Political Detox Week on Hacker News

A few days ago, Hacker News started a self-imposed "political detox week." The idea was "no politics on Hacker News."

I'll cite the argument in full:

Like everyone else, HN has been on a political binge lately. As an experiment, we're going to try something new and have a cleanse. Starting today, it's Political Detox Week on HN. For one week, political stories are off-topic. Please flag them. Please also flag political threads on non-political stories. For our part, we'll kill such stories and threads when we see them. Then we'll watch together to see what happens.

Why? Political conflicts cause harm here. The values of Hacker News are intellectual curiosity and thoughtful conversation. Those things are lost when political emotions seize control. Our values are fragile—they're like plants that get forgotten, then trampled and scorched in combat. HN is a garden, politics is war by other means, and war and gardening don't mix.

Worse, these harsher patterns can spread through the rest of the culture, threatening the community as a whole. A detox week seems like a good way to strengthen the immune system and to see how HN functions under altered conditions.

Why don't we have some politics but discuss it in thoughtful ways? Well, that's exactly what the HN guidelines call for, but it's insufficient to stop people from flaming each other when political conflicts activate the primitive brain. Under such conditions, we become tribal creatures, not intellectually curious ones. We can't be both at the same time.

A community like HN deteriorates when new developments dilute or poison what it originally stood for. We don't want that to happen, so let's all get clear on what this site is for. What Hacker News is: a place for stories that gratify intellectual curiosity and civil, substantive comments. What it is not: a political, ideological, national, racial, or religious battlefield.

Have at this in the thread and if you have concerns we'll try to allay them. This really is an experiment; we don't have an opinion yet about longer-term changes. Our hope is that we can learn together by watching what happens when we try something new.

The most obvious problem with this idea is the classification of "political."

Which of these headlines qualify?

  • Trump elected President
  • Peter Thiel: Your Endorsement of Trump is Wrong for Tech
  • How to improve your startup's diversity
  • Study: Cognitive biases create problems for diversity efforts
  • How "Political Correctness" culture can make it more difficult to improve diversity
  • The problem with "Political Correctness" culture
  • Trump's new cabinet spells problems for software patent reform
  • Trump's new cabinet spells problems for Tesla
  • Trump's new cabinet spells problems for medical research
  • Fake news elected Donald Trump
  • Fake news is a real problem on Facebook
  • A machine learning approach to addressing fake news

These are just some examples of headlines that illustrate shades of grey about "political stories," and the underlying problem is that the definition of "apolitical topics" is itself political! Calling bitcoin a technical and not political topic allows status quo bias to masquerade as "politically neutral."

I have a number of problems with this experiment, but here's a second one:

it's insufficient to stop people from flaming each other when political conflicts activate the primitive brain. Under such conditions, we become tribal creatures, not intellectually curious ones. We can't be both at the same time.

As I said on Twitter, I really don't think that this problem is unique to the set of topics we collectively agree to call "political."

Threads about JavaScript libraries and frameworks, abstractions and "too much magic" are topics that I find important, and which trigger exactly the same tribal brain problem.

If you want to ban topics that have an unusually high degree of tribalness, why not "Angular 2 is Terrible" or "Why we're switching away from React"?

The real problem, in my view, is that Hacker News is a voting-based aggregation platform, which rewards bad comments.

Thomas Ptacek defended the politics ban by describing the kinds of problematic comments that political threads introduce. Among other things:

It takes way more effort to compose a careful, persuasive comment about political issues on HN than it does to compose a shrill, superficial, partisan appeal to one issue's pole or the other. The bad comments have a structural advantage.

My feeling is: this is not a characteristic of political threads; it's a characteristic of Hacker News.

(I had a good back and forth with Thomas about this on Twitter that you should read for more context)