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Apr

Identity as Collateral

Every community has a feel.

This feel is subjective- It is determined by the sum of experiences for each user who visits, and changes, slowly, over time.

I’ve been a reader of Hacker News for over 2 years, and I’ve seen people complaining about the site’s feel changing for nearly as long- All communities change with time, but the Hacker News community in particular has made a conscious effort to keep the feel far more static- Despite this, it’s users have felt strongly that the site was better as they remembered it.

Hacker News was founded by the micro-investing group Ycombinator, and was primarily used by applicants to their program.

This self-selection of users has historically had two effects:

The first was that the majority of the users were in a similar situation- They were running or working in very early stage startups, which meant that they had a common base of things to talk about. Discussions about Amazon EC2 and S3, for example, were popular since each startup found themselves facing similar problems in infrastructure.

The second and perhaps the most influential to the feel of the site is that people were on their best behavior.
Since so many of the site’s readers were applying to the YCombinator program, the idea of trolling or hacking the site was absurd.

As the site has grown, the community has done a remarkable job in preserving the quality of the site’s links and news, but I regret that the utility of the civility and utility of the discussion has somewhat diminished as the site has grown.

It would seem that while the first effect, a bias toward the startup scene and the tools, utilities, and discussions around it, has survived, the user base has expanded far beyond beyond those applying, accepted, or otherwise affiliated with Ycombinator.

One example of this user-expansion is the traffic brought by mentions on TechCrunch; Others might be those who have ‘fled’ from Reddit, as they find the site no longer to their liking.

This brings two sorts of effects- On the one hand, AdamSavage recently mentioned in an interview that he reads “Ycombinator” daily- Adam Savage is certainly the sort of intellectually curious person who would fit very well with Hacker News, but he is neither associated with a startup or with YC, by even the loosest definitions.

On other hand, the comments have had a lot more about Ayn Rand, and a lot less Aza Raskin. There have been several debates about the role of US military overseas and marijuana legalization in recent weeks. I don’t dispute that these are occasionally fun to interesting topics to argue and discuss, but they both to fall into argument by identity, and they push aside the subtler discussions about the scalability of database replication.

Perhaps then the best way to continue to hold a civil dialogue about deeply interesting topics, while earnestly welcoming new members to the community, is to find a new way of keeping members on their best behavior.
As the proportion of Hacker News readers applying to the YCombinator program has diminished, so too has the incentive to post the well reasoned and civil comments which helped to attract others to the community. Today’s users are not being ‘judged’ by their contributions, so the incentives are diminished.

Like most digital identities, a username on the site is ephemeral- It exists only so long as the user finds it convenient, and can be discarded and replaced without consequence. While this is wonderful in that it allows a relaxed conversation, it enables the incivility and otherwise unprofessional behavior that so commonly invades online forums.

I propose that usernames are linked to an earthly identity.
If each user’s account were linked to one and exactly one individual in the outside world, it would not only restore a bias toward civility, but it would encourage people to post the sort of comments they want publicly associated with themselves.

Verifying an identity is traditionally a difficult and expensive process. There are dozens of companies who do user-identification for merchant accounts, and others who run background checks to verification employment eligibility. These checks are expensive, however and almost always require the user to deliver a substantial amount of information.
LexisNexus will do identity verification for $5/user, but they require Name, Address, Date of Birth, and in many scenarios, a social security number. Requiring this information would not only drive away many legitimate commentators and fail for most non-US based members, but it would also cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to implement.

The web provides us an alternative that is substantially cleaner and cheaper, however. If each user account were publicly linked with a Facebook or Linkedin account, their existing name and reputation would be associated with their behavior and comments.

The difficulties in linking the the accounts is largely social, rather than technical.
The accounts could either be linked through the Facebook and LinkedIn APIs (Likely using Clickpass as an intermediary), or more brutishly, Hacker News could ask a user to temporarily add a token to their public profile, in much the same way that Google asks users to claim their domain.

The Hacker News Welcome Page states:

HN is an experiment. As a rule, a community site that becomes popular will decline in quality. Our hypothesis is that this is not inevitable—that by making a conscious effort to resist decline, we can keep it from happening.

In the last two years, I’ve been gratified each day that the hypothesis has held true- The Hacker News community has grown to more than 15 times it’s original size, but still maintains a feel of community gathering together, rather than a “News Aggregator” or other stale and interchangeable collection of links.

This feel, and the community that create it are what make the site so wonderful, and what have driven the increase in readers- But I worry that as the site continues to grow and prosper, this feel is being be further chipped away, little by little. The sense of community is slowly being lost to the pseudonymity that permeates and defines so many discussions.

Hacker News is in an interesting position.. It was created as a place for community discussions, and as a programming exercise, and as such doesn’t have the same need to compete for raw readership that other, commercial sites find so necessary.

If the success of Hacker News is instead is defined by strength of community, then the embrace of physical identity may be the best path to sustainable and meaningful growth.

Colin Davis

References:
http://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=518978
http://ycombinator.com/announcingnews.html
http://www.paulgraham.com/identity.html
http://ycombinator.com/newswelcome.html
http://www.google.com/support/a/bin/answer.py?hl=en&answer=60216
http://www.alistapart.com/articles/identitymatters