Thursday, November 10, 2011

Why I Can't Rant About Hacker News As Much As I Used To

The other day I disappointed myself by writing about some bullshit I read on Hacker News. Then I disappointed Peter Cooper by tweeting that I had ranted about bullshit I read on Hacker News. Apparently Peter had hoped for a rant about BS on HN in general, and felt let down when he discovered a rant which only addressed what was, in perspective, only one tiny sliver out of the vast range of available bullshit on Hacker News to rant about.

My heart goes out to Peter. The disappointment was undoubtedly shattering. I imagine it must have been like being invited to tour the universe and seeing only one single meteor. So I would truly be thrilled if I could now present a gigantic, frothing rant about all the inanity and uselessness on Hacker News, but I can't. I just don't have it in me.

Today I saw an artwork on eBay. I own a version of this artwork, and the asking price was $30,000. I checked into it and saw it had sold at auction at Christie's of London for £16,000, and I became very excited until I realized that the artwork on auction, both at Christie's and on eBay, was actually a much rarer edition of the artwork I own, which meant that the artwork I actually own is not worth $30,000, and probably not even close to it. However, I take it as a good sign for my art investment skills, especially since I had a similar experience a couple years ago, when a piece I had nearly bought for $350 five years earlier reached a going price of $18,000.

Why is this relevant? Because if I had bought the rarer edition of the artwork I saw today, or the $350 piece back when it was $350, I would have seen an absolutely incredible profit, better percentage-wise than most Y Combinator companies; and buying art is frankly a more interesting way to earn that profit than what most Y Combinator companies do; and nothing on Hacker News would have taught me a thing about it.

In 2010 I launched a bunch of mini-business experiments, mostly for the hell of it, and rapidly became an independent entrepreneur. Although these businesses later faltered, and I had to return to coding for hire, all that horseshit on Hacker News about how incredibly difficult it is to launch a successful business proved utterly false. In fact, the only reason my businesses petered out is that they were so absurdly easy that I got cocky, and bored, and went off to a California doctor to get a medical marijuana card. Then I lost track of time, and then I was like, "oh crap, I guess I have to work again."

The lesson here: a good content business will succeed unless you get stoned and stay stoned for weeks. Did you need Hacker News to figure that out? I admit to feeling like a complete idiot about it, but it wouldn't get any upvotes, and it wouldn't prompt any comments, because it's obvious as fuck.

Another thing which is obvious as fuck is that there are a lot of ways to make money on the Internet that don't require struggling, or being nervous, or pitching to venture capitalists, or hoping that Paul Graham will like you enough to give you some money, or even learning anything new or cutting-edge or otherwise geek-glamorous. Like any other magazine, there's a whole identity that Hacker News caters to and indeed sells. Hacker News, and the majority of its audience, is more concerned with defining, reinforcing, and most of all selling that identity than it is with any topic which is actually relevant to entrepreneurs on the Internet.

Consider the recent debate about swearing, which I am embarrassed to admit I weighed in on. This is basically GQ for Silicon Valley; let's have a lengthy discussion on etiquette in the greater tech community. It reminds me of a scene in the terrific, lunatic action comic Cowboy Ninja Viking, where the title character -- who suffers from an unusually badass case of multiple personality disorder -- asks a friend for a favor, offering his undying gratitude in return, and his friend asks, in reference to said aforementioned undying gratitude: "Can I fuck that?" and then asks for a girl's phone number instead.

You can't have sexual intercourse with an abstract concept, and in the same way, nobody's ever going to make a fucking penny arguing over whether or not some dude swears too much, too little, or just the right amount, like Goldilocks And The Three Fucking Bears, because there's no money there. It's just horseshit. It has no useful purpose at all -- unless you're in need of an identity, and you want to buy what Hacker News is selling. In that case, you might want to read about etiquette, just like you would in GQ or Esquire or Cosmofuckingpolitan. "How should I talk? What clothes should I wear?"

But even then, it's a stretch, because the person who raised the issue, Scott Hanselman, is a guy who works for a huge corporation, has a conventional-minded cubicle farm audience, promotes languages which are mediocre at best, and has fuck all to do with entrepreneurship, startups, or cutting-edge technology. If Hacker News were about what Hacker News claims to be about, Scott Fucking Hanselman would never even read it. He wouldn't even know it exists.

The identity Hacker News sells is at best only relevant to part of my life, because I'm also an actor and a musician. My dream in terms of acting technique is to be able to treat identity like a set of clothes. I'm also a pretty damn well-trained hypnotist, and from time to time I even think of starting up a hypnosis business. This is relevant A) because the hypnotist perspective on identity is that identity is a construct you can rebuild at any time and B) because it's a completely valid alternate route to financial independence. Because I believe in doing my homework, I've read The Millionaire Next Door, and I know that all of the material goals of the VC startup entrepreneur can be reached much more reliably owning a simple, conventional business. I've also read Dan Kennedy, so I know how to launch an information business from scratch.

So Hacker News is only useful for me insofar as it gives me useful information about new technology and building a business, but I can only use it as a source of information on either of those topics with the help of serious automated filtering. My Hacker Newspaper mashup is much faster and more legible than the real HN site. It obscures HN's frequently inane comment threads, automatically shitcans any and all links to TechCrunch or Zed Shaw, and prioritizes links typographically, which makes it a nice power tool for highly opinionated scanning. I also use dotjs for a secondary level of legibility fixes for the rare occasions when I do read a Hacker News comment thread. Even with all that customization, Hacker News really makes me work for the very few, very rare fantastic reads that it does occasionally yield up.

I get much, much better tech news from Twitter, and as for entrepreneurial info, Hacker News is about making money and being an entrepreneur in the same way that Ayn Rand's novels are about making money and being an entrepreneur -- in the sense that they both use that outward subject matter to launch almost entirely unrelated discussions. Nobody who plans to build a real business with real profit potential ever needs to give a fuck at any point in their lives, ever, about whether Google is going to win its "war" with Facebook, or vice versa, or Apple's "war" with Android, or whichever other imaginary game of "my dad could beat up your dad" these idiots happen to be playing on any particular day. You have to be pretty blind to psychology not to see what's going on with all these very young guys on Hacker News. They're fresh out of college -- a few of them are still in high school -- and they want VC funding and Paul Graham's attention because they think success is all about winning the approval of an older male mentor who's got more wealth and prestige.

It's for boys, not men.

And I can't rant about the signal/noise ratio, either, because the signal/noise ratio problem for Hacker News, Digg, Reddit, etc., is in my very firm opinion a solved problem of behavioral economics. The answer is simple: those sites will always decay and inevitably suck. The "karma" economies they create systematically grant upvote "wealth" to people who do nothing but waste time on those sites, and the non-competitive nature of these "karma" economics means that there is no way to leverage wisdom-of-crowd effects, which means that you get groupthink instead. Hacker News is guaranteed to suck ass in the same way that computer hardware performance is guaranteed to continue improving, and for the same fundamental reasons. If you don't understand my argument that sites based on "karma" economies are doomed to signal/noise ratio degradation, then you need to read James Surowiecki and Dan Ariely and then click that giant link I just made of almost the entire preceding paragraph.

I suppose I have managed to get some good ranting in after all, but the only real problem with Hacker News is my habit of reading it. I could in fact solve that problem for myself entirely just by killing my mashup -- I just can't handle the site without it -- but I get periodic tweets and emails from people who use it too, so I'm kind of proud of it, and it's nice to have users who like what you've built.

I know that it's much, much easier to replace a habit than to break it, so I put some work into building a Twitter Newspaper to replace Hacker Newspaper for myself, but I dropped the project because I got bored of it. I may return to that project, but I can't guarantee it. Hacker News is still useful enough for now, and I've got a bunch of other things I want to do.