Jacques Mattheij

Technology, Coding and Business

attitude does not scale

Interesting developments on Hacker News, the comment scores are no longer visible and there is a concerted effort at trying to preserve the perceived quality and the atmosphere of the place in spite of very rapid growth.

Whilst I very much appreciate these efforts and hope sincerely that they succeed (HN is still my favorite haunt, even if I stopped contributing it is the best place to stop off for a bit of ‘light reading’ on a variety of subjects that interest me after a couple of hours of hard work) I’m somewhat pessimistic on whether that’s even possible. ‘Flat’ communities (communities that have no way of creating your own list of ‘friends’ or people that you are interested in or some other hierarchical functionality) have as a rule all suffered the same fate of decline over time, with - as far as I know - the exception of metafilter.

The key to me is that attitude does not scale, a small town has a different atmosphere from a larger one, and a large town has a different atmosphere from a city.

In my experience the ‘bonds’ between people in smaller places tend to be tighter, there is mental room enough to really get to know the other people. The simplest reason I can come up with here is a pretty blunt mathematical one: if your time available for socializing is a constant then increasing the number of people in the pool will decrease the amount of time available per person.

So in a city environment you are almost automatically going to be more brief, less engaged (which some might perceive as rude) and even the people that do interest you will not get as big a time-slice as they would have otherwise. The total volume goes up, the depth of interaction goes down.

A second reason, besides the actual number of people is the amount of stuff they produce. It took HN almost 3 years to get to the 1 million posts mark, a bit over a year later we’re at 2.5 million.

With that volume of interaction the time people can spend on reading what others are writing gets reduced as well further decreasing the chance that people read everything their ‘buddies’ write and so reduces the level of interaction.

Over time this translates in to less overall engagement, people end up caring less about the community, and possibly become more selfish (what can I get out of it rather than what are we going to achieve together).

I’ve lived in places that were nearly uninhabited (rural Northern Ontario) and cities with 10 million people in them. There is no place so lonely as a city with 10 million people in it. In spite of the apparent contradiction, when walking along a road in a place almost deserted by human inhabitants, every face you do meet is likely to be either a known one or someone that you’d be immediately interested in (just the fact that you’re both in this unlikely outpost creates an immediate bond). Contrast that with 1000’s of people packed in to a subway in a big city that aren’t even exchanging greetings. It’s not strange they don’t, even a cursory greeting of a few thousand people would eat up your whole day, forget about any further or deeper interaction.

So, more people in the same ‘place’, be it a chunk of geography or a website will lead to an automatic change in attitude even if the people themselves are the same and have no conscious desire to change their attitude.

Attitude, unlike web servers or algorithms, simply does not scale.

As soon as the large majority of the comments in a place is by people whose moniker you do not recognize it’s not the place that changes, it is you that will change. And because that same thing happens to everybody there will be a shift (perceived on HN as a ‘meanness’, which I simply equate with big city callousness). People from small towns tend to see cities as ‘hard’ and communities that start off small (they all do!) tend to have that small town feeling and over time they’ll lose it.

This sets up a feedback loop of driving out the ‘small town’ minded folks or drowning them out further accelerating the change.

The solutions to this problem are not nice. And quite a few of those ‘solutions’ have significant downsides in terms of diversity and promoting elitism.

But no matter which solution you pick (other than ruthlessly curbing the number of active participants) a city with a village’s attitude is a thing that will be very hard to achieve.

Any change will have to be seen in light of the change in size of the community and how to deal with that specific aspect, to somehow find a way to preserve the small town feel while at the same time accommodating large numbers of newcomers. If PG and friends manage to crack this particular nut they’ll have solved the ‘eternal September’ problem, and that in a way would be an even bigger achievement than creating Ycombinator.