Leadership, community, and how I got Hacker News’s second-highest average karma

October 17, 2013 by Joshua
in Blog, Freedom

Leadership creates community. I’m writing today on leadership and creating community in a specific context for clarity, but it applies to anyone’s participation in any community, online or off. I expect you can translate everything below to your world easily enough. If not, comment below and I’ll clarify.

An effective measure of your leadership skills is how much community you create. Another is how much your community appreciates you. Online communities that track upvotes quickly tell you how your behavior influences them, which can help you improve your communications skills.

I don’t want to imply participating in one little online community is a big deal, but why miss an opportunity to learn and improve one’s communication and leadership skills with immediate feedback at no cost?

Hacker News

For those who don’t know, Hacker News is a community site mainly for tech entrepreneurial types connected to a well-known startup incubator. In this community, “hacker” means someone who enjoys exploring the limits of what is possible in a spirit of playful cleverness, not someone who breaks into other people’s computers. If you aren’t geeky, it may not appeal to you, but it appeals to an entrepreneur with advanced science degrees into free software and freedom like me.

As I write these words, my average karma per post is just over 35, two points below the top person on the site’s “leaders” page. That page only shows the top hundred total, not average, karma holders, which mine doesn’t reach, though nearing 2500 total karma, my high average karma isn’t a fluke. Properly I should say only one person of the top hundred total karma holders has a higher average karma than me. Or that barring selection effects, my average karma ranks in the site’s top 1%. Other users may have a higher average karma, but I don’t know how to find them.

I want to share how to get your karma high — that is, to build community by improving people’s lives enough that they want to show their appreciation.

When I told a friend who reads Hacker News I was going to post this, he suggested I not post how to game the system. On the contrary, I believe my practices improve the community and I think people there would appreciate my practices. Of course, many people don’t care about karma. I’m not suggesting anyone shouldn’t post for whatever reason they want. Everyone has their own values.

I think people following my advice would improve the site’s signal-to-noise ratio and lead people to enjoy participating in the community more. It might save them time too. Most of the guidelines also benefit me in keeping me from spending too much time on the site. I have other things to do so you’ll see I minimizes my time on the site, except when I care about an issue and want to influence people or learn from them.

If you read carefully, you’ll also see how my communication evolved, especially as I connected emotionally on some issues about six months ago — that is, as I started to care and pay attention to my results.

How to get others to appreciate your contributions

Use your real name for accountability. My user name is spodek and I post from that site to this and vice versa. That public accountability forces quality I will stand by.

Only write comments you think others will vote up. Creating community means helping other people, not promoting yourself. They vote, not you, so if you want their votes you have to write something they’ll appreciate. Usually for me that means thoughtful opinions. One comment with low value can ruin your average. My comments on the site from before six months ago include two years of low-karma posts. The community decided they didn’t add value and they still drag my average karma down.

These first two guidelines discourage sarcasm, insults, and such that decrease community and force you to think humbly from others’ perspectives and consider their values and emotions. You have to think of what would motivate them and how. You have to think about long-term value, not just your short-term feelings. This focus helps in any community.

Make it a game and enjoy it. I enjoy participating in that community by following a few links and reading a few threads a day, but that’s different than posting. I make posting for karma a game. I trust the site designers designed their karma system to promote behavior they want.

Wait for threads you can add value to. I only consider posting on threads where I can add significant value. That means I sacrifice posting funny remarks or criticizing others, which can add value, but not as much as I want. This piece of advice alone, I think would convince my friend worried about gaming the system that people following my advice will improve the site.

Care about a few issues enough to share an opinion that is forceful, knowledgeable, or both. I started getting high karma posts when I started posting about the NSA spying Edward Snowden’s evidence publicized. I care and write about leadership, responsibility, accountability, and freedom, which this issue covers intimately. I also care about the Constitution and the United States’ founding people and principles. I care about free software. And I care about acting on your beliefs, not just feeling outrage. This early thread on the topic “Edward Snowden: the whistleblower behind revelations of NSA surveillance” motivated me to overcome fear, and share that I did, stating “I don’t know about anybody else, but for the first time I can think of, I’m seriously concerned about the consequences of posting support for somebody like this online. I don’t know how things will play out years down the road and who will do what with this information“. I also linked to a project (Freedombox) and an organization (EFF) making a difference that I recommend people contribute to. That post took me a long time to write and forced me to think hard on what I felt comfortable sharing.

For another example, I put a lot of thought into commenting on Obama’s in my opinion power-grab undercutting freedom in “Obama wins back the right to indefinitely detain under NDAA“. My post related to things I care about — influence, motivation, and leadership. I later developed my thoughts from that comment here, in my post “Who is today’s King George III? Who are today’s patriots?

Sometimes take time to write something original, meaningful, and creative. One of my highest-rated comments broke many of the rules below, but I really enjoyed writing it — my comment criticizing David Brooks’s criticism of Edward Snowden. I cared about what I wrote and considered it serious writing to repost it here.

Only post on threads with a few comments. Once a thread has more than a few dozen comments, readers have covered the most important points. I can’t add much value. That’s not to say others can’t add value or nothing more should be said. Many people keep adding value and continue having low-level conversations in their posts, but I’m playing to add significant value.

Only post on threads up less than an hour. If it’s been there longer and doesn’t have many points or comments I figure it never will, meaning I won’t add much value, meaning I won’t get many points.

Comment before 9am NYC time. I have a feeling most of the Hacker News community lives in the U.S. and works something like 9-5. I also eat breakfast around 8am (after my morning burpees), so I think commenting then fits into my schedule and gives my comments a head-start on the community as people’s alarms go off from east to west.

Comment quickly. Threads that show up on the front page might only stay there for tens of minutes or, alternatively, might get tons of posts quickly, swamping your input. So I try to post fast. Also, you want your post to get to the top of a thread. Posting late risks getting swamped. This also keeps me from spending much time on the site. Go in, read, post or don’t post, get back to life.

Edit. The site lets you edit for two hours after posting. I use it to refine comments that I felt didn’t add enough value and to enable posting quickly. Sometimes I use the time to research. For example, a thread on Matt Damon criticizing the NSA reminded me of a great scene in Good Will Hunting where his character criticized the NSA. I found and posted a link to that scene as fast as I could to add value as fast as I could. Then I searched online for the script to add the dialog, adding more value. Here’s that thread.

Let others address questions and comments about your comments. This is one of my favorite parts about the Hacker News community. If someone has a question or complaint about one of my posts, I used to worry that addressing it would require a lower-level comment, which wouldn’t get many points, but not addressing it would make me look negligent. Then I realized that the community tends to answer people on their own. In fact, I find I learn a lot from those responses, often unexpectedly, fitting with the major life lesson that humility in not trying to run the show generally attracts community more than trying to do everything yourself.

Instead of posting inflammatory or knee-jerk opinions, ask questions to create dialog. Over and over, the NSA revelations and related activities seem to me moving the U.S. in the direction of a police state. Are we there? I don’t know any objective criteria to determine without time to look back. So to say we’re in a police state would misstate myself and look thoughtless. So when Lavabit shut down, I commented in the thread “Email service used by Snowden shuts down, warns against using US-based companies” a question about how to tell if we’ve crossed that threshold, along with a hopeful comment that we can act to protect ourselves.

Delete low-karma comments before two hours. The community didn’t value my input. My comment is lowering the signal-to-noise ratio of the site. From my perspective that comment is worsening the site, so I take it down.

Post about North Korea. Hacker News loves North Korea. I think my highest scoring post combined an issue important to me — the NSA spying — with North Korea in the thread “NSA Implementing ‘Two-Person’ Rule To Stop The Next Edward Snowden” where I could voice a thoughtful, forceful, meaningful opinion. That I’ve been to North Korea twice didn’t even factor in.

Very sparingly post on Richard Stallman. Stallman and his ideas evoke strong reactions. Most discussions rehash the some old stuff. Occasionally a moment arises when you can share something you anticipate the community will appreciate, for example in the thread “Richard Stallman Was Right All Along,” about a particularly egregious occurrence of one of his predictions. In this case I could also share something about myself and how long his ideas and achievements have influenced me.

What I don’t do

I don’t ask for people to upvote my comments, which there’s no point to. Higher karma doesn’t affect me except in my personal game. I don’t know that many other Hacker News readers in person.

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