Sites like Reddit and Hackernews allow people to vote stories up or down. Users collectively rank the values of user submissions and comments. The Hivemind. It can lead people to create and discovery great things, or just enjoy funny cat videos. These sites filter content through a combination of their moderators and the masses. With that filter comes bubbles, echo chambers and group think. Only the most commonly held opinions are given a voice. If you want to break free of orthodoxy privilege1, you need to change the way you use these websites, by reading comments from the bottom.
If you’re reading things on Hackernews, the very first thing you should try is turning on the option showdead in your preferences. This allows you to see comments that have been flagged or have been voted down below the viewing threshold.
There is a wealth of information found in views that are not widely held or considered controversial. Over the past few months, I’ve watched as more moderate or centrists views slowly get pushed to the bottom. Hackernews has a lot of influence from The Bay Area™ and Big Tech™2 flowing through its collective hivemind. The politics of a narrow patch of the country heavily influences the types of commentary that make their way up on their forum. At the very bottom are trolls, spam and throwaway accounts. Yet just above the garbage layer are controversial views that can be incredibly interesting, occasionally enraging, and always insightful.
The algorithms for post ranking are usually closely guarded trade secrets, in order to prevent spam and gaming the system. In 2020, a lot of Reddit users saw the culmination of a shift that had been building for several years. City subreddit sometimes hold a more balanced viewpoints from people in their local areas. Yet over the past several months, I’ve seen even local subreddts take strong ideological viewpoints and slowly vote any dissenting, or even borderline controversial, viewpoints to the bottoms of threads. I’ve also witnessed an increase of Reddit users criticizing others for their post history in other communities.
Despite the large amount of communities Reddit banned recently, there are still a number of moderates and conservatives posting on the platform. The platform is massive, and it has historically been a place where people on various sides of political or ideological spectrums could openly discuss opinions and ideas with one another. It was a great way to see radically different perspectives make arguments for their cases. The idea of voting things up or down was not intended to be a means of agreement on these platforms, but rather an indication of if the statement had any insightful merit.
It is difficult to find such content on Hackernews because the moderators try to keep the forum tech focused. COVID and political articles related to tech are often weighted, so they quickly disappear off the front page. Finding one of these articles can be rare gems of insight into the true diversity of opinion in the tech community, but only if you turn on show dead and always navigate to the bottom of the comments.
The up and down in these types of heated threads are no longer indicators of a sound argument. They are an indicator of the opinion being either orthodox or heterodox. Negative points sometimes have the most insightful and honest statements, but I’ve noticed more and more they are made by very young throwaway accounts. I even had someone e-mail me stating they were surprised I didn’t publish posts on this website anonymously. It wasn’t long until I understood why.
Banned on Hackernews
Since I started drafting this post, I received this comment indicating I was banned on HackerNews.
I didn’t get an e-mail sent to me. Had I not checked my comments, I wouldn’t have seen this ban. My account doesn’t seem to have changed. I left a comment that didn’t show up in a private browser session at first (indicating a shadow ban), but which seemed to show up, and get an up vote, later. I’m not quite sure what’s going on. Are my posts immediately flagged to go through a verification process?
Anyone can look back through my post history for themselves. Some of it may get heated, but I didn’t feel like I said anything truly harsh or outrageous. I’ve been a long time user of Hackernews, with tons of submissions and comments that faired fairly well and contributed to the conversation. Yet in light of this weird comment and ban, I do realize I spent way too much time on this forum and have been trapped in its addictive nature. Although I’ve found tons of great projects on it, maybe it’s time I move on from their addictive feedback machine.
The trouble with crushing opinions you feel are wrong on these platforms is that eventually, people with different views just stop using them. When you see a -40 on a post on Reddit at the bottom of a thread, that meant it was below the default viewing threshold. Users went specifically down to the bottom, expanded the hidden post, and gave it another down vote. The fact these comments exist show that at least some people with heterodox viewpoints haven’t given up, but all the people who may have supported them have long since moved elsewhere.
The New Order
I’ve been using Reddit less and less over the years. I was immediately wary when their warrant canary was removed in 2016. I was disgusted with the company when their CEO was caught editing a user’s comments later that same year. I’ve voiced my concerns over corporate censorship, which people are now cheering and hailing as a virtue rather than a challenge to our basic freedom of thought.
I’ve tried to catch political posts on HackerNews when I can because they have the most controversial contents and are incredibly interesting. There are many in tech around the world who do not share the same ideology and political viewpoints of those in major hubs like The Bay Area. I guess my comments became more frequent in a desperate attempt to not be drowned out by people who I increasingly felt did not represent the population.
I understand now why people were posting their heterodox opinions with throwaway accounts. Although political topics are often not allowed and flagged on Hackernews, the admins have made exceptions for topics they deem important. I feel I had to say something in such threads because I was tired of my viewpoint being silenced. I have always been independent, and the last time I participated in a general election, I wrote in a ticket for Mike Gravel and Ron Paul.
It’s easy to dismiss the number of throwaway accounts found at the bottom of controversial thread on Hackernews as simply being trolls or right-wing infiltrators. But there is another more disheartening possibility: these throwaway accounts are also from people in big tech who feel they need to speak out, but are afraid of losing their jobs. I have no idea if I’m actually banned as the above comment suggest. I do think I understand the message though: your views are not welcome here.