We should've stopped--but let's keep going and see what happens.

HN/Lobsters: Good News, Bad News, How to Win Big (Part 1)

In this post, I’m going to talk about good and bad behaviors one can use to gain karma on sites like HN or Lobsters.

Most of the behaviors for these websites involve getting more karma. For those unfamiliar, karma/internet dollars/Paul Graham Funbucks is a system whereby a signed integer is incremented and decremented at the whims of the community. This integer is then used to rank comments, rank submitted stories, and generally provide access to the rarefied atmosphere of the Top Posters Club.

Why would we do this?

In the case of HN, I think it’s worth pointing out the flaws in the system so people don’t run the risk of losing actual money or getting screwed during their applications to YC (which requires your username on HN). Similarly, while I used to joke about Paul Graham funbucks (HN karma), the fact is that with the rise of “Apply HN” there are even more reasons to take a critical look at the rules and rewards of the site.

In the case of Lobsters, it’s been a damned fine community and it probably has at least another year or so before culture rot sets in. We’ve already had a couple of incursions, but we’ll see. For that community, I mean this to be a sort of “Hey, watch out, there can be problems with certain things we’ve flirted with normalizing”.

Okay, who’s this for?

My primary audience for this article are the moderators, sysops, and owners of these (and similar) communities. With any luck, the discussions of the mechanisms used in sites like Hacker News and Lobsters here will be useful for future community development.

My secondary audience for this article is fellow posters. I am going to try and explain how to best accrue karma on your aggregator of choice. You may already know one or all of these techniques, but I figure there’s a chance you’ll learn something or that you may find a way of improving on what I’ve documented here. More importantly, this series should help you develop a sense for how the system can be gamed and how to spot other posters doing so. Note that, if you decide to use the techniques in the next “Bad News” post, you are part of the problem. Please, follow the good parts here, and avoid the bad parts.

In this series I’ll be using a mental model of those two communities and their subject matter as well as occasionally illustrating examples with users or events. I neither condemn nor endorse any of the users or stories mentioned, bringing them up solely to provide context. Much of my discussion assumes that I have an accurate picture of what the communities care about; this may not be the case at all, but I have to start somewhere.

This post may not apply at all into other communities. Reddit, despite having a superficially similar karma mechanism, has very different moderation and other factors that prevent these writings from mapping over automatically.

The Good News

The good news is that most of the behaviors that are good for karma are good for the community:

  • Submitting interesting stories

  • Making insightful comments

  • Asking useful questions

  • Being polite to other posters

Interesting stories

Submitting interesting stories is the best low-volume way to get karma. After an initial burst of upvotes, a story tends to get a long-tail of karma over time. If your comments are only averaging, say, 2-3 points each, submitting stories is a better investment.

In a system like HN or Lobsters, stories that are off-topic or bad tend to get flagkilled by the hiveminds (communities of posters) or nuked/removed by the admins. So, they tend to have a limited amount of harm they can do to your karma (unless you egregiously screw up, but if you submit links to Stormfront or something you should expect that kind of reaction). This is much safer than comments, which can be continually downvoted and drain karma.

Insightful comments

Making insightful comments is the next best way to get karma. If you politely reason through a post and make an effort to stay on-topic or share relevant experiences then you will have a successful posting career. Somebody posting their own stories about a startup, being on a development team, or whatever else will almost always get karma because they’ve added to the conversation.

One has to be careful: the hivemind may well disagree with a clearly-reasoned comment regardless of politeness if it goes against the grain. HN has gotten particularly bad about this in the last couple of years, while Lobsters still seems to reward civility. Things likely to trigger the hivemind:

  • Rehashing a common sentiment frequently in post (as, say, michaelochurch does talking about their views on the startup ecosystem)

  • Being overly verbose or meandering (as, say, I do from time to time)

  • Being overly critical without padding with friendly reassurance

  • Defending American conservative positions (on HN, sometimes on Lobsters) without sources

  • Defending American socialist positions (HN and Lobsters, especially regarding Labor organization of devs)

  • Defending superficially abhorrent claims (anything involving, say, Moldbug) without sources

  • Attacking any sort of minority (deservedly or not) especially without really solid sources

  • Discussing the mokitas (purposefully-ignored truths) of the ecosystem

  • Posting in a way that gives the industry a bad name (almost everyone de facto agrees that exploiting users is okay, but don’t ever mention that on HN)

(Aside: I really should do a post on the mokitas of these communities.)

Useful questions

Asking useful questions is another great way to gain karma. If you ask for clarification in a discussion thread, it is very difficult to antagonize anybody else (unless you’re trying). Additionally, people will often upvote you in appreciation for the additional insights you were able to coax out. In general, questions tend to increase the value of the discussions for everyone and are just a really good idea.

I’ve found that asking for specific experiences or techniques does better than asking broad questions, unless you are willing to “prime” the responses a little bit by explaining the sort of answer you’re looking for. For an example:

How do you feel about your job?

The above can be vastly improved with a little context:

How do you feel about your job (at Bobco)? Like, what managerial stuff bothers you?

This sets the stage a bit better and helps a prospective answerer actually give the information you need. More specific information gives better discussion, and better discussion gives better karma.

Being polite

Being polite to other users is perhaps the least-profitable way of making karma. It does, however, prevent the loss of karma. Karma lost is basically karma you’ll have to earn back later, and when you are impolite people tend to downvote you far in excess of what you would’ve deserved had you merely been wrong.

Being polite doesn’t mean agreeing. Being polite doesn’t mean being respectful. Being polite doesn’t even mean being nice. Those are all things that are come after, but if you can’t be polite you won’t even get that far.

So, here are some of the ways I’ve found to be polite (without accidentally being any of those other things):

  • Always use the first-person plural (“we”) instead of the second-person anything. This makes it seem like you are on the same side as the other person, and reminds both of you that whatever the current disagreement, you probably just need to clarify your positions. The use of “you” tends to read as overly divisive and aggressive. This habit can be misinterpreted, but overall it makes things nicer.

  • Use “one would” instead of “you would” for speculating on a general case. This prevents some very messy misunderstandings.

  • Never, ever, ever make an obvious personal attack. They are rhetorically difficult to defend, and they just piss people off. Similarly, never call other people names.

  • Always be aware what you are stating as fact and as opinion. “X is rubbish” is similar to name-calling, but “I find X to be rubbish” is a matter of opinion, and at least on Lobsters people pick up on that and make allowances.

  • Never project behaviors or motivations onto other people. “You are a misogynist” leaves one open to factual critique (“Then why did I donate to Feminist Frequency?”)—prefer clarification like “This thing you said appears misogynistic…is that what you meant?”. Doing so elevates the discussion, and makes you seem more thoughtful than you would if you just label things.

  • Assume good-faith when replying to others. If somebody says something really upsetting, seek clarification (as above) in hopes than understand their position better. It may turn out that they just had a typo; even if they double-down, asking clarification is tantamount to asking a question, which is the third best way to get karma!

  • Avoid summarization, prefer direct quotes. Especially in divisive areas, people tend to use biased summaries of what their perceived opponent is saying. So, use direct quotes to avoid things devolving into you and your opponent arguing about positions neither of you hold.

There are other ways to be polite, of course, but the above are some of the most common and troublesome things I’ve run into in my posting career.