I don't want followers, I want a community

Social media is usually anything but social. They're focused on the wrong metric.

There was a thread the other day on the Orange 'Hacker' Site1 asking why the site hated humor2. The thread went almost exactly nowhere, and the gist of the replies was summed up in the top comment.

"HN doesn't 'hate humor.' It just is picky about its humor.

HN hates lazy comments.

HN hates ugly comments and a lot of humor is both lazy and ugly.

HN intentionally and consciously seeks to keep the signal-to-noise ratio high. Humor tends to harm the signal-to-noise ratio, which further fuels HN pickiness about what kind of humor is acceptable here.

Humor on the internet is inherently challenging because it often relies on voice tone, body language and other cues to signal 'This is a joke.' On the internet, memes substitute imagery in a way that helps provide visual cues and the formatting here doesn't support communicating in that style, which makes humor even more challenging on HN.

If you are looking for light-hearted snark for some reason, HN is really not the place for that. There are plenty of places to find that and that's just not the purpose of this site." --Hacker News user DoreenMichele

This is not an attack on DoreenMichele3, but the post made me realize why I can't get into Hacker News and, by extension, most of the other places where tech-people congregate. The site's community is impenetrable to me. I've tried to get involved in the discussions, but nothing ever really clicked. And to explain why this comment crystallized things for me, I want to go back to the 1990s.

In the 1990s, the sites that people interested in technology and computers seemed to be Slashdot and Segfault4. For me, finding these sites didn't actually seem like anything special. They were both sites where people gathered to keep up on the Tech News of the Day™. Segfault was more playful, interspersing obviously-fake news stories that attempted to be humorous5, and on Slashdot the articles were more buttoned-down, but the comment section evolved into its own community with in-jokes, memes, and references that you could expect to see showing up in just about every discussion6, and the editors occasionally got in on the fun (like the CowboyNeal option showing up in nearly every poll).

I didn't think this was all that unusual because the people on these sites acted in ways that I did when I was around my friends, which made the sites feel like a gathering of friends I hadn't met yet. Slashdot, in particular, emphasized the authors of the content. Every comment looks similar to an email, showing the topic of the post, who posted it, its moderated score, and a permalink to it. Eventually functions were added where you could more easily identifyu people who regularly posted things you liked. You could highlight them in the comment threads and add them to a 'friends' list, for example.

This worked and Slashdot wasn't a destination I went to because I wanted to hear what crazy shenanigans CmdrTaco was up to that day7, it was a site I went to because I wanted to virtually hang out with people and have fun discussing the day's tech news.

And that's not to say that nobody could be serious when it was time to. Not every story had comment threads that were a laugh riot (most of them that had any humor got a smile or a chuckle at most), and then things turned serious, comments usually reflected that.

I stopped going to Slashdot regularly after enough owner changes happened that the editors in charge of the site no longer know what they have and have squandered what made the site interesting in the first place8. I randomized my password and looked for some other community that I could join where there were other people interested in tech and having a good time talking about it. The Orange Site, Hacker News, seemed to be the spiritual successor to Slashdot9, so I checked it out.

Superficially, the sites seem similar. They both are powered by submissions from their users, the users generate discussions around the subject. There are points to be gamed for being a good commenter, but that's about where the similarities end.

Hacker News has a lot of users, probably (it's hard to tell because there's no overt way of seeing how many users are registered. with Slashdot you had visible user IDs that could give you a rough estimate about how many people had registered for accounts), but I'd say that it doesn't really have a community. The stories are submitted by the readers, but there's no summary to tell you why you might want to visit it, just a title. There are no good ways to follow or tag or even notice users that you might want to emphasize for some reason (whether you see that they submit a lot of interesting stories, post a lot of insightful comments, you just like them, or whatever reason you want), in fact, usernames on Hacker News are deemphasized so much by being in a desaturated color that my eye generally skips over them completely. They may as well have been written anonymously. There are no subjects for comments (which aren't strictly necessary, I'll admit), and so on. Having fun is not on the menu, and the Hacker News'guidelines'IA reinforce this.

What to Submit
On-Topic: Anything that good hackers would find interesting. That includes more than hacking and startups. If you had to reduce it to a sentence, the answer might be: anything that gratifies one's intellectual curiosity.

Off-Topic: Most stories about politics, or crime, or sports, unless they're evidence of some interesting new phenomenon. Videos of pratfalls or disasters, or cute animal pictures. If they'd cover it on TV news, it's probably off-topic.

Between these guidelines and the comments in the 'Why does Hacker News hate humor' thread, the whole site comes off as snooty. My interpretation, "Yes, you can have fun here, only if it's done via pre-approved methods and isn't simply fun for fun's sake. That's intellectually lazy and we want to make sure that we maintain a high bar of intellectual stimulation. Any attempts at humor have to meet our standards or you will be penalized.'

Oh, please. Get over yourself.

Yes, Hacker News is allowed to do what they want on their own site. That's fine. But they've built a site that is sterile and lifeless. It's about as fun as reading the dictionary10,11. I've had an account there since 2016 and I rarely post anything because the site is so dull. There's no good way to follow comment threads I'm interested in or participating in, for example. And individual user accounts are so deemphesized that I couldn't tell you the names of five other users on the site if you offered me a million dollars to do it.

"Social media!", I hear you cry, "That solves all the problems that you're whining about!" Well, no, it doesn't.

Putting aside all of the creepy profiling and behavior gamification that social media platforms engage in, there are a lot of things that social media does wrong. Or wrong enough that using it doesn't feel like I'm part of a community.

For example, there are too many people on the platform that there's very little reciprocity. If I follow a user that has 5 million followers, I can pretend to interact with that person, but odds are that they're never going to see what I have to say. If a person with a million followers posts something that generates ten thousand replies, how many of those could someone reasonably expect to be read? Sites like Twitter are a crappy game where users are encouraged to say things that will drive up engagements on their posts so that will get them more followers to listen to what they have to say, but the more followers someone has, the less engaged they can be with their followers. And the one with the most followers wins? I guess?

This happens on sites like YouTube, too. "Anyone can be a creator!" they'll tell you. And technicially, this is true. Certain creators will bubble to the top of the algorithm, and others will languish (YouTube is notoriously fickle). You can subscribe to the creators that you like, but you can't interact with them in any meaningful way (yes, I know that the videos have comment sections, but very few creators that I've seen bother to check their own comment sections more than a few hours after a video goes live, and the biggest creators don't seem to interact with their subscribers at all). This ostensibly bifurcates the userbase into roughly two 'communities': the users that make the platform a lot of money (the creators), and everyone else, and never the twain shall meet. In fact, the 'everyone else' community is scarcely a community at all. It's a billion micro-communities that coalesce when someone posts a new video, and then dissipate after a few hours or a few days. There's no permanence.

And those micro-communities that coalesce on YouTube videos also form on the Promoted Tweet or the throwaway item on a news aggregator that, and its members might interact with each other purely by accident, since they're all commenting on the same morsel of content but they never actually interact with each other in any meaningful way. No connections are established, no real community is formed.

And that's the real tragedy of social media. That it's only 'social' on the most superficial of levels, but most of its users have bought into the lie. It's possible to make connections on social media sites, but it's the exception, and it's exceptionally difficult. All you can really hope for is the facade of community by making your numbers go up. That's why I don't want 'followers'. 'Followers' has connotations of being a one-way street where I set the conversation for the microcosm of people that have decided to follow my posts. It should be more of a web of connections where the group interacts in sometimes unpredictable ways. Not a fiefdom.

And, yes, I know that there are still some forums out there and there are still some real communities hanging out on various IRC networks, and there are still some Usenet die-hards who are carrying on. But it's absolutely insane to me that these tools that enabled communities to form have been so completely usurped by platforms that are worse in nearly every conceivable way. That so many people have thrown away the opportunity, or were never aware that they had the opportunity given to them via having a world-wide network of interconnected communication devices installed in homes and businesses and now in millions of persons' pockets, to actually talk to other people that they'd never have the ability to do so otherwise instead of talking at them. They've apparently chosen to have superficial one-sided non-relationships.

That needs to change. I've tried to create small communities around my interests, but it never seems to work out. It's possible that the Social Media Pull™ is just too strong. It may be because smartphones seem to be the default way that People These Days™ use the World Wide Web and they aren't really designed for content creation, just consumption. It could be that I'm a lousy persuader.

I don't know that I want to try to be the steward of a new community or if I should just join one of the few communities that still exist and complain about how communites are all but gone, or if I want to spearhead an effort that may not go anywhere in my little corner of the Internet. But I do know that sitting here doing nothing hasn't worked so far, so maybe it's worth trying something else.


  1. You know the one
  2. "Why does HN Hate Humor?IA
  3. I'm sure that DoreenMichele is a perfectly fine person: kind, respectful, generous, and always uses left and right turn indicators.
  4. Segfault's server croaked and didn't have good backups, so all we have left is some Internet Archive snapshots
  5. They were not always successful
  6. Yes, some of them persisted well beyond their shelf-life.
  7. Which seems to mostly be making pens
  8. I'm trying very hard to not go into Old Man Yells At Cloud territory here.
  9. At least, it came up enough while I was looking at other things that it seemed like a spiritual successor, but it turns out that that's not really the case.
  10. I was going to say 'reading a phone book' here, but:
    1. Phone books are dying out, most people today either have never used a phone book and wouldn't get the reference and
    2. The Yellow Pages used to be filled with advertisements and was actually fun for Little Kid Me™ to look through late at night when I was supposed to be sleeping
  11. Okay, yes, I used to have a pocket dictionary that I kept in the car to read on long trips when I was a young 'un. But you get my point, surely.

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