Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Reddit & Hacker News: Be A Non-User User

When Ellen Pao was forced out of Reddit by a horde of angry misogynists, I deleted all my Reddit accounts. But I ended up going back to Reddit for its /r/synthesizers subreddit. I've been making music with synths my whole life, but last summer, I taught a class on it, so I wanted to do some extra research.

Soon after, I discovered /r/relationships, where so many people spend so much of their time talking young women out of relationships with older abusive men that the subreddit might as well be called /r/abusepreventionvolunteerstargetingaveryspecificageprofile (except for all I know that might exist too). They help abused men get out of danger, too, and you do see the occasional abusive relationship where both parties are roughly the same age, but for some reason, 9 times out of ten, it's a naive 23-year-old woman dating an abusive 37-year-old man. There's a colossal irony in this: a site which is famously overrun with misogynists also hosts a fantastic resource for abused women.

At first I read this subreddit as a guilty pleasure, thinking that nothing could be more hilarious than the type of idiot who looks to Reddit for relationship advice. But when I discovered this theme, I realized this subreddit was doing a good thing. It's a force for good in the world, or whatever.

So I read these subreddits occasionally, and others, without ever logging in. I can't log in, because I deleted my accounts, but I'm glad I did, because reading Reddit without logging in is much, much more pleasant than being a "user" of the site in the official sense. The same is true of Hacker News; I don't get a lot out of logging in and "participating" in the way that is officially expected and encouraged. Like most people who use Hacker News, I prefer to glance at the list of stories without logging in, briefly view one or two links, and then snark about it on Twitter.

Let's actually compare these use cases from the perspective of behavioral economics. The upvote/downvote dynamic is one which incentivizes groupthink and long conversations. So if you go on Reddit or Hacker News, you see groupthink and long conversations. Twitter's prone to hate mobs and abuse, but if you're just doing a brief bit of snark on there about some random link from Hacker News, you're probably experiencing Twitter's happy path, which encourages snippets of decontextualized wit. The decontextualization turns out to be incredibly important. Decontextualization is why snarking about Hacker News on Twitter is a better user experience for discussing Hacker News stories than logging into Hacker News.

On Hacker News, if you say something people hate, they can downvote it, and if you say something they like, they'll upvote it. When you see your own post, it's ranked in a hierarchy next to other stuff people said, which is also ranked in that same hierarchy. On Twitter, you can get retweeted or starred/heart-ed, but tweets kind of just float randomly through time. You can find out if people love your tweet or hate it, but you don't get direct comparison to other remarks on the same topic, which is great. That direct comparison is a terrible feature. On a site which incentivizes groupthink, if you're the top post, you're almost guaranteed not to have the best insight. Good insights don't survive groupthink.

If you do have the best insight, you can calculate the stupidity of the group as a whole by measuring how far your post is from the top. But it's rarely so linear. Usually, a Hacker News thread will have a ton of bullshit, plus some good insights here and there. The best insights are usually about midway through the hierarchy, or near the bottom half of the middle section, which says to me that the audience as a whole is more stupid than smart, but also often contains smart people.

Everything I'm saying about Hacker News is true for Reddit in theory as well. You can definitely see it on programming subreddits all the time. In fact, programming subreddits are even worse than Hacker News. But Reddit serves a much larger and more diverse audience, and some subreddits (as I mentioned above) do remarkably good things with it, despite its fundamental design flaws. The audience is an important factor; Lobsters gets a lot of mileage out of being nothing but an HN clone with less idiots.

Long story short, the best way to use these sites is to never log in. And if you're building social software, you should really think about this.

First, your sites don't exist in isolation. In the prehistoric epoch when Hacker News was created, there was this idea that sites were self-contained universes. Today we know that a lot of the people who talk to each other on Hacker News are talking to each other on Twitter as well. So you have to keep in mind that even when people want to talk about the stuff they find on your site, it's unrealistic to assume that your site would be the only place they'd go to talk about it. If they have to create a login, but they already have logins on several social networks, a person with a login is not just a "user," they are a user who, in addition to finding reasons to use the site, also and subsequently found a reason to log in.

Second, neither of these sites seems to acknowledge that using the sites without being a "user" is a use case which exists. In the terms of both sites, a "user" seems to be somebody who has a username and has logged in. But in my opinion, both of these sites are more useful if you're not a "user." So the use case where you're not a "user" is the optimal use case. Conceptual blind spots often birth silly paradoxes.