Can a human touch make Silicon Valley's biggest discussion forum a more thoughtful place?
[...] At first, the site attracted about sixteen hundred daily visitors, and [venture capitalist Paul] Graham moderated and maintained it himself. Today, around five million people read Hacker News each month, and it's grown more difficult to moderate. The technical discussions remain varied and can be insightful. But social, cultural, and political conversations, which, despite the guidelines, have proliferated, tend to devolve. A recent comment thread about a Times article [nytimes.com], "YouTube to Remove Thousands of Videos Pushing Extreme Views," yielded a response likening journalism and propaganda; a muddled juxtaposition of pornography and Holocaust denial; a vague side conversation about the average I.Q. of Hacker News commenters; and confused analogies between white supremacists and Black Lives Matter activists. In April, when a story [bbc.com] about Katie Bouman, an M.I.T. researcher who helped develop a technology that captured the first photo of a black hole, rose to the front page, users combed through her code on GitHub in an effort to undermine the weight of her contributions.
[...] Picturing the moderators responsible for steering conversation on Hacker News, I imagined a team of men who proudly self-identify as neoliberals and are active in the effective-altruism movement. (I assumed they'd be white men; it never occurred to me that women, or people of color, could be behind the site.) Meeting them, I feared, would be like participating in a live-action comment thread about the merits of Amazon Web Services or whether women should be referred to as "females." "Debate us!" I imagined them saying, in unison, from their Aeron chairs.
The site's real-life moderators are Daniel Gackle and Scott Bell, two wildly polite old friends. On Facebook and YouTube [newyorker.com], moderation is often done reactively and anonymously, by teams of overworked contractors; on Reddit [newyorker.com], teams of employees purge whole user communities like surgeons removing tumors. Gackle and Bell, by contrast, practice a personal, focussed, and slow approach to moderation, which they see as a conversational act. They treat their community like an encounter group or Esalen workshop; often, they correspond with individual Hacker News readers over e-mail, coaching and encouraging them in long, heartfelt exchanges.