This morning, HN user sw007 reached out the community to explain why he/she hates Hacker News. sw007 is not the first to notice the vile demeanor of the site but it was his/her post that got me thinking about how to improve the community I love.
I hope these suggestions might inspire the community leaders to consider how small changes to the site can inspire larger social changes in the HN community. But I don't mean to second-guess PG, the mods or anyone who might know better than me.
What doesn't matter
I've read many threads lamenting the state of Hacker News. Inevitably a few suggestions come up that I don't think are all that effective.
Complaints of "too much startups, not enough tech" or vice-versa:
The modern startup founder is a Renaissance Man (or Woman!). They must know new technologies to give themselves a competitive advantage. They must know how to sell their product. And a good founder is aware of current events and humanistic stories, so they can capitalize on changes in society and also empathize with people outside of the Valley bubble. The variety of content on HN fits this ideal very well.
Tuning the ranking algorithm may be helpful but only PG knows how best to tweak it. It would be presumptuous of me to suggest "improvements" to an algorithm I know nothing about. Moreover, the problems HN faces are inherently social problems. I think these are best solved by improving the culture and demeanor of the site rather than introducing mysterious formulas.
Instead, here is what I think would benefit the community the most:
Distinguish veteran users
It would be incredibly shocking to see a vitriolic HN comment coming from community leaders like tptacek or patio11. They have worked for years to bolster their reputation and wouldn't dare lose that respect by snapping at a lackluster "Show HN" post.
While not all of us can spend the time to become an HN celebrity, there are many of us who have worked to get a high karma over time. HN should highlight the names of such users in purple, similar to the way it highlights newbies with green.
There are two reasons for this suggestion. First, it reminds other users to tread carefully before bashing a user with a purple name because he/she probably isn't a total idiot. Two, it reminds these respected users to comment carefully because they have some kind of reputation on the line.
Reward users for browsing "New"
The average up vote count of a front page post has skyrocketed lately. This means that getting from the "new" page onto the front page is a nigh impossible task. The only way to guarantee any visibility is to time very carefully using HNPickup, be a celebrity like John Gruber or Dustin Curtis, organize an up vote cabal, or write sensationalist content.
The last three options actively hurt the community. People are fed up with the empty words of blogger pundits and polemics, and are increasingly suspicious of promotional content from influential startups.
One solution is to reward users for browsing the "New" page and help surface content. Brave souls who upvote or a downvote posts on the New page should be rewarded with HN karma or some other metric. This turns "New" from a seedy underbelly where anything goes into a frequently trafficked page, reducing need to be a celebrity or cheater to garner up votes.
Indulge the addicted
HN could benefit from implementing infinite scroll, so the next page is appended asynchronously to the current one. This may sound frivolous but it is not a UI improvement for its own sake.
In my experience, being on the HN front page is a gift from the Gods while falling to the second page is effectively a death sentence. The problem is only a small minority of readers bother to click the tiny "More" button on bottom of the page.
Enabling infinite scroll on HN reduces the friction to explore content beyond the front page. Hopefully this increases readership on those less popular articles and diminishes the burning need to write inflammatory content in order to stay on the front page of the site.
A hide button for the hot-heads
Hackers like me are hot-headed. We hate to see people be wrong or idiotic so when an absurd post comes onto the front page, we rush to rip it apart.
Recently I installed an Chrome extension that allows me to hide HN posts I don't like. Since then, I've simply hidden away anything that causes my blood pressure to increase. I've become a lot calmer and happier on the site.
Not every knows about this extension so it might be a good idea to introduce it to the site itself. It would appease the easily angered.