technology, and was written in the first person. When it landed on Hacker News, users immediately rushed to flag it as off topic. Gackle changed the title to “Photography and racial bias,” and turned off flagging, which restored the essay to its original position on the front page.

“I take issue with this article simply because photography isn’t a technology at all,” one user commented. “It is an art that uses technology. There are millions of pictures of people of all races that look perfectly fine. I take issue with stirring up people for no reason. If a maker of paints in the 1800s owned slaves does that mean that painting (then, now, in the future) is racist? How ridiculous can we get?” Another user posted the opening lines of Rudyard Kipling’s poem “The White Man’s Burden.” A third wrote, “The people who invented the tech (US/Europe/Japan) optimised it for consumers around them. Why hate on inventors who create something cool just because it doesn’t quite work as well for all groups of people? Surely this also left a gap in the market—someone could have optimized film for darker skin tones and made a lot of money?”