How Hacker News and Social Editing has Jumped the Shark

How's that for a Malcolm Gladwell-style subtitle title?

Alex Payne posed a piece on why he thought that, basically Hacker News had jumped the shark. He's right, of course, but I think that his analysis of the root cause of the problem, and therefore the solution he proposes, is a bit too optimistic.

It seems to me that all of these socially edited link-based blogs where lots of people submit links and then the community votes on these stories to generate headlines and a filtered and sorted selection of content based on the appetites of the communities.

Hacker News tried, and succeeded for a time because the contributors (people who voted on, submitted, and commented on items) was small and focused enough that the content managed to coherent overall. There wasn't enough content to necessarily overwhelm, both the readers and the potential contributors, and most things were interesting to most people. It was a golden age.

I think the problem with this model of generating content is that the golden ages don't last very long. Sites "jump the shark" as the tightly focused content of the early, gives way to a more loose, less specialized, and more self-interested content submissions and selections. The factors that I think lead to this are:

  • There's too much content. Such sites should be "filters," and their fundamental service is to take the whole internet and tell readers "you should be reading this because we think it's interesting/important." As communities of editors grow, as the marketing power of filter sites increases, and if the "cost" of submitting a link remains constant, then the use of the filter breaks down and everyone gets overwhelmed.
  • There's not enough focus/responsibility on the part of the editors. When you have a few dedicated and professional editors, you begin to see consistency and perspective and approach in the content that is curated. When this function is distributed among a large group of community members: amazing things can happen but that's not a guarantee.
  • Community edited sites tend to become incredibly self interested after a certain point. There's a certain kind of story either about the community itself or that strikes submitters as being "about the kind of people that participate in the community, or "the kind of thing that people who read the site might like," rather than things that interest them. Perhaps some of this comes from the game-based dynamic of rating systems and karma, perhaps it's just a thing that happens.

In many ways, Trivium is probably the best example of a link filter blog. Alex Payne points to MetaFilter as an example of a site which has solved this problem, and although I have had a MeFi account for years, I've never been able to really get into it. Long story short, we still need editors and editorial vision, and the issues we're seeing isn't about the "focus" of a community, as much as it is a property of communities themselves.

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