Saturday, March 22, 2014

Unintended Consequences

Paul Graham recently decided to change the way comments work on Hacker News, a popular and influential link aggregator website used by programmers and other techies.  Getting to the "top of Hacker News" is a big accomplishment in tech circles; I even hear people in my lab talking about it.

The change means that by default, comments are not shown on the website, and instead multiple users with a high enough karma must endorse a comment before it becomes visible.  Users seem to receive karma by posting and commenting things that get upvoted (I don't know the details).

I believe the users of Hacker News are mostly male.  I hypothesize that users with karma greater than the endorsement threshold skews even more male; I wonder if the percentage of women in that group is even over 1%.  If my hypothesis is correct, an interesting consequence of this policy change is that a woman's comment cannot appear on Hacker News without a man endorsing the comment.

How does that sit with you?  

I haven't even stated any opinions yet; I just pointed out a result if my hypothesis is true.  You might think that statement is fine; I find it troubling because it means that it's possible some users' voices and opinions won't get heard on a site that is influential and important, perhaps because the majority finds them controversial.  It also just feels wrong.

Sometimes criteria that appear to be based on "merit" have troubling consequences.  We should encourage people and companies to think deeply about unintended, potentially troubling consequences of their actions.

Disclaimer: My PhD advisor also runs Hacker News.