I’ve been reading the reddit clone site, Hacker News from ycombinator more lately. It’s got a nice combination of alpha geek tech and small / agile startup topics. While i like the political news on reddit, honestly it’s stopped being very topical for me… to much taken over by link spammers i think who are gaming the system for traffic. The subsites like ruby.reddit.com are still a great source of traffic.
What has surprised me is that Hacker News seems to have found me about the same time i found it. When i went to go do a post i thought might be relevant to the community, about moving email from using smtp to xmpp, i posted it on hacker news. Only after did i discover that somebody had already posted a link to it.
Then yesterday i did wrote another blog post, this time about leaving yahoo brickhouse, and again over half the traffic came from another link posted to hacker news. So what’s going on here? Well first the community of folks has shifted. It’s previous semi-private places have been lost and new places created.
For me long ago i read slashdot, then kuro5hin, then my delicious network, then , then Hacker News. There were others in there too, i get lots of links from reading topical blogs like rubyinside, activist news from indymedia, etc…
The shift of online communities resembles urban development and the gentrification of many hip neighborhoods. The artists and hackers move in first, they are in development parlance, risk tolerant. For urban neighborhoods that means they’ll deal with crime if they can get cool warehouses to take over. Then slowly the neighborhood transforms, and gets some nice cafes and clubs, gets known as the place where the hip kids play, and more people come. Rent gets driven up, the crowds come, it becomes to crowded, and the hipsters have to move on. Just replace hipsters with alpha geeks and you get the same process.
We are creating virtual communities and then by our very own actions gentrifying them!
So why do i like the small sites, not just hacker news, but dzone, rubyflow and a bunch of others? Well for one because they work well for me. I can submit a link, or in the case of hacker news, somebody else in the community links to my stuff, and then i get traffic. A lot of traffic really, I can get 7 votes, but that translates in to 300 to 3000 visits to the article. It’s much harder to get on the front page of reddit, or dare say digg where the true unwashed masses of tech news junkies hang out these days. It’s even harder to get on top of yahoo buzz, where a few hours on the top page can lead to millions of page views.
Are we doomed to keep creating these communities, enjoying them for a while, then having to abandon them and move on? When i helped start indymedia.org back in 1999, we thought open publishing, the ability to put on the internet your own articles, videos, pictures about news was revolutionary. It was a big deal, this was before you could just create a blogspot or wordpress site. Our enemy was CNN the site which only showed you the news they wanted… But today cnn has Unedited. Unfiltered. News. iReport.com which is pretty damned similar to what we were doing with indymedia. Then then take some of the news created on ireport and integrate it to cnn.com’s site and use it in the news. The BBC does something similar.
The point is, we won. We took an idea, which said that the masses should be able to make their own media, and we did it as an example and eventually the people we were fighting against started copying us. No we didn’t win all of what we wanted, we had a political agenda which we able to advance here and there, we stopped the WTO round, ended the FTAA (free trade area of the americas), but in may ways we won.
So what does that mean to online communities, generating and finding news? Well first off it turns out that we, the broader hacker community is doing a good job at coming up with models which change the world. From blogs to wikis to link voting and collaborative editing, we’re coming up with ideas which other people are copying. Or sometimes the hacker community’s tools become mainstream. But we also face the reality that there is a tremendous value in influencing what gets seen.
If you can make a website which gets a lot of traffic, there is money to be made there. That’s the attraction of the SEO / SEM world. They’re not respected by true hackers, but they are huge, and they come in and destroy communities like reddit.
One option is we just keep moving, which is what we’ve been doing. From slashdot to kuro5hin, from digg to reddit from reddit to hacker news.. The other option is we try and build in to our systems anti-SEO / SEM protections. Find ways to use emergent behavior to find real and relevant content without having it be gameable. Twitter stopped spammers by using tinyurl for all links… Delicious did it by making it so my network is people i choose. The link voting sites will have a hard time. Perhaps we’ll just switch sites every 6 months to a year, but there’s got to be a better way.